Scientific Discoveries, Theism, and Atheism: Reply to Wintery Knight

I’m going to offer some comments on a recent post by Wintery Knight. He writes:

When people ask me whether the progress of science is more compatible with theism or atheism, I offer the follow four basic pieces of scientific evidence that are more compatible with theism than atheism. [italics are mine]

The following point is nitpicky, but it’s worth mentioning just because so many non-philosophers, including both theists and nontheists, misuse words like “compatible” and “consistent.” Compatibility is like pregnancy: a person is either pregnant or not. There is no in-between. Likewise, evidence is either compatible with a hypothesis or it’s not. There is no such thing as “degrees of compatibility.” If you want to talk about evidence offering a greater degree of support for one hypothesis over another, then “compatible” is the wrong word to use. You can instead use words like “expected,” “surprising,” or “favors.” For example, “There are four basic pieces of scientific evidence which favor theism over atheism.”

Let’s move on.

Here are the four pieces of evidence best explained by a Creator/Designer:

  1. the kalam argument from the origin of the universe
  2. the cosmic fine-tuning (habitability) argument
  3. the biological information in the first replicator (origin of life)
  4. the sudden origin of all of the different body plans in the fossil record (Cambrian explosion)

I have one more nitpicky point and then a more substantial point. The nitpicky point is that WK has conflated “a piece of evidence” with “an argument about that piece of evidence.” The first two items in his list are not items of evidence, but arguments about items of evidence. The kalam argument is an argument about the finite age of the universe and the cosmic fine-tuning argument is an argument about the life-permitting physical constants. So if WK wants to present a list of evidence, he should correct his list so that the first item just is “the finite age of the universe” and the second item is something like “the life-permitting physical constants.”  (Okay, I said this was a nitpicky point.)

The more substantial point is this. Simply claiming that a Creator/Designer is the “best explanation” hardly amounts to showing that a Creator/Designer really is the “best explanation.” In my experience, many (but not all) people who invoke a Creator or Designer as the “best explanation” fail to show that it is the best explanation. Indeed, some (and this includes WK, at least in the linked post) don’t even try! Instead, they just assume that a Creator or Designer is an explanation.  If, however, the design hypothesis isn’t an explanation at all, then it cannot be the best explanation.

The creation/design hypothesis is, at best, an incomplete explanation.

Item of EvidenceExplanation NameExplanation Description
Finite Age of the UniverseCreationUnknown. The beginning of the universe is the result of a Creator using an unknown, theistic (directed) mechanism for an unknown purpose.
Life-Permitting Constants of the UniverseDesignUnknown. The life-permitting constants of the universe are the result of an unknown, theistic (directed) mechanism, designed for an unknown purpose.
Origin of Biological InformationDesignUnknown. Biological information in cells is the result of an unknown, theistic (directed) mechanism, designed for an unknown purpose.
Origin of Cambrian Animal FormsDesignUnknown. Cambrian animal forms are the result of an unknown, theistic (directed) mechanism, designed for an unknown purpose.

In light of all the unknowns in these theistic “explanations,” one can hardly be blamed for concluding that “creation” and “design” are simply explanation names, not actual explanations. Compare to a naturalist saying, “X is the result an unknown, naturalistic (undirected) mechanism operating without a purpose.” It’s unclear why any of these unknown theistic explanations are supposed to be better than their unknown naturalistic counterparts.

But let’s put that to the side. WK summarizes what he calls typical atheist responses to those four arguments.

Atheists will typically reply to the recent scientific discoveries that overtured their speculations like this:

  1. Maybe the Big Bang cosmology will be overturned by the Big Crunch/Bounce so that the universe is eternal and has no cause
  2. Maybe there is a multiverse: an infinite number of unobservable, untestable universes which makes our finely-tuned one more probable
  3. Maybe the origin of life could be the result of chance and natural processes
  4. Maybe we will find a seamless chain of fossils that explain how the Cambrian explosion occurred slowly, over a long period time

I have three replies.

First, I agree with WK that ad hoc, “just so” stories invented to “explain away” the evidence are no substitute for the best explanation. If one hypothesis clearly explains an item of evidence but the second hypothesis doesn’t (and has to invent an arbitrary, extra theory to explain it away), that item of evidence clearly favors the first hypothesis over the second hypothesis. This point applies equally to arbitrary, extra theories postulated by atheists and theists.

Second, there are atheists and then there are atheists. WK may be right that atheist layman typically do make such replies. What is more interesting is what atheist scholars, especially atheist philosophers of religion, have to say in response to these four lines of evidence. WK provides no evidence that each of these responses are typical of atheist philosophers of religion, however. While the multiverse hypothesis has some support among atheist philosophers of religion, I doubt that the majority of atheist philosophers of religion support the Big Crunch/Big Bounce hypothesis. For example, in my experience, atheist philosophers of religion do NOT typically respond to Big Bang cosmology with the response listed by WK. Instead, they argue that the universe is uncaused.

Third, like many other apologists, WK seems to be understating the evidence. Let’s assume, but only for the sake of argument, that each of WK’s four items of evidence favor theism over naturalism. WK fails to mention other more specific facts, facts that, given those four items of evidence, favor naturalism over theism.

General FactMore Specific Fact(s)
Finite Age of the UniverseThe universe began to exist with time, not in time.
Life-Permitting Constants of the UniverseSo much of the universe is hostile to life.
The Origin of Biological InformationExcluding examples of so-called “complex specified information” allegedly related to intelligent design, all other examples of complex specified information involve a mind dependent on a physical brain.
The Origin of Cambrian Animal Forms1. The Cambrian era did not include animal forms much more impressive than known Cambrian animal forms.
2. All living animals are the gradually modified descendants of Cambrian animals.

Again, it appears that WK has understated the evidence. And it is only by understating the evidence that he can give the illusion of having justified statements such as the following.

The data we have today says no to naturalism. The only way to affirm naturalistic explanations for the evidence we have is by faith. We need to minimize our leaps of faith, though, and go with the simplest and most reasonable explanation – an intelligence is the best explanation responsible for rapid generation of biological information.

In addition to understating the evidence (or perhaps because of it), WK has also oversimplified the evidential situation. Again, even if we grant that WK’s theistic facts say “no to naturalism,” other, more specific facts say “no to theism.” Once the relevant scientific evidence is fully stated, it’s far from obvious that the general theistic facts outweigh the more specific naturalistic facts.

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.

  • Steven Carr

    ‘the cosmic fine-tuning (habitability) argument’

    This is not an argument for a god.

    WK’s ‘argument’ is that his god created a mechanism whereby if (for example) gravity became too strong it would wipe out all life.

    Why would his god create such a mechanism?

    I guess WK is confusing his god with Dennis Hopper.

    Dennis Hopper fine-tuned a bus so that if its speed dropped below 50, everybody would be killed.

    I can see how WK could confuse Jehovah with Dennis Hopper, but I can’t see why he should expect other people to do so.

    And how come all life in the universe gets killed anyway? The universe is something that kills every single life-form that appears in it. How can it be fine-tuned for life when everybody gets killed?

    Imagine 12 sharpshooters aiming their guns at a prisoner. They fire and the prisoner dies. But, in case they miss, there is also a guillotine and an electric chair lined up to make sure that this person dies.

