bookmark_borderReply to Vic Reppert on Cosmological Questions

My friend Vic Reppert was kind enough to address some responses to my “Atheist Manifesto” on his Dangerous Idea blog. I would like to address his comments. Vic and I go back thirty years or to the time that we were both students at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. I think Candler had a similar effect on both of us—it drove us to philosophy. Vic’s remarks were in response to one paragraph of my “manifesto”:

When asked for reasons for thinking that God exists, most people reply with amateur versions of the first cause or design arguments. For most people, even philosophers like William Lane Craig, the idea that the universe “came into existence out of nothing” is just absurd. After all, in our ordinary experience things don’t just pop into existence or spontaneously disappear (except socks in the washer and car keys). As Craig puts it somewhere nobody would expect a full-grown Bengal tiger to just materialize out of thin air. In short, from nothing comes nothing. However, this reasoning is fatally flawed. Our common-sense expectations about things coming into or going out of existence are based entirely upon our experience within the space/time universe with all its conservation laws in force. We have no experience at all of the beginning of space/time itself, and there is no reason whatsoever to think that our everyday intuitions would apply to such a situation. If the physics of the last century has taught us anything, it is that our common-sense intuitions simply might not apply to the realities studied by fundamental physics. You and I cannot be in two places at once; an electron can. I have no intuitions at all about the beginning of space/time, and if I did I would not trust them.

Vic responds:

While not necessarily giving a full and complete endorsement to the Kalam Cosmological Argument, surely everyone accepts some version of the causal principle. We think there need to be causes for things. We want to know why. This search for an answer to why questions doesn’t stop when the ordinary methods of naturalistic science offer no more answers. To then turn our curiosity off and say we shouldn’t look for any more answers because certain methods are not available to us seems question-begging. While some versions of the causal principle are too strong, others seem presupposed by the success of human inquiry.

Further, if we restrict the use of common-sense principle to what goes on within the physical universe, what other principles do we have to similarly restrict. How about Ockham’s razor. Why should superior success of simpler theories to more complex ones within the physical universe make someone think that this sort of principle can be extended beyond the physical world. If the causal principle has to be restricted, then this one does too. If the atheist wants us to accept an Ockham’s Razor argument for atheism (which Parsons does appeal to in his reply to Moreland), but also insists that we restrict the causal principle to a naturalistic framework, then he or she needs to explain why she can make both moves. I think there’s an inconsistency here.

Of course it is always rational to ask “why?” and to seek the reasons for things, but, as one of the minor characters in Gone With the Wind says to Scarlett, “Askin’ aint gettin’.” Proponents of cosmological arguments, whether or not they make an explicit appeal to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, generally seem to assume that there must be a cause of the universe, and, of course, they have a tailor-made candidate waiting in the wings. The universe might have a cause. It is entirely rational to look for one. But our common-sense intuitions, shaped by our experience of things within the space/time universe, give us no grounds for saying that space/time itself must have had a cause. Neither does the fact that we are curious mean that we must always find an answer. The universe could be a brute fact.

If we were to pursue our “why” questions as far as we could go, there could only be three possible outcomes: (1) Our quest goes on forever. We always find causes of causes of causes and never reach an end. (2) Or search ends with a brute fact, some ultimate or primordial entity or state of affairs that just is with no cause or reason for its existence. (3) Our search ends with some entity or state of affairs that, though it has no external cause or conditions, is, in some sense, its own cause or its own sufficient reason. The problem with (3) is that, despite centuries of philosophical lucubration, nobody has ever succeeded in saying satisfactorily what it would be for something, anything—including God—to be self-caused or its own sufficient reason. If we were to say that God is his own sufficient reason because he is a logically necessary being, then we are headed towards that particularly fetid philosophical morass, the ontological argument. If we say that God is self-sufficient because he is uncreated, indestructible, and dependent upon nothing else, then it is not clear why the ultimate physical entities, whatever they might be, could not be self-sufficient in this sense.

