Thursday, November 2, 2017

Does Philosophy support Theism?

[The following is an email exchange I had with a philosophical theist known as Darwin Skeptic. He defended the proposition that philosophy supports theism better than it does atheism, while I argued against that proposition. We each wrote an opening statement and then several replies. We gave ourselves around a three-page limit for each message. For this presentation of the exchange, I cleaned up Darwin Skeptic’s typos and grammar a little, for the sake of readability. You can read his original messages on his Facebook page. I’d like to thank Darwin Skeptic for participating in the discussion/debate.]


Ben Cain’s Opening Statement:

Philosophy, the relatively independent, objective exercise of reason in response to profound questions can address theism or any other subject, but it doesn’t support theism well, by making theistic beliefs more rational than atheistic ones. Atheism is more rational than theism, as far as philosophers are typically concerned. Not everything that philosophers address is illuminated by their ruminations, because unlike science, philosophy is partly artistic and literary, which means it includes speculations and rhetorical rationalizations of cultural prejudices. At its best, though, philosophers provide arguments or illustrations that revolutionize culture or that at least separate the enlightened intellectuals from the hoi polloi. Analytic philosophers currently focus on science and rigorous analysis, minimizing speculation and rhetoric and thus the artistic side of philosophy, at the cost of making their tedious, hyper-detailed writings culturally irrelevant since they’ve had to overlook the bigger issues.  

In any case, even before offering an atheistic argument or looking at any theistic proof that a religious philosopher might provide, we shouldn’t expect philosophy to establish that a personal creator of the universe exists. After all, Western philosophy grew out of a rejection of popular religion. From Thales to Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosophers ridiculed the popular notions of gods. The Presocratics overthrew the Olympian pantheon, crediting various material or impersonal powers with being the foundations of all other things. They thus made nonsense of the self-serving metaphors we naively proffer to humanize that which would plainly have to be unlike anything in nature, to be the precondition of all knowable categories and particulars, including persons. Plato’s Parable of the Cave famously substitutes goodness for God. Aristotle’s divine being, the primary cause or unmoved mover, retained the personal quality of being able to think, but only because the essence of this being is to reflect on itself. Aristotle’s theology is thus deistic rather than theistic: his God doesn’t create nature but only inspires it as its final cause or purpose, as opposed to being nature’s efficient, mechanical cause. Aristotle’s deity can’t think about or perceive anything other than itself, because doing so would render it imperfect and thus it would cease to exist as the eternal, perfect being which all lower beings look up to.

Such is an example of a philosopher’s god. Of course, Aristotle was only meditating on the celestial motions of what we now know are planets, not perfect persons in any way. But the point is that philosophical reflection on the question of theism in the West has historically acted as a corrective to the intuitive, emotional, faith-based conceptions of divinity. Vulgar religion isn’t argumentative; instead, it’s tribal, the gods being mental projections that celebrate the character of the believers’ culture. To paraphrase the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes, if horses or lions could believe in gods, their gods would look like horses or lions. Likewise, aggressive cultures worship angry, jealous gods that threaten to annihilate their worshippers if they don’t conquer some earthly region or other. And as Nietzsche pointed out, victimized people such as the early Christians worship a forgiving deity that prefers weakness to strength, poverty to wealth, modesty to pride. Christianity thus begins with slave morality, because popular, exoteric theism in general is a pre-reflective cultural expression quite inseparable from its religious practices. Indeed, it’s philosophy that distinguishes theistic beliefs from the religion so that the religious ideas can be scrutinized without any social commitment to the religion.

In the West, then, philosophy has historically challenged conventional wisdom in so far as the latter was propped up by prejudices and mass confusions. For that reason Socrates was executed, and so he became the secular Christ figure, the martyr for the elite exercise of reason on behalf of truths which the mob is unwilling to accept, including the truths of naturalism and atheism. Ancient Greco-Roman philosophy was reborn in Europe during the Renaissance, after what historians call the Middle Ages. Why the division rather than historical continuity? Because what passed for philosophy during the Middle Ages was dogmatic and in the hands of the Roman Catholic Church which was opposed to philosophy as such; indeed, the Church effectively demonized philosophy and science as witchcraft and the like, because free-thinking tended to depart from Church teachings. The essence of philosophy was thus a crime punishable by death. For example, the Aristotelian proposition that God can’t think about anything other than himself was banned by the Church in 1270, and between 1210 and 1277 the Church banned many other philosophical statements. But these bans proved ineffective, and despite Aquinas’s grand synthesis of Christianity and Aristotelianism, which was meant to tame the latter for the glory of the former, the act of reading the ancient texts gave some Scholastics an inkling of genuine philosophy. They turned into skeptics who denied that reason could support faith, since they believed reason couldn’t even prove that the external world exists. These skeptics countered the rationalists who adhered to the Church’s bans by confining themselves to pondering how God could act contrary to the condemned parts of Aristotle’s philosophy. All of the Scholastics’ arguments, though, were necessarily limited and often whispered rather than written, since they had to be acceptable to the Church for both the books and the authors to avoid being burned. For example, Nicholas of Autrecourt had to recant his skepticism and burn all his writings in 1347.

When more of the ancient texts became available towards the end of the Medieval Period, they sparked a full-blown humanistic revolution in Europe that set off the Age of Reason, which included the rise of modern science and the Enlightenment, the latter being the enforcing of secular philosophy to establish a culture of liberal humanism. Enlightenment philosophers were authentically philosophical because they were free to pursue ideas wherever they led. By contrast, the classic theistic proofs by Aquinas and the Scholastic philosophers were stale and strained, because their approach to reason in general was artificially narrow-minded. (Aquinas even admitted as much on his death bed, calling his life’s work so much “straw.”) Unlike Socrates, the Church’s intellectuals didn’t love knowledge more than their skins; those that did were the pagans and heretics from Hypatia to Bruno who were tortured and murdered by the orthodox Christians. In between the Ages of Faith and Reason there was a grey area populated by such figures as Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, and even Newton and Kant. Being men of their time when the church was still politically powerful, these philosophers and scientists were partly dogmatists, but they were also partly free thinkers. Most early modern intellectuals thus argued for both esoteric theism (that is, for a version of theism or deism which doesn’t sit well with popular religion, the closer you examine it, seeing through the philosopher’s obfuscations and noble lies) and liberal secular humanism, because philosophy was still once again finding its footing. That development culminated in the rabid naturalism of Nietzsche who predicted the downfall of philosophy itself in our period of hypermodern malaise.