    This is a pretty good analogy for how Wintery Knight’s alleged god has created the universe. If one thing doesn’t get you, something will come along which will.

    And if you do live too long, WK’s god can always design a big rock to crash into the Earth to kill off 99% of species that way.

  • staircaseghost

    Indeed, the laws of the universe are so finely tuned, god “only” has to completely suspend them once or twice every hundred million years, when he suddenly learns that the laws of the universe are tuned so as to make crucial components of biological evolution physically impossible.

    It is a clear prediction of the theistic hypothesis that a miracle working god would want to set up a world where he wouldn’t have to constantly perform miracles in order for life as we know it to exist, except for all the times he has to perform miracles for life as we know it to exist.

    • Steven Carr

      You are absolutely correct in what you say.

      The same people who claim that the universe is exquisitely designed for life to develop are usually the first people to claim that it is impossible for life to develop unless their god intervenes.

      • staircaseghost

        Very often they are also the same people who write comments, blog posts, articles and dissertations overflowing with pronouncements on the way god would or wouldn’t do things, but tell me when I make an argument from bad design, that I as a finite mortal am in no position to make pronouncements on the way god would or would not do things.

  • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

    Excellent post!.

    ““creation” and “design” are simply explanation names, not actual explanations”

    Well said. This is a point that bears repeating. Somebody needs to make a t-shirt.

    I have one question: Is it correct to say that, on Big Bang cosmology, the universe has a finite age? There has been a finite amount of time since the Bang event, but is that the same as saying that the universe has a finite age? After all, the Big Bang theory does not penetrate past the expansion event. And we hear cosmologists all of the time talk about what happened prior to the Big Bang.

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

      Interesting question. I have treated the two as the same based on the understanding that time itself began with the big bang. (On that view, talking about what happened ‘prior’ to the Big Bang is like talking about what is ‘North’ of the North Pole.) If that understanding is wrong, however, then they are not the same.

  • Neil Shenvi

    Jeff,
    Your objections are interesting, and I’ll have to chew on them for a bit. However, your main objection seems heavily predicated upon the idea that theism cannot be an ‘explanation’ at all unless it provides a mechanism. But can you explain (no pun intended) what you mean by a ‘mechanism’? You seem to assume that any ‘mechanism’ must involve a naturalistic description of causation (hence your objection to the Antarctic markings example used by Meyer in his book). But, in the case of theism, such a mechanism is impossible since theistic intervention would necessitate non-natural causation.

    Moreover, I would question whether a mechanism really is a necessary condition for any explanation. For example, in my own field of quantum mechanics, scientists will routinely invoke ‘decoherence’ or ‘wavefunction collapse’ as explanations for observed phenomena even when the mechanism for these processes is not known either empirically or even philosophically. Yet it hardly seems appropriate to dismiss these inferences as ‘non-explanatory’ simply because the mechanism of the interaction is unknown.
    -Neil

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

      Hi Neil!

      When I refer to “mechanism,” I’m simply referring to a description of how the cause “did it.” I’m not in any way suggesting that explanation requires naturalistic causation. Indeed, I’m fully open to the possibility that supernatural agents can cause events in the natural world. Rather, my point is this: Unless we know how a supernatural Designer designed, say, the origin of life, the design hypothesis isn’t an explanation. That doesn’t disprove the design hypothesis, of course. It may still be the case that life has a supernatural Designer. But it does prevent the design hypothesis in that case from counting as an explanation.

      Another way to put the point is this. Imagine asking atheist #1, “How did the first life come about?” Atheist #1 replies: “I don’t know.” You wouldn’t call that an explanation. Now you ask atheist #2 the same question. Her reply: “The no-design hypothesis.” Incredulous, you ask a follow-up question: “How does the no-design hypothesis explain the origin of life?” Her reply: “I don’t know, but it does. Now let me ask you a question. Let’s assume that a supernatural Designer designed the first life. How did the Designer do it?” You answer: “I don’t know.” She replies: “Why, then, should anyone believe the design hypothesis over the no-design hypothesis?” Your answer: “Design is a better answer than no-design because we use the design hypothesis all the time to explain the origin of information in everyday contexts, such as software.” Her reply: “In everyday contexts, such as software, we appeal not only to designers, but designers who have physical bodies and whose minds are dependent upon physical brains. When we try to explain the origin of life itself, we can’t appeal to a material/physical designer since that would be circular. So we have to choose between a material, no-design hypothesis or a supernatural design hypothesis. It’s far from obvious that the latter is better than the former.”

      In fact, it seems to me the situation for the supernatural design theorist is even worse than that. Let’s stick with the origin of life example. The hypothesis of a supernatural Designer (for the origin of life) presupposes the existence of a mind that is not dependent upon a physical body. Not only is that mysterious by itself, but when combined with our ignorance about how the Designer designed life, it becomes even more mysterious. It mystifies the phenomena to be explained. Not only do we have the puzzling phenomenon known as the origin of life, we now have an additional puzzling phenomenon about how something which exists wholly outside of space and time–a mind which can exist independently of a body–can interact with space and time. Mystification is the opposite of explanation.

      • Neil Shenvi

        Jeff,
        Thanks for answering. I’m stuck on the following remark:

        “When I refer to “mechanism,” I’m simply referring to a description of how the cause “did it.””

        Since you’re open to the possibility of supernatural causation, could explain what a ‘how’ description would look like in the case of supernatural causation? All of the ‘how’ examples that you list appear to be mechanistic descriptions of naturalistic chains of events. Take the origin of the universe, which theists generally take to be creation ex nihilo. Could you explain what a ‘mechanism’ would look like for the supernatural causation of Nature from non-existence?

        “Not only is that mysterious by itself, but when combined with our
        ignorance about how the Designer designed life, it becomes even more
        mysterious.”

        I’m not sure this line of reasoning is valid. Even if we granted that we’ve only observed minds associated with physical brains, design arguments do not therefore depend on ‘mystification.’ For instance, we could equally argue that we’ve never observed a sentient mind ‘not dependent upon a _human_ brain’ or that we’ve never observed a sentient mind ‘not dependent upon a carbon-based body.’ But would we be forced to conclude that SETI is doomed to failure because any explanation it provides will merely ‘mystify’ the problem of the origin of extraterrestrial signals? Obviously not.

        Or imagine that one day we discovered repeatable evidence that Ouija boards allowed real communication with some unknown, intelligent source. Would we stare at the reams of generated information and still say ‘Well, claiming that some disembodied mind is the source of this communication is just mystifying the problem and is not an explanation at all’? It seems to me that an open-minded person, even if they lean towards physicalism, would have to grant that -in principle- there could be evidence that would lead us to infer the existence of disembodied minds. But if that is the case, we can’t reject the very idea of a divine Designer as ‘mystification’.

        -Neil

        • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

          Since you’re open to the possibility of supernatural causation, could explain what a ‘how’ description would look like in the case of supernatural causation?

          I don’t know if this answer will work, but here’s an example I came up with off the top of my head.