Faced with such problems, some theists, like Richard Swinburne, have rejected the Principle of Sufficient Reason and admit that the universe might exist as the ultimate brute fact. In this case, the issue between theism and naturalism comes down to a choice between ultimate brute facts—God or the universe (or the primordial singularity, or the multiverse, or colliding branes, or whatever cosmologists settle upon). Despite decades of following the arguments of the best theistic minds, I have yet to hear a single good reason for giving the answer theists want.

Vic also thinks that I have been inconsistent. I say that we have no assurance that our ordinary intuitions about causality apply to putative ultimate realities, yet I have invoked principles of simplicity or parsimony against theists. But why should Ockham’s razor apply beyond the physical realm if causality need not?

I regard the principle of parsimony or simplicity—the injunction to not multiply entities without cause or, when other things are equal, to prefer the simplest hypothesis—as a strictly heuristic, methodological, or procedural rule. Unlike Swinburne, I do not see it as an a priori metaphysical principle. At bottom reality may be simple. Or it may be complex. We have no way of knowing ahead of time. Further, if reality is complex, it is surely unlikely to be complex in just the ways that we might antecedently stipulate. By adding gratuitous postulations to our hypotheses we merely increase the number of ways we are likely to be wrong (we give more “hostages to fortune,” as it is frequently expressed). The only way to proceed is to start with simple hypotheses–recognizing that they might well be too simple–and to complicate our hypotheses when, and only when, our simple hypotheses prove inadequate.

The appeal to Ockham’s Razor that I think Vic is referring to is on p. 189 of the book Does God Exist? where I am commenting on the debate between J.P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen. I quote Carl Sagan in his preface to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Sagan is commenting on Hawking’s “no boundary” proposal that would eliminate the primordial singularity of standard big bang theory and thereby eliminate an absolute beginning of space/time. Sagan comments that Hawking’s proposal leaves “…a universe with no edge in space, no beginning in time, and nothing for a Creator to do (p. 189).” I comment: “If there is nothing for a Creator to do, we had best follow Ockham’s Razor and dispense with the idea (p. 189).”

My criticism here is methodological, not metaphysical. If Hawking’s “no boundary” is sound, then hypotheses postulating a Creator are point
less; as Laplace said to Napoleon, “There is no need for that hypothesis.” Again, I am not making a claim about what is likely or unlikely to exist; I am pointing out that unnecessary hypotheses are, well, unnecessary.

I would like to thank Vic for his comments. My job is very demanding, even in the summer, and listing blog postings on my annual report won’t impress my dean, so I won’t have time for an extended series of replies and counter replies. But I do appreciate the chance to respond and may be able to do so again if Vic has any further thoughts. In all fairness, he should post a brief “theistic manifesto” and let me take a crack at it!

bookmark_borderA Metaphysical Naturalist Manifesto

Keith Parsons, in his inaugural blog, declares that he is “new to this whole blogging thing, but [he] thought [he] would start off with a big post”—and thus provided us with his “Atheist Manifesto.” He expressed the desire “to hear what some of you think, and maybe get some others to submit their own manifestoes.” Well, what follows is my manifesto since I too am new to this whole blogging thing and thought I should also start off with a big post.

By metaphysical naturalist I mean someone who holds either that supernatural agents do not exist, or that their existence is antecedently improbable and that this antecedent improbability has not yet been satisfactorily overridden or discharged by available plausible evidences and arguments. What is a supernatural agent? It is any (physically) disembodied personal being such as God (as conceived in traditional theism), demi-gods, angels, and disembodied souls (i.e. spiritual substances which at one time animated human bodies). [The term disembodied person is qualified by a parenthesized “physically” so that the term supernatural person embraces persons who animate bodies (i.e., spatially extended substances) but are imperceptible (via ordinary sense perception) to humans or animals.] Although Keith Parsons refers to himself as being an atheist,[1] his published writings disclose that he is a metaphysical naturalist—as I use the term.

Now there are metaphysical naturalists and metaphysical naturalists; just as there are theologically conservative Christians and theologically conservative Christians. By all this I mean that there may be, and indeed are, some very sharp differences of belief or opinion among metaphysical naturalists just as there are among Christians. I do not regard someone as being a philosophical or ideological ally or a fellow team member, just because he is a fellow metaphysical naturalist. Of course, we can all profit from intellectual discourse, whether or not with naturalists or Christians of whatever school, or with other ists.