So the history of Western philosophy should make us skeptical of philosophical theism. The use of reason in defense of the popular conception of gods, as being flawless persons who create and miraculously intervene in nature, tends to be disingenuous. Why? Because there’s no reason to expect that logic should align with intuition and emotion, and the popular, theistic (as opposed to deistic, pantheistic, or mystical) conceptions of gods plainly flow from the latter. When intellectuals begin thinking freely (and thus philosophically) about theological matters, they inevitably discover all sorts of gross errors, incoherencies, and other absurdities in the conventional beliefs. The mob of believers isn’t interested in whether their religion is rationally justifiable: they want to believe in their gods because doing so makes them feel better about life and death, and unites their community in a way that affords its members the chance to be happy. Therefore, the mob doesn’t include philosophers, because authentic intellectuals (as opposed to dogmatists and demagogues) stand apart from the crowd, as their liberated thoughts inevitably have more or fewer subversive implications which render these intellectuals unpopular.   

As partly artistic and rhetorical as it is, compared to science itself, and thus as capable as it is of arguing for anything under the sun, philosophy is still ill-suited to establishing the rational superiority of theism to atheism. The point here is akin to the aphorism about the danger of trusting in the God of the Gaps. Some theists defend their religion by locating the work of their deity within a gap in that which is understood with the ever-expanding body of scientific knowledge, the danger being that science has tended to fill its gaps, which then falsifies the god that was supposed to be found there. The gods were once identified with the planets and indeed with all sorts of forces or powers which were eventually naturalized. Modern naturalism has thus pushed the gods not just out of our solar system but out of the whole known universe. Darwin even showed how species could naturally evolve without any intelligent designer. All that’s left for the theist, philosophically speaking, is some unknowable, transcendent, supernatural First Cause which is removed from nature, which isn’t personal, and which therefore isn’t the theist’s God at all. In line with mysticism, reason doesn’t establish this source of nature so much as faith does, since this Source is stipulated to be beyond our understanding.

In any case, the rational, science-centered, and indeed subversive aspect of philosophy ensures the shakiness of philosophical theism. This may seem to beg the question against theism, but the judgment here is based on the historical induction which I’ve outlined above. The theist’s synthesis of philosophy and religion is dubious at the outset, because the theist has the audacity to attempt to turn her opponent’s weapon, being philosophy, against the opponent. This is like saying that guns are best used in support not of war but of peace. On the contrary, guns can’t help but break the peace, because to use them is to commit acts of violence. Likewise, philosophy can’t help but undermine socially useful beliefs and practices, such as theism and religion, since to think philosophically is precisely to exercise doubt, to ask deep questions, to demolish everything that’s taken for granted and to rebuild only what passes the test of rigorous skepticism. Scientists test their hypotheses with physical experiments, while philosophers test their speculations and analyses by submitting them to the crucible of limitless debate. The historical trend of Western philosophers’ skepticism and subversion isn’t accidental. Western philosophy is defined by the ancient Greek tradition, and the love of wisdom precludes an equal love of anything else such as fame, happiness, or power. This means that philosophy is an obsession with the truth, a dangerous love that disregards its personal and social consequences. At best, the philosopher trusts that the rational search for the ultimate truth will benefit the seeker rather than, say, derange her. It was left for Sade and Nietzsche to point out that the death of God may prove socially disastrous.

So is theism likely to be rational? To count as a worthwhile explanation, it would have to increase our understanding to say that a person created the universe. But the moment of Creation would have been miraculous and thus inexplicable to us, and the notion of an entirely immaterial mind runs counter to mountains of evidence. People as we understand them have minds which depend on physical brains. Where, then, is God’s brain supposed to be? If God has none, he’s not literally a person, in which case we must shift from theism to some more esoteric conception, and we’re no longer talking about philosophical theism. If God has personal qualities, they should be just as in need of explanation as the qualities of natural persons which the positing of God is supposed to explain. Again, if God’s qualities are special in that instead of possessing them, for example, God is identical with them, in which case God wouldn’t have love but would be love, God wouldn’t be like any person on Earth. In that case, calling God “personal” would be vacuous, since God’s thoughts and feelings would have nothing to do with our kinds of mental states. A useful metaphor for X has to shed light by including more similarities to than differences from X. But the more similar God is to a human person, the less explanatory value theism has, since in that case positing God commits the fallacy of special pleading. We can’t explain how people came to be in general by saying they all come from a special person that has roughly the same characteristics as humans but that for some reason doesn’t himself require any explanation. Such a pseudo-explanation may comfort the mob, but it doesn’t increase a philosopher’s understanding. For reasons like these, theism fails as a rational explanation. But since the stories that are central to theistic religions are poetic myths, the notion that theism should be held to rational standards in the first place is wrongheaded.


Darwin Skeptic’s Opening Statement:

Why I think philosophy supports theism over atheism

Short answer: I think theism makes better sense of the fact that we exist as free, spiritual, moral animals in a universe which exhibits both beauty and design, and which also includes signs that the atheist can only explain away as brute facts.

1. The Structure of the Cosmos

The universe seems very anthropomorphic in at least two ways. One, the laws of nature are anthropic, in that they favor the existence of entities that look very much like us (carbon-based intelligent life); a slight deviation from the form of our laws and you have a boring, lifeless universe. None of this was expected, and it came as a complete surprise (and shock) to the first physicists who discovered it. The best move for the atheists would probably be to posit some kind of multiverse. (But this has a host of problems of its own, assuming of course a godless multiverse, that is, fine-tuned metalaws necessary to produce universes. Another problem, as Paul Davies argued, would be that our universe would most likely be a simulation, and as such, our physics would be fake, which would be self-refuting to anyone who wishes to argue for it from our physics.) Also, our universe has other features which would have to be expected as brute facts, given the multiverse (e.g. what we could describe as an over-the-top fine-tuning, low entropy state of the early universe, which didn’t need to be tuned to such a high degree just to allow for intelligent life). But a fine-tuned universe for life is not the only thing to be expected, given theism (a premise granted by the atheist cosmologist, Sean Carroll); it is also a very plausible assumption to grant that if such a God existed, he would probably want his creatures to have some knowledge about his existence and this is where evidence, such as the low-entropy state of the universe would be one way of achieving such an end.