          There is a supernatural person named Joe. Joe exists outside of space and time and is composed of a supernatural substance called “schmatoms.” Schmatoms are not subject to any of the laws of physics because they are, well, supernatural. Instead, they are subject to the laws of supernature. According to the first law of supernature, schmatoms can interact with atoms, but atoms cannot interact with schmatoms. According to the second law of supernature, schmatoms are the fundamental building blocks of irreducible, non-natural mental properties.

          Now for the proposed supernatural explanation:

          1. Contrary to WLC’s kalam cosmological argument, an actual infinite can exist.

          2. Supernatural persons like Joe are composed of an infinite number of schmatoms.

          3. Supernatural persons like Joe can create other, finite minds (such as human minds) by “giving away” some of their schmatoms, which become autonomous sets of schmatoms. Joe does this by using a proposed “soul-making” organ, analogous to a human brain, only infinitely more impressive. Because Joe has an infinite number of schmatoms, he can give away finite amounts of his schmatoms and still have an infinite number of schmatoms remaining. These autonomous sets of schmatoms are what humans call “souls.” They supervene on physical properties such as brain states.

          4. Since Joe is really fond of the number 1 trillion, his goal is to create 1 trillion souls so that he can instantiate the number 1 trillion in the physical universe.

          I recognize that traditional theists won’t be happy with this example. But the key takeaways from this completely fictional explanation are that it describes how and why Joe did it. That is what makes this an explanation.

          • Rauss

            Jeffrey,

            Given what you’ve said, the most reasonable arguments you can make against immaterial explanations are that they are insufficiently modular and not as predictable as physical phenomena.

            But this hardly rules them out as explanations.

            At best you can say they are not excellent explanations, but that is provided you have some sensible standard of how one measures explanations.

            As it is, you’re begging the question against non-physical explanations. That’s certainly not fair.

          • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

            To beg the question means to assume the truth of the conclusion in one or more of the premises. Where have I done that?

          • Rauss

            As it is, by demanding immaterial explanations resemble material explanations in behavior rules out by your very criteria the immaterial.

            This unexamined, arbitrary criteria serves no other known purpose. We can both acknowledge this in the spirit of honesty.

            After all, even the example you gave to Neil Shenvi sneaks in a reductionist account of immateriality.

            Why must immaterial things be composed of something, ie schmatoms. Doesn’t this presume a reductionist paradigm without evidence?

          • Steven Carr

            ‘Why must immaterial things be composed of something?’

            Can an immaterial thing be composed of the Father , Son and Holy Ghost?

          • Neil Shenvi

            Christians don’t believe that God is composed of three parts.

          • Steven Carr

            No, because they contradict themselves by denying that.

            But doesn’t their god have motives, a will, desires, a memory etc etc.

            Those are parts.

          • Neil Shenvi

            Steven,
            Those are not parts. Those are faculties that God possesses. Can you give me an example of a prominent theologian in Christian history who has claimed that God has parts? I’m staring at quotes from Origen, Irenaeus, Clement, and Augustine that all emphatically deny it.
            Now, you’re free to reject their understanding of Christian theology. But I don’t think it’s reasonable to claim that Christians believe that God has parts.
            -Neil

          • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

            This reply confuses “providing an example of a supernatural explanation involving supernatural substances” with “demanding that all supernatural explanations involve supernatural substances.”

          • Neil Shenvi

            Hi Jeffrey,
            Correct me if I’m wrong, but your proposed solution doesn’t seem to address the actual mechanism of supernatural causation. What you’ve provided is a description of a supernatural chain of events (side note: which is oddly similar to Mormon beliefs!) operating according to supernatural laws. But you haven’t shown _how_ this supernatural chain of events leads to a natural event, which was the key point in question. What is the mechanism by which causes in the supernatural world can produce effects in the natural world?

            It’s also hard to tell exactly how you distinguish ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural.’ Why couldn’t a naturalist simply subsume both ‘natural laws’ and ‘supernatural laws’ into some comprehensive description of Nature in two distinct, non-overlapping regimes, much like we’ve currently done with general relativity and quantum mechanics? It seems the naturalist would be fully within his rights to declare that we do not have ‘supernatural causation’ at all, but merely two different spheres of the natural realm.

            On a related note, you had originally suggested that a lack of known purpose disqualified the design hypothesis as an explanation. And you provided just such a purpose in your hypothetical example of a legitimate supernatural explanation. But if we were to hypothesize that the divine Designer is, for instance, the God of the Bible, we would indeed have a purpose for his creation of human beings: to display His glory. We can reject this suggested purpose for the Designer, but how can we say that it is less meaningful than the purpose you offered (‘Joe is really fond of the number 1 trillion’) as a valid answer to the ‘why’ question?
            -Neil

          • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

            Correct me if I’m wrong, but your proposed solution doesn’t seem to address the actual mechanism of supernatural causation. What you’ve provided is a description of a supernatural chain of events (side note: which is oddly similar to Mormon beliefs!) operating according to supernatural laws. But you haven’t shown _how_ this supernatural chain of events leads to a natural event, which was the key point in question. What is the mechanism by which causes in the supernatural world can produce effects in the natural world?

            I thought that I did provide the actual mechanism for supernatural causation in my hypothetical example:

            “Supernatural persons like Joe can create other, finite minds (such as human minds) by “giving away” some of their schmatoms, which become autonomous sets of schmatoms. Joe does this by using a proposed “soul-making” organ, analogous to a human brain, only infinitely more impressive.”

            It’s also hard to tell exactly how you distinguish ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural.’ Why couldn’t a naturalist simply subsume both ‘natural laws’ and ‘supernatural laws’ into some comprehensive description of Nature in two distinct, non-overlapping regimes, much like we’ve currently done with general relativity and quantum mechanics? It seems the naturalist would be fully within his rights to declare that we do not have ‘supernatural causation’ at all, but merely two different spheres of the natural realm.

            I’ve defined terms like “natural” and “supernatural” elsewhere. Based on those definitions, the naturalist qua naturalist cannot subsume both ‘natural laws’ and ‘supernatural laws’ into a comprehensive set of laws.

            On a related note, you had originally suggested that a lack of known purpose disqualified the design hypothesis as an explanation. And you provided just such a purpose in your hypothetical example of a legitimate supernatural explanation. But if we were to hypothesize that the divine Designer is, for instance, the God of the Bible, we would indeed have a purpose for his creation of human beings: to display His glory. We can reject this suggested purpose for the Designer, but how can we say that it is less meaningful than the purpose you offered (‘Joe is really fond of the number 1 trillion’) as a valid answer to the ‘why’ question?

            I never said that your proposed purpose, “to display His glory,” is not meaningful or less meaningful than the purpose I offered. All I have said is that personal explanations, which include theistic explanations, must include a statement about the agent’s (i.e., the Designer’s) goals or purposes. If the content of a design hypothesis says nothing about the Designer’s goals or purposes, then that hypothesis is not an explanation.

            Or to put the point another way: my point is not an “in principle” objection to theistic explanations. I’m not claiming that there could never be a successful theistic explanation. My point is a “de facto” objection. The design explanations I’ve seen so far seem to be missing a statement about the designer’s goals.

