Soft Theism: The Big Picture

Soft Theism: The Big Picture March 12, 2021

We’re responding to an imaginary dialogue that explores Soft Theism, which is basically Christianity without the baggage. Can jettisoning Christianity’s crazy bits turn it into something plausible? Read part 1 here.

This is post 5 in this series, and up next are evolution, the Big Picture, and consciousness.

Evolution and how vs. why

Atheist: I don’t think you understand evolution. Evolution . . . is essentially a process of adaptation over time, with the most successful adapters lasting the longest. It has no need for a God at all.

Your questions, “isn’t there some force moving the whole thing forward,” “why wouldn’t the better adapted organisms simply take longer to die out,” “isn’t there some life force that makes our bodies heal,” “why should it work,” and so on, are ALL answered through a cursory study of chemistry, biology, and evolution. You would find very definitive and evidence-based answers if you looked . . . but you’re not looking, because you have what you think is an easy catch-all “answer” that has fooled you into thinking you know.

This is how religion kills the search for truth. “God of the Gaps” thinking. Like the ancient Greeks. What causes lightning? Zeus, the god of lightning . . . no more investigation required. You’re doing the exact same thing when you ask all those questions . . . without checking for the scientific answers, which exist, and are supported by real-world evidence.

Cross Examined Blog: I’ll add another difficulty with “God did it” as an explanation: it’s unfalsifiable. Wherever the atheist questions—the goodness of God, say, or whether the afterlife makes sense—the theist can always say that we humans can’t judge God. God could have his unfathomable reasons.

An unfalsifiable hypothesis is useless since no evidence can ever prove it wrong.

Soft Deist: Aaaagh! NO, I’m not! You’re attacking a straw man. I believe firmly in the value of science. You’re completely missing my point! Science explains . . . HOW things work, not WHY they should work . . . That is a subtle but critical distinction that I find you atheists NEVER get. Science explains HOW things work, not WHY they should work.

How vs. why doesn’t seem to be a helpful distinction. Why are humans similar to chimpanzees and gorillas but unlike sparrows and bananas? Evolution answers that. Why do the South America and Africa look like jigsaw puzzle pieces, and what’s the deal with volcanoes and earthquakes? Plate tectonics answers that. Why do we get sick from other people? Germ theory answers that.

But I guess you’re asking the meta question: yes, evolution does work, but that wasn’t guaranteed in our reality, so what makes it work?

I’m still not seeing that there’s an interesting question here. Are you sure you’re not inventing a problem? You’ll have a much stronger case if you show that your stumbling block appears in textbooks on evolution. I think the opposite is the case: if you spelled out your concern at a biology conference, they’d say, “Huh?”

While you say you embrace science, the problem raised by your imaginary atheist antagonist remains: “God did it” doesn’t answer the question. Instead, it shuts down the discussion. Slapping the God answer on any particular question at the frontier of science is not to embrace science, it’s to say, “Nothing to see here, people. You science-y guys can go home now. God did it.” In practice, though, it just replaces one mystery, like “Why did the Big Bang go bang?” with a bunch of other questions about who this dude is and how he came to be and so on.

Looking at the big picture

I am not asking how does nature work, but why does nature AS A WHOLE work. I am not asking what’s the physics behind something (which would be . . . science), but what’s behind . . . physics itself (which would be philosophy, or metaphysics).

I once heard a description of Philosophy that makes sense to me. Imagine Socrates and his students trying to find order in reality. To them, it’s like a swamp, without structure. But as they explore, they find elements that can be grouped together. Gradually, fields form—arithmetic, geometry, medicine, physics, engineering, and so on. And as they do, they’ve become independent fields and are no longer Philosophy.

Physics used to be philosophy, but it’s not anymore. Philosophers have no claim to physics; physicists do.

Christian apologists often hide behind philosophical claims as if, “Ah, but that’s Philosophy!” shields an idea from criticism. I’ve written more on the misuse of Philosophy here.

To you, saying God did it, is unsatisfying. To me, establishing “how nature works,” is great, but, not enough. Evolution doesn’t explain how consciousness can arise from molecules.

That’s exactly what it explains!

Yeah, the incremental steps, the elements, the forces involved, but not WHY THE WHOLE THING WORKS.

This is too vague and hand-wavy. You need to show that there’s a question needing answering. Scientists will agree that they have profound questions that are unanswered. But keep in mind that the people who identified the questions are those very same scientists. Show that your concern would pique a biologist’s interest.

Where did healing come from?

Why are our bodies capable of healing? You would say, well, because of the following measurable, physical causes. And I would say, well yeah, right, of course, and it’s great that we have learned these things, but, why should these elements and forces do what they do? Isn’t it reasonable to posit an ultimate, overall force that created the laws of nature, that causes plants and animals to grow, that causes our hearts to beat for a lifetime, that causes our bodies to heal, that makes evolution progress, that makes intelligence emerge?

I’m sure the relevant scientists would say no. Again, you must show that there’s a gap in our thinking for your God hypothesis to answer.

This reminds me of Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God” monologue that related her long spiritual journey away from Catholicism and then Christianity and then spirituality in general. She remembered realizing that there was no God, and he had no role in her life. “I could just see him sitting on his suitcases near the front door of my house.” She imagined telling him to stay for a while if he needed; there was no hurry. “And slowly, over the course of several weeks, he disappeared.”

Does an actual God have any role in evolution? Or has science explained enough so that God has picked up his suitcases and left?

You ask if it’s reasonable to posit an ultimate force that created the laws of nature. No, it’s not! The supernatural has never explained anything. Every reliable explanation has been naturalistic. I’m sure many will share your angst about something not quite right, something incomplete at the frontier of science. But I’m not one of them.

You’ve heard of Douglas Adam’s puddle? It marveled at how nicely its hole fit it. The mistake, of course, was imagining that the hole was adapted to fit the puddle when in fact the puddle had adapted to fit the hole. We must avoid making the puddle’s mistake.

We have different mindsets. For you, God explains nothing, because you have a scientific mindset. For me, science does not explain enough, because I have a philosophical mindset.

Again, make sure your philosophy is telling you something valid. Philosophy has birthed many disciplines, but they now carry the baton, not philosophy.

Where did consciousness come from?

You say you can’t figure out where consciousness comes from. How about this as an alternate hypothesis: Consciousness is the result of higher biological brain function. There is much scientific evidence for this.

Well, yeah, of course that’s so. Consciousness is the result of higher biological brain function, but, it’s not really . . . where it comes from. I don’t know how else to explain it, but it only makes sense to me that consciousness needs a source for its existence, besides the consciousness-less molecules, from which it emerged.

And again, I accept science completely as to HOW things came to be—astrophysics, paleontology, genetics, all of that. I’m not ignoring them; I’m claiming they are, ultimately, an INADEQUATE explanation for their OWN existence, for WHY all those laws of nature should be as they are . . . and result in intelligence.

You’re, in effect, saying God cannot exist because he violates the laws of physics. And I’m saying a God who is not beyond the laws of physics is a caricature of the concept of God. If you define God like that, in such limited terms, then of course, there is no God.

All right, avoid the limited definition of God and define him more grandly; why think that that God exists?

My response to the question of consciousness is that it is an emergent phenomenon. I see you raise that topic later, so I’ll hold off.

Next time: God’s hiddenness and our drive toward reason and compassion.

Striving to maintain a relationship
with a silent invisible fiction was exhausting.
Adopting a secular worldview has improved my life
in nearly every aspect I can think of.
Joe Omundson

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Image from Igordoon Primus (free-use license)
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