What kind of naturalist am I? I am (what I call) a commonsensible naturalist. So what is commonsensible naturalism? The term is inspired by Christian philosopher William Hasker’s article “What About a Sensible Naturalism? A Response to Victor Reppert”[2] By “sensible naturalism” Hasker means “a [metaphysical] naturalism that makes a really serious effort to accommodate, or at least to make sense of, our ordinary convictions about the mind and its operations-the things we all think we ‘know’ about the mind, when we are not doing philosophy.”[3] The notion can usefully be extended to those fundamental deliverances of natural reason which constitute first principles pertaining to such matters as our knowledge of the external world, other minds, memory, and causation. I prefer to use the term commonsensible instead of sensible naturalism because it is a metaphysical naturalist version of a foundationalist philosophy based upon common sense.

Metaphysical naturalists who reject a commonsense foundationalist philosophy (or any other first philosophy) may not like to be called non-sensible naturalists. But they are likely not to mind being called non-commonsensible naturalists; and perhaps some even might take pride in being so called since rejection of the so-called deliverances of a commonsense first philosophy is considered chic in some quarters.

I now should like to set forth some important components of commonsensible naturalism.[4]

First: an emphatic rejection of the principle of causal closure in the physical domain and its twin-sibling– epiphenomenalism, with an equally emphatic affirmation of mind-body interaction. In short, some physical and mental events or state are severally caused by some other mental events or states, whether qualia or intentional (i.e., having the quality of aboutness, e.g. volitions or purposings, beliefs, desires). To be sure, there are physical events, states, or processes necessary for mental events or states to be causally efficacious.

Second: an affirmation that human practical and theoretical reasoning encompasses more than just computational thinking–that mechanistic “manipulation” of information by logistical rules, whether or not accompanied by consciousness. But reasoning involves conscious apprehension of the logical relations among propositions, classes, and the like—so that we intuit, for example, that proposition r must be true because propositions p and q are true, and that their logical relation entails the truth of proposition r. We know, in some cases, that we believe proposition r to be true because we have apprehended the true logical relation subsisting between propositions p, q, and r, and that these propositions are true. Similar considerations apply, necessary changes being made, to inductive reasoning. Humans are unique among all sentient animals in having the power of propositional speech and reasoning.

Third: given mind-body interaction, the commonsensible naturalist might conceivably be an emergent substance-dualist—someone who holds that the mind is an emergent, immaterial entity produced by the human body (specifically the brain) when it becomes sufficiently configured in an appropriate way and which will cease to exist when the brain ceases to so configured. Another possible scenario, which I prefer, is that the human mind is the human brain which when appropriately configured has various mental powers or capacities (or the capacity to have such capacities), such as that of reasoning, imagining, perceiving, remembering, willing, and so forth. And there are other possible scenarios consistent with the overall view of the commonsensible naturalist that mind-body interaction obtains and that minds necessarily be embodied.

Fourth: commonsensible naturalism includes an acceptance of a first philosophy: namely metaphysically necessary synthetic principles or postulates (none self-evident in the usual strict senses or a falsifiable empirical generalization), which are presupposed and implicit in the making of our properly basic and incorrigible commonsense beliefs (such as the existence of the external world or of other minds), and in the making of generalizations and inferences in ordinary life, as well as in historical, scientific, and forensic inquiry. These first principles are what some call the fundamental deliverances of natural reason. [Among these principles is the causal principle that whatever begins to exist must have a temporally prior cause for its beginning. (I do not concern myself here quite different issues pertaining to epistemic or ontic determinism.) For the commonsensible naturalist, the cause for the beginning of any natural substantive entity in our universe is itself natural—and this applies as well to the universe as a whole if it is the case that it began to exist. That temporal series which includes (or is constituted by) the history of this universe is of infinite duration and consists of denumerably infinite natural events.[5]]

Fifth: commonsensible naturalism, as I use the term, involves acceptance of some version of the dynamic or tensed A-theory of time, according to which events are temporarily ordered by tensed determinations as past, present, and future, and so temporal becoming is ontologically objective (i.e., mind ind
ependent)—thereby rejecting the B-theory of time according to which events are only ordered by the tensiveless relations of earlier than, simultaneous with, and later then, such that temporal becoming is ontologically subjective (i.e., mind dependent).