          • Neil Shenvi

            “I thought that I did provide the actual mechanism for supernatural causation in my hypothetical example:”

            In your example, Joe creates minds out of schmatoms. If you are approaching this problem from the perspective of substance dualism, then Joe is merely creating one non-natural entity (a mind) from another non-natural entity (a schmatom). So you haven’t provided a mechanism for supernatural causation of a natural event.

            On the other hand, if you’re approaching this issue from the perspective of some kind of supervenience (as your original response suggested), then mental events are merely properties that supervene on physical entities. So you still haven’t specified _how_ schmatoms cause or influence these physical entities. So either way, it doesn’t seem like you’ve explained what a mechanism for supernatural causation would look like.

            “The design explanations I’ve seen so far seem to be missing a statement about the designer’s goals.”

            I’m sure that’s not the case. Creationists always identify the Designer as the God of the Bible. But since this is a de facto objection, I don’t think it’s a major issue. We can always append a motive to the Designer’s action which is surely no less plausible than ‘Joe likes the number 1 trillion’ and avoid this objection.
            -Neil

          • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

            In your example, Joe creates minds out of schmatoms. If you are approaching this problem from the perspective of substance dualism, then Joe is merely creating one non-natural entity (a mind) from another non-natural entity (a schmatom). So you haven’t provided a mechanism for supernatural causation of a natural event.

            Now I better understand where you are coming from. I’ll expand my example as follows.

            Supernatural persons like Joe have another supernatural organ, which we’ll call the “atom interactor” which can create, manipulate, and destroy atoms. The laws of supernature are such that, when schmatoms are configured into an atom interactor, certain vibrations of schmatoms have corresponding effects. Vibrations below a certain threshold can create matter; those within a certain range can be used to manipulate matter and those above that range can be used to destroy matter. So the mechanism in this case is the vibration of schmatoms.

            I’m sure that’s not the case. Creationists always identify the Designer as the God of the Bible. But since this is a de facto objection, I don’t think it’s a major issue. We can always append a motive to the Designer’s action which is surely no less plausible than ‘Joe likes the number 1 trillion’ and avoid this objection.

            There are those who self-identify as creationists and those who self-identify as intelligent design theorists. ID theorists go to great lengths to emphasize that the intelligent designer need not be the God of the Bible.

            As you say, Christian theists identify the Designer as the God of the Bible. As such, they can “append a motive to the Designer’s action” to transform a design hypothesis into a design explanation. I think this may be a bigger issue than you recognize. Appending the motive solves one problem only to create another. As soon as you add a motive to the content to your hypothesis, you decrease its prior probability by decreasing its modesty and its coherence. Since the best explanation is the explanatory hypothesis with the great overall balance of prior probability and final probability, it follows that appending a motive to a theistic design hypothesis is going to further handicap the the theistic hypothesis. (I say “further handicap” since generic theism already has a lower prior probability than naturalism.)

            Also, this may or may not apply to you, but to be consistent, a theistic design theorist needs to reconcile their beliefs about the knowability of the designer’s intentions with their beliefs about the knowability of the designer’s reasons for allowing evil/suffering/pain/etc. You can’t pick and choose and say that God’s reasons are unknowable when you are responding to an argument from evil, but say that God’s reasons are knowable when responding to de facto objections to theistic explanation.

          • Neil Shenvi

            Jeffrey,
            I’m now not sure why my previous objection doesn’t apply. Since your proposal involves ‘laws of supernature’, I suggested that a naturalist could subsume both the laws of nature and the laws of supernature into one comprehensive description of Nature. You said that this move was impossible. But you just wrote: “The laws of supernature are such that, when schmatoms are configured
            into an atom interactor, certain vibrations of schmatoms have
            corresponding effects.”

            In your previous article, you defined Nature as “the spatio-temporal universe of … [entities] which [are] the kind of entity studied by physicists or chemists.” If schmatoms have the (spatio-termporal) vibrational properties you suggest and interact with the natural world, is there any reason why a physicist or chemist can’t study them? After all, you have already fully characterized their vibrational properties, which is more than most string theorists can claim regarding their own field of study! But if schmatoms are, after all, natural entities, then they cannot provide examples of Supernatural causation.

            So, as I and Rauss have both suggested, your definition of ‘mechanism’ is smuggling in the assumption of naturalism. But it’s hardly fair to reject supernatural explanations as non-explanations because they fail to provide a naturalistic account of the supernatural causation!

          • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

            So, as I and Rauss have both suggested, your definition of ‘mechanism’ is smuggling in the assumption of naturalism. But it’s hardly fair to reject supernatural explanations as non-explanations because they fail to provide a naturalistic account of the supernatural causation!

            Your latest post is a textbook example of what Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos Colombetti have labeled the “Naturalistic Fallacy Fallacy”: falsely accusing the naturalist of committing the naturalistic fallacy. But that is getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind to your first paragraph:

            I’m now not sure why my previous objection doesn’t apply. Since your proposal involves ‘laws of supernature’, I suggested that a naturalist could subsume both the laws of nature and the laws of supernature into one comprehensive description of Nature. You said that this move was impossible.

            To be precise, it would be a contradiction in terms for a naturalist to believe that schmatoms, laws of supernature, and the like exist. A metaphysical naturalist believes that nothing that is neither a part nor a product of the universe can interact with the universe. Since schmatoms are, by definition, neither a part nor a product of the universe, it follows that if they exist and can interact with atoms, then naturalism is false.

            In your previous article, you defined Nature as “the spatio-temporal universe of … [entities] which [are] the kind of entity studied by physicists or chemists.” If schmatoms have the (spatio-termporal) vibrational properties you suggest and interact with the natural world, is there any reason why a physicist or chemist can’t study them? After all, you have already fully characterized their vibrational properties, which is more than most string theorists can claim regarding their own field of study! But if schmatoms are, after all, natural entities, then they cannot provide examples of Supernatural causation.

            I think the word “vibrate” may have caused some confusion here: I didn’t intend to suggest that, because schmatoms can “vibrate,” they have spatio-temporal properties. In retrospect, I can see why the word “vibrate” might have given that impression. So allow me to correct it. Let’s replace the word “vibrate” with “quasi-vibrate,” where “quasi-vibrate” refers to the “focusing” of schmatoms. When a supernatural person like Joe “focuses” their schmatoms in a certain way, they can causally interact with the natural universe.

            So there is no “smuggling” an assumption of naturalism into my definition of “mechanism.” Schmatoms, which behave according to laws of supernature and which can causally interact with the universe despite not being a part or product of it, are supernatural entities. Since I allow for the possibility of a supernatural mechanism, such as the “quasi-vibration” of schmatoms, to create brains, it follows that the definition of “mechanism” is compatible with the falsity of naturalism.

          • Neil Shenvi

            Jeffrey,
            “Schmatoms, which behave according to laws of supernature and which can causally interact with the universe despite not being a part or product of it, are supernatural entities.”

            Can you explain how ‘schmatoms’ are different than strings vibrating in 10-dimensional space or quantum mechanical wavefunctions? Why are these entities ‘natural’ while ‘schmatoms’ are ‘supernatural’?

          • Neil Shenvi

            “As soon as you add a motive to the content to your hypothesis, you decrease its prior probability by decreasing its modesty and its coherence.”