Second, the universe seems rigged in such a way that it is user-friendly to our methods of inquiry; previous philosophers doubted science's ability to discover laws governing the unobservable, and yet scientists discovered precisely such laws using artificial, manmade mathematical analogies.  

2. The over-the-top power of human intelligence

We seem to have supernatural powers when we compare our intellectual capability with other animals. We have this weird ability whereby we can grasp the whole universe. As Davies put it:
One of the oddities of human intelligence is that its level of advancement seems like a case of overkill. While a modicum of intelligence does have a good survival value, it is far from clear how such qualities as the ability to do advanced mathematics . . . ever evolved by natural selection. These higher intellectual functions are a world away from survival ‘in the jungle’. . . Most biologists believe the . . . human brain has changed little over tens of thousands of years, which suggests that higher mental functions have lain largely dormant until recently. Yet if these functions were not explicitly manifested at the time they were selected, why were they selected? How can natural selection operate on a hidden ability? Attempts to explain this by supposing that, say, mathematical ability simply piggybacks on a more obvious useful trait are unconvincing in my view.
Our strength lies precisely in that which doesn't make sense, given an evolutionary account:
Natural selection requires no understanding of quarks and black holes for our survival and multiplication. And yet, we find these expectations turned upon their heads. The most precise and reliable knowledge we have about anything in the Universe is of events in a binary star system more than 3000 light years from our planet and in the sub-atomic world of electrons and light rays, where it is accurate to better than nine decimal places. And curiously, our greatest uncertainties all relate to the local problems of understanding ourselves - human societies, human behaviour, and human minds - all the things that really mattered for human survival.
Of course this doesn’t mean that evolutionists couldn’t come up with some possible explanation, but it seems to flow naturally from a theistic picture of the world, especially if—as some monotheistic religions hold—we were created in the image of God.

3. The applicability of mathematics (or unity of physics and mathematics)

Throughout history, mathematicians have developed tools that only much later came to serve a function in physics (e.g. Riemannian geometry). In his classic, “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics,” Wigner regarded this fact as a “miracle” that we simply could not explain. Related to the problem of human intelligence, Wigner said: “certainly it is hard to believe that our reasoning power was brought, by Darwin's process of natural selection, to the perfection which it seems to possess.”

Columbia University mathematician and physicist Peter Woit wrote a new paper on this subject, called “Towards a Grand Unified Theory of Mathematics and Physics,” in which he reviewed the development of mathematics since Wigner’s time: “During the half-century since Wigner’s talk, the connections between quantum field theory and mathematics that have come to light go far beyond anything that Wigner could have even dreamed of…Wigner’s ‘unreasonable effectiveness’ miracle is ultimately a claim that a unity of mathematics and physics exists despite our lack of any good reason to expect it.”

I agree that there is little reason to expect such a unity, given naturalism. But if there were a God who created the universe accordingly to a plan, and if mathematical truth were grounded in the mind of God, we would have reason to expect a unity of physics and mathematics. It seems a plausible expectation, given theism.

4. Mathematical Platonism is more obviously a live option on theism than on atheism

Most mathematicians are mathematical Platonists in practice. (Many great mathematicians were explicitly so in writing too (Alain Connes); that is, they act as if mathematical objects exist beyond time and space, but when pressed they will reject such a view because, given naturalism, there is no way for us to have knowledge of such a Platonic realm of abstract objects.) This is not to say that pure Platonism doesn’t create complications for theism. But nominalism seems false to me. When I think about mathematics, it seems to make more sense to think of mathematical structures as being discovered rather than invented, and this structure exists in a sense in the mind of God. The primary reason naturalists rejected Platonism was because of the knowledge problem, but this has rarely been raised as an objection, given theism; rather, it is raised against Platonism on the assumption that theism is false.

5. Teleology in biology need not be a mistress, but she can be your wife

This is again a similar situation to what we have in mathematics. Virtually all biologists are teleologists in practice, since they use teleological language when describing objects in biology. Virtually every sane biologist agrees that things in biology look designed, and this is not an aesthetic judgment, that is, something which looks less so once we zoom in. It is the other way around in biology: from far, things seem simple and crude, but once we zoom in we can see an exquisite design. Dawkins even defines biology as “the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose”. It seems that, given theism, this can be expected and easily explained, whereas the naturalist is forced to argue that natural selection is the Great Illusionist. This doesn’t necessarily mean that naturalism is false, but again the burden is on the naturalist here. Given that, to date, we have hardly a good explanation for explaining the origin of a single protein via natural selection and random mutation (Darwin’s mechanism), it seems we are a long way from settling this question (which I know most atheists take for granted).

6. Beauty exhibited in the laws in nature

This one is very hard to explain away with many-universes type explanations because it is not a necessary condition for life as far as we can tell. There was no reason for the structure of the universe to exhibit beauty in the form of mathematical simplicity, and yet physicists have historically used this as a guide to truth. Paul Dirac, the atheistic quantum physicist even went so far as to suggest that this was more important than having your theory match experiment! It seems this would make sense if God were an artist.

7. Moral realism less of a problem on theism than on atheism

Again, a similar situation to what we have in both our mathematical practice and biology. Everyone (well, almost everyone) acts as if moral realism is true. Even atheists are outraged (perhaps more so than others) by what they perceive as moral injustices. Everyone acts if we are all bound by some moral standards that transcend purely human conventions. Most people think the Holocaust would be wrong everywhere and always, even if the Germans had won the war and persuaded everyone that it was good. This again seems easier to explain, given theism, that is, if humans are beings with dignity created in the image of God who therefore have moral worth.