Last, but not least, commonsensible naturalism is committed to some version of an (at least epistemologically) objective moral order (i.e., a natural morality), understood to embrace what are commonly understood among men and women of good will to be basic moral principles, precepts and norms universally binding on humanity for reasons other than being required by customary mores, or human or divine positive law, or as having been supernaturally revealed.

Keith Parsons invited comments with respect to his manifesto. Here are a few. At the outset, I should like express my appreciation for his scholarly articles, which I have often found very instructive and with which I agree on many issues.[6] Nevertheless, he is not a commonsensible naturalist. Quite evidently, he does not accept the principle that every natural event must have another event as a temporarily prior causal ancestor. Regretfully, he claims that “most people reply with amateur versions of the first cause or design arguments.” A reader might naturally infer or suspect (and, if so erroneously) that intelligent theists (William Lane Craig, for example) do not agree that to say that nothing existed before the big bang simply means “There wasn’t anything prior to the big bang.” Some readers might also erroneously think that intelligent theists (again Craig, for example) typically maintain the patently ridiculous position the first cause argument involves the principle that everything had to have a cause—rather than there must be a cause (but not necessarily a determinative one) for every beginning of the existence of a substantive entity. [Where Craig is definitely wrong, in my opinion, is that he holds upon philosophical grounds that any infinite temporal series (whether or not of infinite duration) is metaphysically impossible, and asserts that the Big Bang standard model confirms his thesis.]

Parsons appears to think it at least factually possible (based upon physical cosmology) that this universe had an absolute temporal beginning. However, the post by bpabbott is right on point when he declares: “due to the physical limitations of space and time, we are effectively censored from events prior to the big bang. Although, the events, following the big bang, exhibit no discernible effects respecting pre-big-bang causes, it is erroneous to infer/imply/assume there were no “pre-big-bang” causes.”

Parsons claims that our “common-sense intuitions simply might not apply to the realities studied by fundamental physics.” True enough; but some alleged realities of fundamental physics are (or may be) just theoretical constructs of a high-level scientific model highly instrumental in organizing and predicting observations. So it is just begging the question to assert that some theoretical constructs of fundamental physics denote realities. And then it is (or may be) the case that many commonsense intuitions are not indefeasible because they are not actually constitutive of a first philosophy. [Parsons evidently thinks that the proposition that one and the same electron can simultaneously be in two places is true. I believe it to be false—even though it is derived from a scientific model which is very useful in organizing and predicting observations.]

And here is Guminski’s complaint: It is unfortunate that metaphysical naturalism is so frequently expounded (whether explicitly or not) as necessarily incompatible with fundamental and indefeasible common-sense principles which reasonable men and women are not going to reject just because such principles are supposed to be inconsistent with the deliverances of some natural scientists and some philosophers of natural science. And here is Guminski’s major thesis: commonsensible naturalism has all the resources necessary to defeat the plausible claims and arguments of supernaturalists, including those of any positive religion such as Christianity.

[1] There are some atheists (whether they simply assert that they do not believe that God exists or instead positively deny his existence) who are not metaphysical naturalists because they believe that there are disembodied spirits—such as human souls while in a disembodied state.
[2] Philosophia Christi 5 (2003) 53-62.
[3] Ibid., 53.
[4] See my “The Moral Argument for God’s Existence, the Natural Moral Law, and Conservative Metaphysical Naturalism” (2004) http://www.theologyforum.net/ for a description of what in this article I call commensensible naturalism. Upon reflection, I have abandoned the word “conservative” as having been improvidently chosen.
[5] See my three articles on the Kalam Cosmological Argument (available on the Secular Web www.infidels.org/library/modern/arnold_guminski/index.shtml) in which I argue for the metaphysical possibility of an infinite temporal series of infinite duration consisting of denumerably infinite events.
[6] Unfortunately, Parsons mars his manifesto by referring to James Dobson as a “neanderthal…type.” Is this kind of public bashing of Dobson a good thing?