            This seems like an odd objection, since your original claim was that design explanations ideally ought to include motives. It seems a bit unreasonable to suggest that design explanations should include motives and then penalize them for providing motives. However, I think that whatever the biblical motive loses in modesty, it more than makes up for in coherence. For instance, if God created the universe to display his glory, it explains not only the creation itself, but its habitability for life, the existence of sentient creatures, the existence of free moral agents, the existence of evil, etc…

            “ID theorists go to great lengths to emphasize that the intelligent designer need not be the God of the Bible.”

            Yes, it’s lose-lose for ID theorists. If they supply a motive from the Bible, they are creationists. If they don’t, you call them on the carpet! :-)

            “You can’t pick and choose and say that God’s
            reasons are unknowable when you are responding to an argument from evil, but say that God’s reasons are knowable when responding to de facto objections to theistic explanation.”

            This is where I think presuppositionalists rightly recognize the limits of natural theology. For a Christian who believes in special revelation, it is possible to ‘pick and choose’ in the sense that what God has revealed is knowable (his motives for creating the universe) but what he has not (his motives for allowing any particular instance of evil) is not. See Deut. 29:29 (which was the inspiration for Harvard’s original shield) for a biblical exposition of this particular point.

            -Neil

          • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com/ Crude

            Schmatoms are not subject to any of the laws of physics because they are, well, supernatural.

            What makes them supernatural? And…

            Instead, they are subject to the laws of supernature.

            What makes these laws of supernature, as opposed to simply laws of nature?

            All you did was give out labels which are utterly lacking in meaningful content. You may as well have pointed at actual protons and said ‘These are supernatural.’ It’d make about as much sense. Or dark matter, in fact.

            But more than that, though it may have already been pointed out…

            According to the second law of supernature, schmatoms are the fundamental building blocks of irreducible, non-natural mental properties.

            Irreducible things have fundamental building blocks?

            I think your entire proposed example fails to get off the ground to begin with.

            More than that – naturalistic explanations ultimately bottom out with brute facts. When you give an explanation of a physical operation, once you look down at the basic details, you get nothing more than ‘This happens because that’s the law, and the law isn’t explained, and how the law is working isn’t explained, and that’s that.’ With classical theism, however, the explanation bottoms out with a necessarily existent being. It seems like the real lack of explanation is on the naturalist’s side.

          • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com/ Crude

            Also, before you refer me to this post, I just want to point out – it doesn’t help, and I’ve commented on the failings of it before.

            You define natural as ‘physical’, and ‘physical’ as ‘whatever physicists or chemists study’ – but that leaves everything undefined.

            Your examples only undercut your case there: to give an example of the possible success of a supernatural explanation, you say:

            “For example, biology could have discovered that all animals are not the relatively modified descendants of a common ancestor; neuroscience could have discovered no correlations at all between human minds and brains, etc. If the history of science were like that, then that would have supported T over N.”

            ..But neither of those were supernatural explanations, or explanations at all. They were just failures of particular natural explanations. Many, many, many natural explanations have failed. Many more will likely fail in the future. If -that- is all it takes for a ‘supernatural explanation’ to be implied, then we are positively awash in supernatural explanations.

        • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

          I’m not sure this line of reasoning is valid. Even if we granted that we’ve only observed minds associated with physical brains, design arguments do not therefore depend on ‘mystification.’ For instance, we could equally argue that we’ve never observed a sentient mind ‘not dependent upon a _human_ brain’ or that we’ve never observed a sentient mind ‘not dependent upon a carbon-based body.’ But would we be forced to conclude that SETI is doomed to failure because any explanation it provides will merely ‘mystify’ the problem of the origin of extraterrestrial signals? Obviously not.

          That’s a weak counterexample. I could be wrong, but I’m not sure it’s true that we’ve never observed a sentient mind not dependent upon a human brain. I wouldn’t be surprised if biologists concluded that chimpanzees, dolphins, etc. had minds. But it really makes no difference one way or the other. Minds dependent upon non-human, non-carbon based brains don’t involve a radical metaphysical dualism. Such extraterrestrial minds, if they exist, would still be dependent upon some sort of a physical brain. The interaction of such minds with their brains would not be mysterious. “Souls,” on the other hand, DO involve a radical metaphysical dualism. The interaction between souls and brains is mysterious.

          Or imagine that one day we discovered repeatable evidence that Ouija boards allowed real communication with some unknown, intelligent source. Would we stare at the reams of generated information and still say ‘Well, claiming that some disembodied mind is the source of this communication is just mystifying the problem and is not an explanation at all’? It seems to me that an open-minded person, even if they lean towards physicalism, would have to grant that -in principle- there could be evidence that would lead us to infer the existence of disembodied minds. But if that is the case, we can’t reject the very idea of a divine Designer as ‘mystification’.

          You seem to have the impression that I’m offering an “in principle” objection to the idea of a successful theistic explanation. As I explained in another comment, that’s not what I’m doing. Rather, I’m offering a “de facto” objection. If there are successful theistic explanations, then so be it.

          In your example, assuming we had ruled out obvious alternative explanations like fraud, I would then say three things: (1) that repeatable evidence is evidence against naturalism; (2) positing the existence of a disembodied mind isn’t by itself an explanation (since it doesn’t provide a mechanism or a purpose); and (3) the disembodied mind hypothesis warrants further research to move from a dualistic hypothesis to a full-fledged dualistic explanation.

        • staircaseghost

          “Or imagine that one day we discovered repeatable evidence that Ouija boards allowed real communication with some unknown, intelligent source.”

          Christian apologists would give an arm and a leg and their firstborn son to have repeatable, verifiable evidence for their beliefs on the order of a Ouija board that reliably predicted football scores, or the stock market. They would trumpet it to the skies.

          What does it say about Christianity that it is less well-evidenced than a board game from Parker Brothers?

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    Hello Jeff, I’m an agnostic Christian and I largely agree with your points.
    I applaud you for your kindness, patience and mind-openness while dealing with such opponents. I wish all atheists were like you instead of trying to mock and ridicule everyone daring disagree with them.

    You’re entirely right that WK most often does not DEAL with the arguments of people from other worldviews; he’s merely asserting what he wants to believe. I was also extremely disappointed by the fact he refuses to publish many challenging comments.

    That said I believe that the progress of science is extremely compatible with the existence of a non-material realm of ideas like mathematical truths and I don’t see any way how the assertion “Everything is identical to particles and energy” can be itself identical to a bunch of particles.

    What is more I reject what I call the epistemological razor of Occam (as explained here http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/ockhams-razor-the-origin-of-the-universe-and-the-search-for-an-air-tight-argument/) and it seems that without it, atheism lies on a very shaky ground. (I’m going to deal soon with Dr. Carrier’s attempt to justify it with Bayes theorem).

    What troubles me as a (agnostic) theist is the problem of evil and pain for there are certain heart-breaking things which I cannot personally make sense of.

    Friendly greetings from Europe.
    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

      Hi Lothar —

      That said I believe that the progress of science is extremely compatible with the existence of a non-material realm of ideas like mathematical truths and I don’t see any way how the assertion “Everything is identical to particles and energy” can be itself identical to a bunch of particles.