8. The failure of reductionism

It seems to me that if naturalism were true, we should be able to reduce everything ultimately to physics (since fundamentally there would be nothing else), and yet it seems we are nowhere near achieving this. To date, not even chemistry has been reduced to physics, biology is nowhere near being reduced to chemistry, and this is what one should expect if Mind were more fundamental than matter.

9. Problems in the philosophy of mind are less acute, given theism

Most of the unsolved problems in the philosophy of mind, such as the problems of consciousness and intentionality, the mind-body problem, and the problem of free will are less severe, given theism, because in theism there are more live options for a consistent philosophy of mind. (This is why you will find few theists have argued against the existence of mental objects or freedom of the will, whereas you don’t have to go far to find atheists who deny the existence of such.) For instance, given theism, it is plausible to hold to some form of dualism (be this property dualism or, God forbid, Cartesian dualism) or some form of hylomorphism, whereas given naturalism, one is restricted to some form of eliminative materialism.


Ben Cain’s First Reply:

Your opening statement points to several mysteries in science and nature, and suggests that theism clears them up better than does atheism. Unlike many naturalists, I actually agree with you that our species is anomalous. However, theism doesn’t explain these mysteries well or better than does philosophical naturalism. To the extent that theism seems to make sense of otherwise perplexing facts, such as our species’ high intelligence or the consensus about morality, that’s only because theism is unfalsifiable and could be made compatible with any conceivable piece of evidence. So theism is a pseudo-explanation and the rational superiority of theism is an illusion.

Theism is the belief that a perfect person created and intervenes in the world. Theism itself is thus exoteric, meaning it’s an expression of our tendency to anthropomorphize whatever we attempt to understand at the intuitive level. That doesn’t mean theism is thereby false, since that would be the genetic fallacy. But it does mean that the theistic notion of ultimate reality or of the source of everything in nature is dubious. As a refinement of animism, theism is the result of a gradual disenchantment of the world, as populations fled the wilderness and the life of hunting and gathering and crowded into walled-off civilizations. This momentous anthropological shift pushed spirits further and further away until the talk of gods became vacuous and the gods themselves were vestiges, because we’d forgotten what they really were. Spirits, angels, demons, faeries, goblins, ghosts and gods are mental projections. They were the result of naive attempts to ward off fear of the unknown, by humanizing everything in experience.

Precisely because people once lacked godlike physical power in nature, and were only several animal species in the same kingdom as all the other animals, as opposed to reigning over the planet like we seem to do now, our distant ancestors could only imagine that nature was tamed. And so they envisioned that the world is an enormous society: the wind and the rain, the day and the night could be negotiated with through prayer and rituals, because everything was alive and mentally active. That way, the powerful human talent for interpreting the contents of other human minds could be extended to apply to whatever the ancestors encountered. Animists thus related to the world much as all children instinctively do, since they regarded everything as imbued with magical powers and mystery. They could hardly have done otherwise, since those distant ancestors had no other advantage than their mental power, because their technology was still primitive. Other animal species had greater speed or strength, but we excelled in our ability to conceive of mental maps and to make those maps especially relevant by grounding them in our experience. Thus, our ancestors could mentally simulate possibilities and judge their worth by applying familiar criteria such as the rules for social engagement.

In short, the animists didn’t sharply distinguish between subjects and objects, and so they assumed that spirits were everywhere. That made sense to the egalitarian, hunter-gatherer societies. Monotheists and polytheists took those omnipresent spirits and packed them into fewer but denser forms, as it were. They did so in response to two developments: the vast increase in human power over nature, thanks at first to farming, and the rise of great chieftains and kings, and of the more hierarchical nature of civilized society. The more technological control we had, the less we needed to rely on compromises with fickle spirits of the wild. And the remaining spirits had to reflect the new kind of society to fulfill their function of comforting the masses and providing for the meaning of their life. Thus, the spirits became gods modeled on monarchical or aristocratic human rulers.

My point in submitting this commonplace account of the origin and evolution of religion is that mysteries such as the natural order, the unreasonable effectiveness of math, and the universality of moral judgments are never explained by appealing directly to God; instead, their mysteriousness can be neutralized by turning to the theistic mental projections, to the humanizing filter we lay on top of what philosophers think of more neutrally as the ultimate ground of Being. For example, your opening statement says that the fine-tuning of the universe to allow for the emergence of intelligent life is “expected” if we assume theism, but this assumes in turn that we would have the foggiest notion of what an infinite, eternal, supernatural person would want. It assumes the validity of some divine revelation so that we could (vainly) affirm that God created the universe primarily because God wanted to create us. But not every creation myth is so self-serving and myopic. There have been hundreds of creation myths, some of which treat humanity as a blip in cosmic history. Hindus say the universe is sustained by Vishnu’s dream, and when he awakens one of infinitely many cosmic cycles will end. Indeed, why wouldn’t God create many different universes, including lifeless ones, if he lives forever? Why wouldn’t God have already created all the universes of the physicist’s multiverse? What else was God doing before the Big Bang? And so why wouldn’t God’s plan be unfathomable to us? Clearly, the assumption that God created this universe because he wanted intelligent life to evolve derives from the same anthropocentrism that led the animists to socialize nature and the early theists to pack spirits into king-like rulers whose existence would thereby validate human civilizations.

One of your theistic arguments would have to be: (1) The universe is mysterious for its tendency to support intelligent life; (2) God would want to create such life, whereas atheists have to leave that cosmic tendency unexplained; (3) the cosmic tendency makes more sense if God created the universe than if there were no God; (4) therefore, philosophy supports theism better than atheism. But (2) is dubious. Suppose there is a God but he didn’t create our universe; instead, our universe popped into being, as in quantum mechanics, and life evolved painstakingly and obviously by accident over billions of years. In that case, a theist might say that this lack of fine-tuning is likewise evidence of God’s handiwork, since God would want to hide his role in creating the universe so that any life forms that happened to evolve wouldn’t depend on God but would have to fend for themselves and become strong and independent creatures. The possibilities of what a deity would want are endless—not necessarily for the deity, but for us, because we perceive through a glass darkly, to borrow Saint Paul’s expression; we are in full control over how we imagine our gods to be, what scripture to write or how to interpret it, and what religion to belong to.