In response to the challenge to reply to Michael Gerlson’s argument against atheism, I offer the following:

It is hard to say what exactly Mr. Gerlson’s argument is since it is not expressed very clearly or precisely. Reading between the lines, I think the argument may be reconstructed as follows: The problem of deriving an “ought” from an “is” is insuperable for atheistic naturalism, but does not exist for theists. From a naturalistic perspective, our instincts and impulses are all on a par. Our capacities for selfishness and compassion are both simply facts about our psychology. Labeling one tendency “good” and the other “bad,” or saying that we “ought” to be compassionate and not selfish, is more than we have a right to claim if our worldview encompasses only physical factuality. For theists, on the other hand, “ought” is woven into the very fabric of reality since God, the ultimate reality, is essentially good. Theists therefore do not have the problem of deriving or justifying their “ought.” For them, the source of “ought” is the eternal nature of God.

One might respond by taking the fight to the theists. There are, of course, the ancient Euthyphro-dilemma problems: What do we mean when we say that God is good? If goodness is defined in terms of God’s nature, then it is an empty tautology to say that God is good. It amounts to saying that God’s nature is God’s nature. It does no good to say, as theists do, that all goodness flows from God, or that he is the source of all good things. Even if this were so, it would be beside the point. The question is not where good things come from but the nature of goodness. What is the quality that defines goodness? Whatever answer is given, if, indeed, goodness is even definable in some non-vacuous way, theists, like everybody else, will have to define it in terms that make no essential reference to God’s nature, or they turn their hymns of praise into empty bombast.

Perhaps Mr. Gerlson only means to say that theists have a motivation to “cultivate the better angels of our nature,” but atheists do not. God requires righteousness, and because theists love God—and fear his wrath—they are motivated to be righteous. Atheists, on the other hand, allegedly have no motivation to do anything except eat, drink, and be merry. But do the love and fear of God really motivate people to be better? If so, we would expect to find that religious people live conspicuously better lives than non-religious people do, but no evidence for this has ever turned up. It would be hard to find nobler and higher-minded exemplars of rectitude and integrity than the great freethinkers of the 18th and 19th Centuries. As for the fear of hell, I see no evidence that it has ever deterred anybody from doing anything. Hell is for other people. Believers in hell take it as self-evident that God hates the same people they do, so hardly anyone thinks that hell awaits him. Besides, you can always sin now and repent later.

How should naturalists deal with the is/ought problem? There are two main options: subjectivism and naturalism. Subjectivists concede that facts cannot imply values and they hold that values are our invention; they express how we, individually or collectively, feel about things. The other alternative is naturalism. Naturalists hold that value is a natural property, one that supervenes on other natural properties. Thus, for Aristotle, the prototypical ethical naturalist, happiness, eudaimonia, is a natural state of flourishing or well-being for human creatures. Its value is not determined by our choices or feelings but by the facts of human biology and psychology. Thus, for ethical naturalists, there just is no fact/value dichotomy. Now theists might not like these answers, but not liking someone’s answers is very different from saying, as Mr. Gerlson does, that atheists have no answers to the question of where norms and values come from.

bookmark_borderOpen Question to All Atheists: Can You Answer This?

In a recent editorial commenting on “New Atheists” Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, Michael Gerlson presents the following purportedly unanswerable objection to atheism:

But there is a problem. Human nature, in other circumstances, is also clearly constructed for cruel exploitation, uncontrollable rage, icy selfishness and a range of other less desirable traits.

So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.

Atheism provides no answer to this dilemma. It cannot reply: “Obey your evolutionary instincts” because those instincts are conflicted. “Respect your brain chemistry” or “follow your mental wiring” don’t seem very compelling either. It would be perfectly rational for someone to respond: “To hell with my wiring and your socialization, I’m going to do whatever I please.” C.S. Lewis put the argument this way: “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”

Interested readers can read the entire editorial to read the rest of the argument….