      That may indeed pose a problem for materialism, since materialism is logically incompatible with the existence of abstract objects. That doesn’t seem to pose a problem for metaphysical naturalism, however, since metaphysical naturalism is logically compatible with the existence of abstract objects.

      What is more I reject what I call the epistemological razor of Occam (as explained here http://lotharlorraine.wordpres… and it seems that without it, atheism lies on a very shaky ground. (I’m going to deal soon with Dr. Carrier’s attempt to justify it with Bayes theorem).

      Your link didn’t work, but I think I found the post you had in mind:

      http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/deconstructing-the-popular-use-of-occams-razor/.

      I’m not sure I agree with your statement that atheism rests upon what you call the “epistemological razor of Occam” or that “without it, atheism lies on a very shaky ground.” That certainly doesn’t jive with the majority of atheist arguments, as documented in my comprehensive bibliography of arguments for atheism.

  • Keith Parsons

    Theists invoke “personal explanation” when speaking of God’s acts. Personal explanations are in terms of the thoughts, intentions, and decisions of agents. Of course, in human contexts, we use personal explanations all the time and they are unproblematic. Why has my neighbor installed a glaring 200 watt “security light?” Because he thinks it is the best way to deter burglars and vandals. Why are the faculty celebrating? They want to show their appreciation for the big raises they got this year. (ahem) Why would any atheist object when God’s acts are similarly explained?

    Well, for one thing, God’s mind is supposed to be radically unlike a human mind. Although the OT frequently uses highly anthropomorphic language in describing God’s acts (“God repented of the evil he was going to do to the Assyrians,” etc.) sophisticated theologians assure us that God’s mind does not work that way at all. We readily understand personal explanations in a human context because we have what some philosophers call by the German term “Verstehen.” “Verstehen” is the knowledge we have of others’ actions by the empathetic identification of their internal acts with our own. For instance, I understand my neighbor’s fear of crime and so what motivated him to install the security light (though, after reading Paul Bogard’s The End of Night, I think the idea that flooding space with light pollution deters crime is a mistake).

    Do we have Verstehen of God’s actions? Well, again, if God is the hairy, pissed-off, anthropomorphic thunderbolt-slinger of the OT, sure, but, as we say, sophisticated theologians have always rejected this Zeus-like view of God. Do we have any understanding at all of the divine mind and how it works? For one thing, while human intentions are generally obvious, God’s are mysterious. Why did God create birds? Why weren’t the highly successful flying reptiles and insects good enough? Does God like birdsong? Is he a fan of feathers? Of course, except when our avian friends target my freshly-cleaned car, I am glad to have the birds around. But why did God create them?

    If God did create birds, how exactly did it work? Something like this? (Caveat: the following will sound flippant, but my point is entirely serious): One fine spring day in the late Jurassic, a deeply resonant, 100 decibel voice boomed from the sky “Fiat Aves!” A moment later there was a crash of cymbals, a drum roll, and a brilliant flash of light, and Archaeopteryx lithographica strode forth! OK, sorry. But if it did not happen like this, how did it happen? Explanations are supposed to inform, but I am just not informed if I am told that a supernatural being, wielding occult powers, acted in an inscrutable way, and for unfathomable reasons to bring about an effect.

    Further, and most seriously, as far as we can tell, humans decide, intend, will, plan, imagine, etc. with their brains. That is, every instance of personal explanation with which we are familiar appears to reduce to a more basic physical explanation, i.e. in terms of brain activity. Yet the divine mind is supposed to lack a brain or any sort of physical substrate at all. For theists, personal explanation is the ultimate form of explanation, prior to all others. So, as usual, theists postulate the inverse of what we have always observed. We have often seen minds arising from matter, but never seen matter arising from mind. So, even if personal explanation is coherent and informative, the plausibility of the irreducibility of such an explanation must be near zero, given everything that we know.

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

      Keith,

      “God’s mind is supposed to be radically unlike a human mind”

      Well, yes and no. On theism we are made in the image of God and thus we have the capacity of perceiving personal greatness and goodness. In particular we can judge what it is that the greatest conceivable being would want, or would not want, to do. It is on this ground that theistic explanations work or fail. And indeed it is on this ground that anti-theistic arguments, such as the argument from evil, work or fail. Atheist philosophers are capable of intelligible and even sometimes superb argumentation of what God would or wouldn’t want to do. Which by itself is kind of interesting, since clearly they hold themselves capable of such knowledge. But if theism is false and thought is nothing but the deliverance of a mechanical brain which has evolved through blind physical forces – then I wonder where do they think they draw that cognitive capacity from.

      “For one thing, while human intentions are generally obvious, God’s are mysterious.”

      Right, and remarkably enough there is John Hick’s theistic explanation of why God would want to produce the human condition entailing such an epistemic distance. And I must say his explanation makes a lot of sense to me. In other words while it’s true that it’s not easy to see God’s intentions, it’s easy to see why God would want to have it this way.

      “Why did God create birds?”

      Theistic explanations do not generally try to answer questions of such specificity. Given how beautiful birds are though, here the answer kind of suggests itself.

      “Why weren’t the highly successful flying reptiles and insects good enough?”

      I thought birds are flying reptiles, no? (At least the encyclopaedia Britannica categorizes dinosaurs as a group of reptiles.) Anyway, looking at nature it is clear that God values the richness of forms – as do we. An idea that goes back to St Augustine.

      “If God did create birds, how exactly did it work?”

      Suppose you are God and want to create a world with some specific design goals, such as creatures with particular cognitive faculties, namely faculties capable of “verstehen” of God but which at the same time function at some epistemic distance from God. So that God’s presence is hidden to them. Such hiddenness of the creator entails a mechanical environment, where thought supervenes on mechanical brains. But you don’t want creation to be deistic, since you want to partake in creation through special providence. Nor do you want a deterministic world since you want moral choice to be real and responsibility to make sense. Indeed you want an environment where the development of personal virtue is not only possible but valuable. Finally you want a beautiful environment that is a joy for any intelligence to behold. A solution to this difficult design problem would be this: Create a mechanical universe based on indeterministic physical law (something like quantum mechanics) so that starting from some initial condition the universe can potentially evolve through a great many paths. Most of these will produce entirely naturalistic environments (i.e. environments that can be understood without recourse to supernatural effects), and in some of which the various other design criteria will be met. Then instantiate into reality just such an evolutionary history.

      • John

        “there is John Hick’s theistic explanation of why God would want to produce the human condition entailing such an epistemic distance. And I must say his explanation makes a lot of sense to me.”

        It makes little sense to me. As I understand him, John Hick believes that only by giving people restricted evidence that he exists can God allow people a free choice over whether to believe that he exists. This is a highly implausible theory for numerous reasons. I will mention just three.

        (a) It seems to presuppose an implausibly strong form of doxastic voluntarism – the theory that beliefs are in general subject to direct acts of will. On the contrary, for most healthy and rational people belief acquisition is not a matter of direct choice – it is more like seeing. You can choose what to look at, but you have no or almost no control over what you see. Healthy and non highly-irrational people who are not subject to some pathological condition (e.g. denial) can choose what to investigate, but what they end up believing after is determined by involuntary mental processes and their background beliefs. Even for a million dollars, most of us would be incapable of altering any of our beliefs by a direct act of will, including our beliefs about God.