In speaking of divinity in the theistic manner, we are speaking only about ourselves, about our anthrophomorphic projections, our societal structures and cultural preferences. Again, this has been understood in the West since Xenophanes. The comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell popularized this point with his distinction between the futile metaphors we use to understand ultimate reality, and the mystical experience of God as the oneness of being. To say that God would want to create life, because this or that myth or creed says so is to get caught up with the anthropocentric screen. The source of theism’s unfalsifiability is that we control the metaphors and the interpretations, and thus we can ensure that our religion or theistic model conforms to every conceivable state of affairs. Theism in its exoteric aspect, which includes the metaphor of ultimate being’s personhood, is a fiction in that the popular theistic ideas are mental projections. And so theists can dictate their picture of God just as any human author can decide what to include in her fictional story. Christianity is a marvelous example of this subjectivity, since despite the utterly anti-American implications of the New Testament, the intrinsic amorphousness of all theistic deities permits Americans to interpret Jesus as blessing their every imperial adventure, capitalistic idolatry, and racist and sexist bigotry, just as the early Catholics had done in defense of their accidental, anti-Jesus empire.

There is no need, however, to concede premise (1), since there’s no need merely to imagine a world in which life evolved painstakingly and accidentally over billions of years. That is in fact how life evolved in this universe, which means the universe is wildly hostile to life. It’s true that if the initial parameters of the Big Bang had been only slightly different, life as we know it wouldn’t have been possible. This doesn’t mean that no unknown form of life could eventually have evolved in those vastly different universes. After all, the development of those universes would have corresponded to altogether different models and so we could only barely guess at their endpoints. We don’t even know for certain the endpoint of our universe, because of the surprises of dark matter and energy, so we certainly aren’t entitled to say that even though it seems to have taken billions of years for life accidentally to emerge here, no strange kind of life could ever emerge in any other kind of universe.

Indeed, it made some sense to speak of the source of nature as having us in mind, when we assumed the universe was no larger than our solar system and the Earth was at its center, as it seemed from the ancients’ limited vantage point. Now that we know the universe is vaster than we can fathom and is hardly full of life, and that phenotypes did evolve partly due to the random transmission of genes from one generation to the next, as selected by the different environments—not to mention the many other accidents such as the meteor impact which made Earth safe for mammals—it seems farfetched to maintain that the cause of any apparent cosmic fine-tuning was likely the human-friendly intentions of a deity. We don’t know that the emergence of life is bizarre, because we don’t know that other kinds of life couldn’t evolve under very different conditions. Moreover, this sort of theistic argument would establish at best a God of the Gaps, since the fine-tuning is only currently mysterious. Were naturalists to explain the fine-tuning, such as by further justifying the multiverse theory, this reason for theism would disappear. And as I said earlier, scientists have tended to fill their gaps.

Another problem is with (3), since as I said at the end of my opening statement, theism isn’t a good explanation of anything. For example, theists are guilty of special pleading on behalf of their deity. There’s no increase of understanding in saying that intelligent life was allowed to emerge, because the universe was created by an intelligent life form. Theism doesn’t thereby explain the existence of intelligent life at all, but only presupposes the existence of intelligence, using our interpretation of it, as I said, as a magic top hat to hide a rabbit or anything else we’d need to feel better about some situation in which we find ourselves.

Similar points apply to your other proposed mysteries which you think indicate theism, although each also calls for its own discussion. I’ll have to turn to the others in later replies, but let’s look at the second one, at our peculiarly high intelligence compared to that of other species. I think natural selection is a red herring here, since the cognitive revolution was due to cultural, not biological evolution. For example, the shift to farming gave people the time and luxury to philosophize. Paul Davies is mistaken: scientific reasoning could indeed piggyback on a more primitive and useful trait, such as our talent, once again, for mind-reading, for managing social relationships by supposing and interpreting intentions and social cues, which is the talent that still attracts women to soap operas. Objective reason developed from social reason. The transition between them was made easier by animism and theism, which allowed early philosophers to think of the world as partly social/spiritual and partly impersonal. In any case, once reason was dedicated to achieving culturally-defined goals, reason was free to change with the cultures. A humanistic revolution such as the one we find at the start of our modern age would have coincided with progress in the independent use of reason, which is just what happened, as I outlined in my opening statement.

In any case, once again we should banish anthropocentric thoughts even while acknowledging our species’ strangeness; just because we’re different doesn’t mean we’re better. Black holes are also anomalous and they spell grim death for countless worlds. Likewise, our high intelligence is narrow in scope. Science empowers us with technology, but doesn’t thereby make us wiser or more ethical. On the contrary, the greater our control over nature, the more self-serving our artificial environments and thus the more vain and short-sighted we might become. This, too, is what happened in technologically-advanced societies after the Industrial Revolution and the creation of mass consumerism. So our high intelligence may allow us to understand the universe, while it may also have a hand in our imminent self-destruction. Those that would have the last laugh, after our demise by war or ecological catastrophe would be the “dummy” animal species we tried to enslave or exterminate that could then carry on for millions of years without us, like the dinosaurs.


Darwin Skeptic’s First Reply:

You say atheism is more rational than theism, as far as philosophers are typically concerned. I suppose you are appealing to the numbers of modern day philosophers. If so I agree, but again I think this comes down to a host of issues—not so much that theism is untenable philosophically, but that most philosophers probably prefer God’s nonexistence. Perhaps a minority, granted, but as the atheist Quentin Smith pointed out, some of the most prominent late philosophers are theists. The arguments against God's existence are rather thin. It seems almost a default position to take for granted that God doesn't exist in our day and age. I lost count of how many times I read that Darwin or Hume settled this question in the negative, as far as many if not most philosophers are concerned, which is indicative of the poor shape of popular philosophy.