Rather than comment on this directly, I’ll leave this as an exercise for the (nontheistic) reader: can you answer this?

LINK (HT: Ebon Musings)

bookmark_borderAtheist Manifesto

I’m new to this whole blogging thing, but I thought I would start off with a big post. A few weeks ago my nephew, who is an evangelical Christian of the progressive Jim Wallis type, not the neanderthal James Dobson type, asked me to explain briefly why I am an atheist. I wrote the following informal manifesto. I’d like to hear what some of you think, and maybe get some others to sumbit their own manifestoes. Thanks. Here goes:

If somebody were to ask me why I am an atheist, my first response would be “Why not?” I guess I would then pose a follow-up question asking why it is a puzzle. After all, almost everyone disbelieves in Zeus and Odin, and their disbelief is not considered problematic or in need of any special explanation. Everyone knows that the stories about Zeus and Odin are myths–admittedly fascinating tales, but clearly merely the products of the human imagination. Prima facie, the same thing would apply to Yahweh, the God of the Bible. The stories about this god grew in the telling, just like the Norse and Greek myths, as Karen Armstrong details in her History of God. In short, any reason that we would have for thinking that Zeus and Odin are cultural constructs would seem to apply just as well to the tribal god of ancient Israel.

When asked for reasons for thinking that God exists, most people reply with amateur versions of the first cause or design arguments. For most people, even philosophers like William Lane Craig, the idea that the universe “came into existence out of nothing” is just absurd. After all, in our ordinary experience things don’t just pop into existence or spontaneously disappear (except socks in the washer and car keys). As Craig puts it somewhere nobody would expect a full-grown Bengal tiger to just materialize out of thin air. In short, from nothing comes nothing. However, this reasoning is fatally flawed. Our common-sense expectations about things coming into or going out of existence are based entirely upon our experience within the space/time universe with all its conservation laws in force. We have no experience at all of the beginning of space/time itself, and there is no reason whatsoever to think that our everyday intuitions would apply to such a situation. If the physics of the last century has taught us anything, it is that our common-sense intuitions simply might not apply to the realities studied by fundamental physics. You and I cannot be in two places at once; an electron can. I have no intuitions at all about the beginning of space/time, and if I did I would not trust them.

Besides, the statement “out of nothing comes nothing” has rhetorical but no logical force. It is an instance of how people, even philosophers (who ought to know better) are misled by surface grammar into thinking that a statement says something that it does not. When somebody says “before the big bang there was nothing,” this creates the misleading image of a vast cosmic emptiness into which, miraculously, a universe spontaneously appeared. But this picture misleads because the statement seems to be saying that there was once a something, which we call by the name of “nothing” which existed prior to the universe, and was the sort of receptacle or matrix within which the universe was generated. But “nothing” is not a ghostly, empty something. There was no “nothing” for the universe to come out of. When somebody asks “What existed before the big bang?” it is wrong to reply “nothing;” instead, we should say “There wasn’t anything prior to the big bang.” Putting it this way avoids appearing to reify nothing, i.e., turning it into a mysterious something and so creating a pseudo-mystery about how that mysterious “nothing” generated the universe.

As for the intuition that, surely, everything had to have a cause, Bertrand Russell gave the best reply: If everything has to have a cause, then God had to have a cause. On the other hand, if something can exist without a cause, then it might as well be the universe as God. For theists, God is the uncaused first cause; for atheists it is the universe itself, or perhaps the initial singularity or whatever it was that existed at t = 0. I simply defy theists to give me any reason whatsoever why it is more reasonable to take God as your ultimate brute fact than the original or fundamental features of the physical universe.

Well, what about the apparent design in the universe? Isn’t it just too complex and orderly a place to have come about by sheer chance? But of course, the plan-or-chance dilemma is just a false dichotomy. There are many well-known instances of how complex order spontaneously arises from the impersonal, mechanical operation of simple laws and natural processes. Indeed, Darwin was just scratching the surface with the discovery of natural selection. Matter may have seemed inert and passive to the scientists of Newton’s day, but now we are increasingly aware of how marvelously self-organizing nature actually is. From a few simple laws, which at rock bottom may be purely probabilistic, we now can explain how ascending levels of ever-more-complex organization can arise.