        (b) Even if people other than the highly irrational and those subject to pathological conditions typically can choose beliefs by direct acts of will, the idea that they have more freedom in a state of intellectual ambiguity is totally bogus. Suppose Ernie is on a game show where there are three boxes and only one contains the prize. He has no idea which to pick. Suppose Bert is on an almost identical game show, except he has been given extremely strong evidence that the prize is in box 3. Hick’s theory seems to imply that there is something valuable about Ernie’s situation and that he has freedom that Bert lacks. This is clearly mistaken. Knowledge is power and knowledge actually enhances one’s freedom. If God gave people extraordinarily strong evidence he existed it would actually make them more free, not less, because they would be more aware about reality as it truly is.

        (c) Hick owes us some explanation why some people supposedly get lots of evidence that God exists (e.g. those who allegedly witness miracles, those who get to hear lots of allegedly convincing apologetic arguments, those who Jesus allegedly speaks to every day) and others seem to get comparatively little or none at all. The fact that there is this difference is a total mystery and not at all what would be predicted by Hick’s theory. Some people seem to have an epistemic distance and some do not!

        • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Dianelos Dianelos Georgoudis

          John,

          “As I understand him, John Hick believes that only by giving people restricted evidence that he exists can God allow people a free choice over whether to believe that he exists.”

          No, not at all. There is no good reason for holding that belief in God is important. Indeed belief in God (never mind the study of scripture) appears nowhere in Christ’s teaching in the Gospels. It’s easy to believe in God – the significant thing is to have sufficient faith for living according to that belief by choosing good over evil. Christ in His new commandment asks us to love as He did love, not to believe as He believed. Belief in God, living in the Church, prayer, and so on, are means not ends. Not even choosing the good over the evil is the end. Nor to follow the path of Christ. The end is to walk with Christ, to become like Christ, to achieve personal perfection, and ultimately theosis. That’s the final cause of the human nature.

          John Hick’s explanation of God’s hiddenness (or “epistemic distance”) is that if God were more evident to us then that would decrease the value of our choosing good over evil. So, says Hick, God created a religiously ambiguous world – one can interpret it both religiously and non-religiously. And if one finds reason to choose the religious understanding, even though it helps it does not make it easy (let alone automatic) to choose good over evil, or to love universally and self-transcendentally as Christ did. Indeed most people who believe in God live as if God does not exist.

          Basically, Hick’s powerful idea is that God’s reason for creation is to make a world for soul-building, a world in which free subjects have the opportunity to attain virtue. I find that idea powerful, first, because I judge that personal virtue won by merit is the greatest personal good there is, and thus conclude that the greatest conceivable being would create a world where precisely that great good would obtain. And, secondly, because looking around I realize not only that the way the world actually is comports with that reason, but that I can’t imagine a world which would be more propitious towards that end than the actual one. The types, amount, and distribution of goods and evils appears to be optimized towards that end.

          “Hick owes us some explanation why some people supposedly get lots of evidence that God exists.”

          Right. From all the versions of the problem from evil I think this is the most difficult one: Why is it the case that some people appear to be spiritually more blessed than others? Why is God’s grace unequally distributed?

          I don’t recall Hick discussing this particular question in his theodicy, but I may be wrong. Anyway, an easy answer would be that if that weren’t so then God’s hiddenness would be compromised. But I think there is a much more profound and beautiful answer related to the metaphysics of personal identity. Here, very shortly, is what I mean:

          Your condition and mine are both similar and dissimilar. We base the idea that you and I are separate individuals on these dissimilarities, but perhaps mainly in on our experience of free will. Thus when I choose it feels like it’s only me who is choosing and that other people are completely (or virtually completely) absent from that process. Thus I hold myself to be an individual subject mostly on the experience of “my” free will. On the other hand this experience may be a figment of our fallen (i.e. imperfect) nature. We realize that when loving greatly, or in general when in a state of empathy, the individuality of the one who experiences or who chooses becomes kind of fuzzy. So let’s consider the hypothesis that in reality there is only one human subject, living the human condition through a myriad points of view. Such an understanding does not contradict our experience of life, makes sense of the fuzziness experienced in empathy, solves the problem from the unequal grace we are here discussing, and – significantly in my judgment – illuminates Christian ethics. Thus, to love others as oneself becomes self-evident since others are oneself. And other Christian precepts some people find hard to understand, such as to not resist evil, become immediately clear.

          • John

            Dianelos,

            “belief in God (never mind the study of scripture) appears nowhere in Christ’s teaching in the Gospels”

            Many Christians correctly point out that salvation ONLY through faith in Jesus (which presupposes belief that he was divine, and belief in God) is a theme in the New Testament, supported by many passages. Other Christians correctly point out that numerous passages in the New Testament indicate precisely the opposite. I agree with both groups and take the utter confusion and conflict among Christians on the issue of what is needed for salvation as excellent evidence that the Bible was not in any way inspired by a divine being aiming to communicate important truths to humanity.

            “Hick’s powerful idea is that God’s reason for creation is to make a world for soul-building, a world in which free subjects have the opportunity to attain virtue…looking around I realize not only that the way the world actually is comports with that reason, but that I can’t imagine a world which would be more propitious towards that end than the actual one. The types, amount, and distribution of goods and evils appears to be optimized towards that end.”

            Here are a handful of the numerous problems with Hick’s soul-building theodicy:

            (a) The word “soul” is obscure and is possibly meaningless. The term “soul-building” is often taken to mean “character-building,” and at times Hick himself seem to use it that way. That is the only usage of it in this context that makes any clear sense.

            (b) Hick’s theory does a very poor job of predicting the distribution of human suffering around the world. To take just one example, are we to suppose that the population of Bangladesh is in desperate need of character development by means of terrible suffering (due to floods), but no such comparable need is found among, say, the Swiss? Why is it that the people in certain geographical regions (e.g. near fault lines) are in so much more need of “soul building” that people living in tectonically quiescent regions of the world? Isn’t it more plausible to think that some people are just unlucky in where they happen to be living than to suppose certain nationalities need more “soul building” than others?

            (c) Some children die almost instantly at a very young age with no opportunity to develop through suffering. It seems certain that sometimes this happens in dramatic natural disasters, where everyone they know is killed with them, and they are never missed, so there is no opportunity for spectators to build character, either. The theodicy fails to account for these instances of premature death.

            (d) Although some suffering can cause adults to develop character, sometimes the worse cases of suffering instead utterly crush people and send them into a deep depression from which they never recover, rather than develop them. The theodicy fails to account for these instances of suffering.

            (e) We almost never judge the worst instances of suffering as being justified because they allowed someone to attain virtue or develop character. If a two year old child is raped, tortured for hours and then murdered, no amount of character development in the child’s parents in coming to terms with those events would lead us to say that it was a good thing nobody intervened, or nothing happened to stop those events from happening, The theodicy lacks any plausibility in terms of people’s everyday moral judgements.