You say Western philosophy grew out of a rejection of popular religion. I agree, but this was because such philosophers were able to show successfully why those religions were absurd (which is where the analogy breaks down with atheism); it is relatively easy to show that Zeus does not cause lightning, but it is another thing to show why something exists instead of nothing, or that cosmic or biological design is only an appearance. Yes naturalism was there from the very beginning of Greek philosophy, but some Greeks were not too far off from theism: the Pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras with his "Cosmic mind (Nous) ordering all things" came very close to a monotheistic conception of God.

Granted, Plato and Aristotle's gods were very far from the Christian God, but they were significant improvements over the polytheistic gods that came before them. I would argue that they were closer, much closer to the Christian conception of God compared to the natural gods which dominated Athens in pre-Socratic times.

It is true that for Aristotle, his God had no direct role with the teleology in nature, but it seems his justification for this was largely based on questionable theological premises (it would be beneath his God to get His hands dirty). This was perhaps a cultural projection on his God, since ancient Greek philosophers would look down on manual labor; the dignity of manual labor was a foreign concept.

You say Socrates became a secular Christ figure and died for truths of naturalism and atheism. But as far as I know he was a polytheist; some of our earliest recorded teleological arguments for intelligent design go back to Socrates.

I'm not sure I grant your explanation for the so-called "dark ages." This is a misnomer according to the vast majority of historians. The Roman Empire collapsed by itself due to internal problems, so this had nothing to do with Christianity. And yes, there were some Christian figures who were opposed to all things pagan, but this was a minority position, since the early Christians were quick to defend Greek philosophy on theological grounds. As Clement of Alexandria put it: “We shall not err in alleging that all things necessary and profitable for life came to us from God, and that philosophy more especially was given to the Greeks, as a covenant peculiar to them — being, as it is, a stepping-stone to the philosophy which is according to Christ.”

Or as Edward Grant put it: “With the total triumph of Christianity at the end of the fourth century, the Church might have reacted against pagan learning in general, and Greek philosophy in particular, finding much in the latter that was unacceptable or perhaps even offensive. They might have launched a major effort to suppress pagan learning as a danger to the Church and its doctrines. But they did not” (The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages, 1996, p. 4).

Consider Boethius, the 6th century Christian who wrote Consolation of Philosophy, which was to become one of the most celebrated and influential works in the Middle Ages.  Yes, the Church did many things which were wrong, and yes, they condemned teachings of Aristotle, but the Church was also largely responsible for the promotion of much of his work. Aristotle’s physics dominated Europe in large part because of the Church. Christians were his earliest serious critics, starting in the 6th century, and later in the 13th; interestingly, these Christians appealed to Christian scripture when challenging Aristotle.

You say that when more ancient texts became available in the Medieval Period, this sparked the development of modern science and secular philosophy, which fueled modern liberalism. One has to wonder where these texts came from. Human liberalism did not start because of ancient texts, since things such as human infanticide and slavery were perfectly rational in the ancient world; it was only with the rise of Christianity that such practices became taboo, because Christianity had such an over-the-top view of man. At the heart of classical dynamics lies inertia (Newton’s first law), the seeds of which can be traced back as far as the 6th century when the Christian theologian John Philoponus criticized Aristotle on motion, and later again when Buridan would justify his impetus theory by explicitly appealing to Genesis. The same goes for Galileo’s crowning achievement, as Clifford Truesdell put it:
The now published sources prove to us, beyond contention, that the main kinematical properties of uniformly accelerated motions, still attributed to Galileo by the physics texts, were discovered and proved by [14th century] scholars of Merton college....In principle, the qualities of Greek physics were replaced, at least for motions, by the numerical quantities that have ruled Western science ever since. The work was quickly diffused into France, Italy, and other parts of Europe. Almost immediately, Giovanni di Casale and Nicole Oresme found how to represent the results by geometrical graphs, introducing the connection between geometry and the physical world that became a second characteristic habit of Western thought...
Again, you referenced Hypatia and Bruno, who are usually portrayed as martyrs for science, but historians have pointed out that this is largely based on myth. Hypatia got herself involved in politics, but some of her biggest fans were Christians who spoke very highly of her, such as her most ardent student, Bishop Synesius. Bruno was a prophet for Hermeticism, and his support for heliocentrism was based on religion not science.

Free thinking for Newton or Leibniz never led them anywhere near atheism.

You say that early modern intellectuals argued for esoteric theism (which wasn’t popular with religion), and yet Newton argued for the existence of a God that also had to intervene in the natural world to prevent our solar system from collapsing in on itself (after he determined that our solar system was unstable). Both Newton and Kepler were driven by explicit religious agendas; Newton stated himself that he hoped for nothing more than to persuade his readers of the existence of a Deity. This was his aim in writing his Principia.

An irony of course would be that Newton’s success would lead to the rise of Newtonianism, which is ironically something that Newton would reject, but I digress.

As for God being chased out of the planets, Genesis in opposing Babylonian and Egyptian creation myths certainly does chase out the living souls from these objects by treating these and every other celestial object as ordinary physical objects created by God. (This arguably kicks off the grand project of disenchanting nature, ultimately leading up all the way to the mechanistic philosophy which would ironically come back to haunt Christianity as its own Frankenstein monster.) But this was hardly the fault of “free-thinking atheism.”

As far as Kepler was concerned, he found God in the planets with his laws of planetary motion. (This is a hotly debated topic among philosophers of science, since Nancy Cartwright argues that the concept of laws as traditionally understood simply has to be abandoned since there is no God). It is not at all clear how God just became less relevant with the progress of time. Fast forward to today and these problems have only grown worse, since today we have the fine-tuning problem, etc. Gaps do not seem to go away and progress in science seems to expose new gaps.

You keep talking about the mob. Jesus was killed by the mob. I agree with you that the mob is bad, but the growing mob of 2017 believers isn’t made up of believers in the monotheistic God! (Unless of course we are talking about the Muslim world, but I am referring to the West).