Generally, people who offer the design argument now usually present it in the form of the “fine tuning” argument. It goes like this: Had the basic constants of nature been ever so slightly different, then no universe like the present one, certainly none capable of sustaining complex intelligent life, would have been possible. For instance, had the gravitational constant been weaker by even a billionth part, then the big bang would have not been able to generate galaxies, but only an ever-expanding attenuated gas. Since, obviously, we are much more important and interesting than attenuated gas, so the argument goes, there must have been an original Fine-Tuner who set up the gravitational and other constants so as to permit the existence of splendid beings such as ourselves.

The problem here is that I simply cannot see any reason to think that ultimate facts have any probability at all, high or low. When we judge probabilities in ordinary life, we appeal to all sorts of other things that we know–ultimately to the laws of physics. But what do we appeal to in order to say that the laws of physics themselves are unlikely? The fine-tuning argument holds that there is an infinitesimal chance that, say, the gravitational constant has the value that it does. OK, so the value of the gravitational constant is very, very unlikely to be what it is given…what? To what background do we appeal in making our assessment of probability here? To the laws of physics? But the laws of physics will either entail that the gravitational constant is exactly what it is, or they will be wholly irrelevant. What, then, underlies our judgment that the gravitational constant is extremely unlikely? The fact that we can imagine it having all sorts of other values? But it is always possible to imagine an infinite number of ways for things to be different than they are, but this does not make what does exist in the least unlikely. I can imagine the moon made out of cheese (or marzipan, or Lego blocks, or play dough, or…) but this does not make it the least unlikely that the moon is what it is.

If someone insists that, nevertheless, we are very, very, very lucky–impossibly lucky–to have a universe as “life friendly” as the one we inhabit, and therefore there must have been a supernatural fine-tuner to set things up, I have to ask “Why doesn’t that same reasoning apply to putative supernatural beings?” Why is it, that of all the ultimate supernatural beings that might have existed, we were so impossibly lucky as to get one that was a personal being who, amazingly, just happened to want creatures like us? Out of the innumerable types of imaginable ultimate supernatural beings–the vast majority of which either would not or could not have cared about us, or could not have created us–we had to be impossibly lucky to get the benevolent fine-tuner we did. Well, maybe the fine-tuner had a further fine-tuner that creat
ed him (her? it?). But this puts us on the road to an infinite regress. The only alternative is to take it as a brute, inexplicable fact that we got a supernatural being with just the right combination of powers and desires to get us. But if we say this, what is the advantage of this line over taking our present “finely tuned” laws of physics as a brute, inexplicable fact?

The most popular arguments for God’s existence therefore seem to me to have no force at all. Add to this what seem to me good reasons for not believing in God. It seems to me that if there were a God, he would have revealed his existence, nature, and will in so clear and unmistakable a manner that no honest and reasonable person could go wrong about those essential facts. After all, God is not supposed to be the aloof “watchmaker” of the deists, but a caring being who desires, above all things, that his creatures should know and love him. Therefore, he will not let his children stumble about in the dark, vainly searching for the light, but will give them sure guidance to this vital knowledge. But it is a simple and undeniable fact that perfectly reasonable and honest people do not see any reason to believe in God, and many of those who do can find no common ground to resolve their differences about his nature and will. There simply is no unmistakable revelation that is so clear and obvious that every rational and honest seeker is led to the right answer. To say that there is, just goes against the plain facts.