            (f) The theodicy has dubious ethical consequences, since it involves God exploiting some people to benefit others (i.e. some people suffer to “build the souls” of others). It seems implausible that a loving deity would use people as a means in this way. As Stephen Maitzen’s saying goes, “morally perfect beings don’t exploit kids.” If Hick says in response that the sufferer is instead the one who benefits from his suffering (rather than others), then the theodicy still has dubious ethical consequences, since it removes the obligation on anyone to stop any suffering. If you think that person P will ultimately be much better off if he endures some terrible suffering than if you prevent it, it seems implausible that you have any obligation to stop P’s suffering.

            “So let’s consider the hypothesis that in reality there is only one human subject, living the human condition through a myriad points of view.”

            The theory that there is only one human on planet Earth rather than seven billion is logically possible, but is akin to a brain-in-vat hypothesis, and would involve rejecting almost everything we think we know about the world. If you are having to propose THAT idea to prop up an already top-heavy theory, I suggest that the theory needs to go.

    • Victor_Reppert

      If such an explanation is in fact true, how can it fail to be informative? If, in fact, the butler did it, then thebutlerdidit is an informative explanation. If God did it, then Goddidit is the correct explanation, and is therefore informative. Or am I just missing something?

      Whether I believe that there is some physical substrate that explains neuroscientifically the state of your brain when you let out a loud cheer when Georgia stopped South Carolina on the 1 yard line, if in fact dualism is true of you, I can nevertheless explain fully and completely why you cheered when this happened. I could have predicted that, if something like that were to happen, you would let out a cheer.

  • Richard_Wein

    Hi Jeffery,

    “Compatibility is like pregnancy: a person is either pregnant or not. There is no in-between. Likewise, evidence is either compatible with a hypothesis or it’s not.”

    On the contrary. Surely you’ve heard of such ideas as the “underdetermination of theory by evidence” and the “Duhem-Quine thesis”. Inferences from evidence are not purely deductive. They always involve some element of non-deductive judgement. Hence the evidence never absolutely (deductively) falsifies a hypothesis. After all, any observation could in principle be just a hallucination! So evidence is never absolutely incompatible with a hypothesis. There can only be degrees of compatibility.

    Now, you might say that it’s better to use some other word here, and reserve “incompatibility” for the condition where one can strictly deduce the falsehood of one proposition from another (or set of others). But I don’t accept that such a restriction is required by the ordinary meaning of the word. Perhaps philosophers consistently use “incompatible” in a stricter technical sense that is restricted in this way. If that’s so (and I have my doubts) then evidence can never be incompatible with a hypothesis, in this strict deductive sense.

    Personally I prefer to talk about the consistency of the evidence with a hypothesis (recognising that such consistency is a matter of degree). But I wouldn’t object to anyone using the word “compatibility” instead, as long as they understand that compatibility (in this context) comes in degrees.

    Incidentally, many apparently precise concepts turn out to be fuzzy to some degree, and pregnancy is one of those. The concept is not sufficiently well-defined for there to be an absolutely precise moment in time when a woman goes from being not pregnant to being pregnant, just as there is no precise moment in time when life evolved from non-life, or a precise moment in time when one species evolves from another species. So there is a brief interval when a woman is neither pregnant nor not pregnant; her pregnancy state is undefined.

    Mistaking fuzzy distinctions for absolute dichotomies is in my view a major cause of error in philosophy.

  • John

    WN says he is considering the theism vs atheism issue, but then switches to facts which are allegedly best explained by a creator/designer. These are related but distinct topics.
    There is much more to theism than the theory that all matter and energy had a creator. Theists also believe that the creator was all-powerful, all-knowing and perfectly good. An atheist could, with perfect consistency, maintain that a creator with some or all of those properties once existed but has since gone out of existence (maybe he felt his work was done and so had no reason to continue to exist). So even if we were to grant WN just about everything, he would have failed to provide any evidence against atheism unless he could show that it is more likely than not that the given creator has all the given properties mentioned and still exists now. Since he has not shown that, he has provided no evidence that atheism is false. And that’s even if we concede all of his (highly contentious) claims – which of course we should not concede!

  • Victor_Reppert

    This is always an interesting issue. But does it really make sense to ask of an omnipotent being how they did something. For example, I once beat a Grandmaster in a chess tournament. Now, you might ask how I did that, since as someone whose rating has never gone above expert, you might wonder how I did that. (And the answer isn’t all the flattering, was able to win because my opponent had had entirely too much to drink.) But if I have all power, then the simple answer is that I used the power of omnipotence to get it done.

    • Steven Carr

      ‘…I used the power of omnipotence to get it done.’

      Does Victor know just how funny he is?

      Why aren’t we allowed to laugh at sheer stupidity like that posting of Victor’s?

      ‘How did you win that chess game?’

      ‘I used the power of omnipotence.’

      ‘Was it because your Nf6 was a very good move?’

      ‘No, it was because I used the power of omnipotence.’

      ‘Was it because your opponent castled too late?’

      ‘No, it was because I used the power of omnipotence.’

      • Victor_Reppert

        Of course I didn’t win because of the power of omnipotence, I’m not omnipotent. That’s the whole point.

        Laugh all you want, if you make the effort and interpret correctly. Experience has shown a high correlation between ridicule and misrepresentation.

        • Steven Carr

          No, the whole point is that ‘the power of omnipotence’ is a meaningless phrase indicating the total lack of thought that has gone into working out your views.

          Apparently, any being other than a god can only win a chess game by playing better moves than his opponent, while in contrast, a god wins chess games by a different method – namely the power of omnipotence.

          • Victor_Reppert

            Actually, it depends on what you want explained. Winning a chess game involves making better moves than one’s opponent, granted. But now if we ask “OK, I have the scoresheet, and I know what God did to win the game. But how in the world did he figure out what the best moves were?” we would be ignoring God’s omniscience.

            Similarly, we might get a good deal more detail about what happened when God raised Jesus from the dead. A Laplacean demon might know in detail what all the physical, chemical, and biological changes were that brought Jesus back to life. That would identify in more detail what the miracle was. But, if we then ask “OK, I see all that, but isn’t that impossible given the laws of physics, so how did God do that?” then it seems the interlocutor is simply forgetting that God, ex hypothesi, is omnipotent, and has the power to create the laws of physics or to produce effects that are not possible given the laws of physics, and we would be gratuitously presupposing naturalism, which is precisely what is at issue between the defender of miracles and the opponent of miracles.

          • Steven Carr

            Unwilling though I am to admit it, Victor is right.

            An all-powerful being could suddenly cause 3 Queens to appear on his side of the board out of nowhere, and so win the game that way.

            The best explanation of how that being won the game would not be ‘He had 4 Queens’, but ‘He was all-powerful’.

    • John

      “if I have all power, then the simple answer is that I used the power of omnipotence to get it done.”

      That will not do as an answer if the task is to draw a triangle with 4 sides. Some of us seriously doubt that it makes sense to speak of a person causing things to exist without a body or brain, outside of space and time. To say “God does it by his power of omnipotence” is not useful here. Even omnipotent beings cannot do things which are conceptually impossible.

      • Victor_Reppert

        But doesn’t this just question-beggingly delimit just what can cause what? If there is some logical contradiction in God causing something without a body or a brain, that would be one thing. Of course, omnipotence is typically defined as the power to do anything that doesn’t involve a contradiction, so the triangle with four sides case would be ruled out by definition.


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