The claim by the modern Crowd of believers is that Darwin explained how species can evolve naturally, but as many prominent evolutionists would tell you, this issue is complicated. At best, Darwin’s theory works at its proper scope of applicability: explaining minor changes of pre-existing component parts. But Darwin’s theory does not touch on the issue of innovation or higher taxa change. Of course, most evolutionists assume that species-level micro changes can simply be extrapolated to explain higher taxa macro changes, but this would be the equivalent of physicists who thought that Newton’s laws are applicable at relativistic speeds and high gravitational fields or that GR was applicable to singularities like those at the center of black holes. As one evolutionist put it:
Athough, at the phenotypic level,...[evolutionary theory] deals with the modification of existing parts, the theory is intended to explain neither the origin of parts, nor morphological organization, nor innovation. In the neo-Darwinian world the motive factor for morphological change is natural selection, which can account for the modification and loss of parts. But selection has no innovative capacity: it eliminates or maintains what exists. The generative and the ordering aspects of morphological evolution are thus absent from evolutionary theory. (Gerd B. Muller, Homology: The Evolution of Morphological Organization (MIT press, 2003))
Admissions such as these are pervasive in the literature. Even if I had to grant that evolution or a similar theory had successfully explained away the appearance of design, this would still not rule out actual design, as these Dutch philosophers point out in their paper, “Design Hypotheses Behave Like Skeptical Hypotheses”:
It is often claimed that, as a result of scientific progress, we now know that the natural world displays no design. Although we have no interest in defending design hypotheses, we will argue that establishing claims to the effect that we know the denials of design hypotheses is more difficult than it seems. We do so by issuing two skeptical challenges to design-deniers. The first challenge draws inspiration from radical skepticism and shows how design claims are at least as compelling as radical skeptical scenarios in undermining knowledge claims, and in fact probably more so. The second challenge takes its cue from skeptical theism and shows how we are typically not in an epistemic position to rule out design.
Skepticism always goes both ways. I do agree with you that the Crowd is untruth (as Soren Kierkegaard would put it), and I do agree with you that philosophy tends to undermine cherished beliefs, but I think the cherished beliefs today are naturalism, liberalism, and humanism in our day and age (at least in the developed world).


Ben Cain’s Second Reply:

I’m going to give you the last word on some of the details from your first reply. But before turning to the rest of your opening statement (I’m a little behind!), I’ll make some brief points here (I’ll come back to your first reply in my third one). Your discussion of the Dark Age sets fire to a strawman, because I never spoke of the Middle Ages as “dark.” On the contrary, I said the torch of ancient philosophy was passed to some of the Scholastics. I agree with what Hecht says in Doubt: A History, that the reason the Medieval Church accepted ancient philosophy for so long was because it had only scraps of it and didn’t understand the implications of those scraps: “after Aristotle had been used as a textbook for centuries it was just beginning to dawn on Europeans that Aristotle and the other ancient writers were not exactly the early texts of the Schoolmen’s own, European civilization. With astonishment, it was slowly being recognized that Aristotle and Plato and the rest of them belonged to a fully other civilization that had its own answers to the big questions and that explicitly rejected a God like Jesus” (260). Then again, to say that anti-paganism was a “minority position” in the Church is strange, since Theodosius I outlawed pagan religion and the Catholic empire demolished pagan temples, destroyed part of the Library of Alexandria, and persecuted pagans as heretics. In any case, I’m happy to agree that modern humanism derived from a synthesis of ancient philosophy and certain Judeo-Christian values. Indeed, this is the basis of the Nietzschean criticism of liberalism.

In line with what I say in my first reply, I’d agree also that monotheism helped push God out of nature; as I put it, the animist’s spirits were packed into fewer but denser forms. But the point is that atheism is the result, not the cause of how religion developed. I said Hypatia and Bruno died for freedom of thought, not for science. I think there’s some confusion about what I mean by “esoteric theism” when, for example, I say that early moderns like Newton were esoteric theists. I mean their theism was philosophical and thus subversive, unorthodox, and bordering on atheism. Newton, for example, was an occultist (an alchemist and wannabe prophet). I’ll say more about biology below, but I think there’s a strawman here too: as far as I know, no biologist says natural selection is the only mechanism at work in the natural creation of species. The atheistic point, though, is that the theist fails to meet her burden of proof, because theism is no longer the only way of understanding the apparent design of organisms. That is, there’s less of a need for the God hypothesis, because at least one mindless creative process (natural selection) evidently can do much of the work of an intelligent designer. I do indeed say a lot about crowds, and there’s another odious one besides the militant Islamists: the anti-intellectual, bigoted Americans who support Donald Trump. In my view, the most important part of your first reply is your last paragraph. I think we should focus on your point that secular humanists form a low-ranking herd in the Platonic or Nietzschean sense, since we actually agree to some extent about that, but I’ll have to return to it in the next reply.

Now back to your opening statement. Regarding the mysterious applicability of mathematics to nature, I believe Unger and Smolin have solved this mystery in The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time. Smolin points out that the choice between thinking of mathematical objects as discovered or invented is a false one. Something can have rigid properties without having prior existence, as in the case of moves in a game such as chess. Smolin calls such systems “evoked.” Once the rules of a game are codified, there are objective facts about how the game is played, and there may even be infinite discoveries to be made within the game, involving, for example, comparisons of grand masters’ strategies. But contrary to Platonism, there is no timeless, pre-existing realm containing all the truths of chess. Mathematics may be evoked like chess, and the reason math would be so useful in physics is that math developed as a way of summarizing our exploration of nature.

As Smolin writes, “While an infinite number of mathematical objects might potentially be evoked, the small and finite number that do prove interesting—even on purely mathematical grounds—develop a very small number of core concepts. These core concepts are not arbitrary—they are elaborations of structures which are discovered during the study of nature.” The four core mathematical concepts are number, geometry, algebra and logic, and they “each capture a key aspect of the world and our interaction with it” (430). And so while it is surprising that internal developments within math can apply to nature, this would be no more miraculous than an internal development within the game of chess applying to strategies in real warfare, or than such a development in the Star Wars franchise applying to politics, or than one from the Survivor reality TV show applying to real Machiavellian relationships. Mathematics is perhaps the ur-game, since it’s been worked on for millennia by people all over the world, so it’s much more powerful and refined than the others. But all such games are connected to the real world from the outset, because they’re evoked to model parts of nature. Thus, the miraculous correspondence of math and nature is illusory, because as Smolin says, there’s no such correspondence between nature and the totality of possible mathematical relations and objects that could be evoked. The relevant parts of math are preselected by our past observations which gave rise to the core concepts.  