Then there is the problem of evil. Theists, of course, have long maintained that God has good reason to permit the evil that occurs, or, at least, that we cannot be sure that omnipotence cannot bring good out of even the worst evils. Well, I cannot say with absolute assurance that omnipotence will not someday, somehow, in some currently incomprehensible and inconceivable manner, bring justifying good out of all the evil that occurs. But let me tell a story: I saw a thing on a nature program about a huge colony of pink flamingoes, somewhere in Africa, I think, that hatches its eggs next to a big lake in the middle of a desert. While the chicks are growing, the lake dries up. When the lake has largely dried up, the chicks, which cannot yet fly, have to march across a hundred miles of desert to get to a body of water that will sustain them. So, 50,000 chicks start off across the desert. Along the way, the adults try to help them, but can only do so much. As they march, the chicks often are weighed down with huge balls of mud that get stuck to their wings and finally get so heavy that they cannot walk. Some years, not a single chick makes it across the desert. After seeing this, it occurred to me: Only a lunatic would plan something like that. Now, theists will say that, nonetheless, there is a good reason that the flamingo chicks have to die in this absurd and fantastic way. All I can say is that it seems to me mad, perfectly mad, and I just cannot make myself think that there is some sublime plan that will make it all work out for the good. Therefore, I cannot accept that there is a perfectly good and all-powerful being that will make it all work out someday.

bookmark_borderLiving with Darwin

Here’s a hearty, full-throated recommendation for Philip Kitcher’s latest book, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith. If you’re looking for a short, very readable but substantive book on creationism, intelligent design, and the very real challenge Darwinian evolution poses for any supernaturalistic faith, this is the one. Go out and buy one. Buy a stack and distribute to your friends. (OK, best wait for the paperback edition for that one.)

Normally, I might temper my enthusiasm when reviewing a book so close to my own interests. After all, there’s my ego involved. And I have to admit my reaction is mixed with some nitpicking and envy.

First, the nitpicking. There are a few areas where I’d choose a different emphasis. Kitcher makes much of the “imperfect design” objection to intelligent design, when ID proponents have erected quite a few rhetorical defenses in this area. I wish Kitcher had cited some of the work that shows that ID’ers cannot bypass such questions, as their supposed design-detection tools are all bogus. I especially wish this because some of this work is mine. I like to see my work cited, and this doesn’t do it. (Harrumph.) Then there is how Kitcher explains the Darwinian challenge to supernaturalism almost entirely in terms of the traditional Problem of Evil. I approach this with a different emphasis, and I think my way is better. (Hmph.)

But now the envy kicks in. After all, Kitcher gives an excellent explanation of the basic reasons creationists and ID’ers are wrong and why Darwin poses a genuine problem for supernaturalism in just 160 undersized pages, excluding endnotes. He deals with these issues concisely but with genuine substance. Furthermore, he writes in such a way that you don’t have to be collecting advanced degrees to follow. This is exactly the way an academic should write for an intelligent nonexpert audience. I wish I could have written the book. (Damn.) And in the interest of packing maximum punch into a minimum of space he picks his emphases in such a way that all the nitpicking I could summon up is really beside the point. The imperfect design argument is, I admit, the best way to quickly highlight how ID is empty as an explanation. The Problem of Evil is the best way to hit home when describing the religiously uncomfortable implications of Darwinian evolution. And there are some things Kitcher does that are just plain brilliant. For example, the way he describes ID as “dead science” and avoids falling into the trap of ruling it beyond science because of its not meeting some set of philosophical criteria.

Again, get hold of a copy. It’s the best short book on ID out there. It’s also perfect to give any smart, educated sister-in-law who you might have who might be tempted to think there is something to the ID business but who is not sure.

bookmark_borderAtheist high school student’s ordeal ends

There are, no doubt, many quiet cases of religious discrimination that never make headlines. A submission to the News Wire alerted me to this one, but I was unable to post it on the Wire, because the story is told in three separate installments on a blog.

The story begins on 27 April, when high-school student Reed Braden lends one of his atheist friends a copy of The God Delusion, incurring the wrath of his friend’s father. Subsequently, Braden’s principal opens an investigation on Braden and threatens him with punishment, for, among other reasons, forcing the school into an establishment clause violation, and bringing to school a book not in line with the school’s curriculum. The principal goes so far as to assert that Braden would be breaking a rule if he himself were to read The God Delusion (or, for that matter, The Grapes of Wrath) on campus. Finally, two full months later, Braden gets the administration to back off.

No word on whether the principal has officially apologized to Braden for wasting his time. I suppose apologies aren’t in line with the school’s curriculum.