In any case, the link between theism and the success of mathematics or of the rational enterprise generally is weak. Again, theism is unfalsifiable. If the nature of reality were made obvious to us, given our powers of reasoning, the theist would say God made it obvious because he didn’t want to confuse us or tax our mental faculties. And if we could never understand reality itself, but only simplified versions of it that fit with our intuitions which evolved for more mundane purposes, the theist could still say God made it so, because God uses the left-over mystery to fire our imagination. The latter is closer to the facts than is the former, which is as we’d expect if human reason were an accidental product of biological and cultural evolution: sometimes we’d figure things out, as in Presocratic philosophy seeing through the charade of popular religion, and other times the real world would baffle us, as in quantum mechanics or dark energy.

Regarding Platonism, the emotional consensus of mathematicians has no logical bearing on whether abstract objects exist outside the mind. Mathematicians get carried away with their game, just like musicians who posit muses that feed them pre-existing melodies, or indeed like prophets who posit angels that feed them the alleged Word of God. Playing a game well may require nonrational inspiration, because if you overanalyze the art form you may lose your ability to excel at it, as in tennis or golf or Woody Allen’s character who overanalyzes the game of human life and who thus loses out in various social competitions. In any case, the issue isn’t the possibility of an abstract domain, but of a value-laden, teleological one. An atheist has no problem admitting the possibility of abstract dimensions. Indeed, matter isn’t what we think it is by way of commonsense intuitions: atoms aren’t chunks of stuff at the most basic level. The more controversial point of Platonism is that the abstract Forms are better than material particulars or copies of the Forms, because the Forms are metaphysically closer to The Good, which is the source of all being. Indeed, even that aspect of Platonism is strictly consistent with atheism, because Goodness replaces God, but free-floating goodness is strange and would invite a theistic pseudo-explanation. So a modern naturalist would prefer to eliminate teleology and morality from theories of fundamental reality, because the naturalist is interested in real explanations, not fake ones that beg the question such as theism.

Regarding the beauty of natural laws, I don’t think the grandeur of the universe implies theism. Things that emerge in nature have aesthetic dimensions because they’re created—by mindless natural processes which we can observe. Males who make up the vast majority of physicists, mathematicians, and engineers prefer a visual kind of beauty because they evolved to appreciate a female body type that indicates her health and fertility. As Smolin points out, they’re misled in preferring simplicity in their equations, since simple equations tend to be wrong and replaced by more complicated expressions (429). The older, simpler statements may serve as approximations, but the ceteris paribus caveat has to be removed for the model to apply to nature in its complicated interconnectedness. Moreover, if we’re talking just about the beauty of natural laws, which are only simplifications and models, and not about nature itself, that beauty is only skin deep. Just as we’re attracted literally to certain skin-deep forms in men and women, but are repulsed by the blood-and-guts reality underneath the skin, so too scientists may admire the elegance of certain arguments while they ignore the brutal reality of European imperialism and economic inequality which sustained the luxury that allowed for such scientific activities.

Regarding teleology in biology, I take the Darwinian point to be that the systematic assembly of organisms is real, as is the function of their traits, but that the organic forms and functions are naturally rather than intelligently selected. Nature builds organisms by several processes, without any design or plan. The environment, genes, and behaviour of body types come together over time to adapt species, to hone their traits, and to eliminate those that aren’t fit to live in new environments which themselves change such as during ice ages. The point is roughly Spinoza’s, which is that for all explanatory purposes, God is nature. There’s no need to invoke an intelligent designer, since a mindless assembler will do, as Darwin and modern biologists demonstrate with the magisterial power of their theory. Moreover, as I said, appealing to a designer has no rational advantage, since theism could only be a pseudo-explanation which begs the question. No one explains life just by positing yet more life, that is, by positing an intelligent designer. If we’re going to arrive at a primitive, basic fact in our explanation, we can stop at the evident creativity of natural processes; again, there’s no need for the God hypothesis. Regarding the origin of proteins, of course natural selection doesn’t explain that, since Darwin’s theory takes the origin of life for granted and applies only to its change of form. The origin of life is still not well understood by anyone; again, saying God, a living thing, created life—by an unfathomable miracle, no less—explains nothing. But proteins do evolve and biologists can even measure the different rates of evolution for different proteins.

Our universal moral judgments can be explained by our common cooperative instincts and life cycle which give rise to similar upbringings and formative experiences. Moral realism only confuses the issue, since “moral fact” is oxymoronic. Facts are what they are regardless of how they’re valued, whereas morals are essentially good or bad and thus valued. Applying rational criteria to the poetic myths of religion amounts to a category error, and it’s likewise wrongheaded to speak of objective facts of morality. In any case, our moral judgments aren’t so universal, since they depend on perspective and context. You say the Holocaust would be judged wrong even if the Nazis won the war and tried to convince people the Jews deserved to die. Yet Christians long for the coming of the Kingdom of God, which is the rule of a tyrannical overlord who will sentence most people who ever lived to everlasting torment in hell. That piece of theology should strike us as obscene, because it fosters a grotesque mindset, but Christians believe hell must be morally justified because God’s judgment is perfect.  

I think it’s just a non sequitur to say that naturalism entails perfect reductionism. Smolin’s cosmology, in which time is objectively real and not just an illusion, is an example of an atheistic account of nature which allows for the emergence of novel properties. Spinoza’s and Schopenhauer’s metaphysics are other examples. You’re beating up on a strawman if you think an atheist has to say that we should be able to perfectly understand nature (see Lovecraft’s cosmicism) or that nothing genuinely new can be naturally produced.

I don’t see how theism helps with problems in the philosophy of mind. If anything, theism would make them worse in the manner I’ve already suggested. Cartesian dualism has political utility, but since that which would separate mind from matter would be miraculous divine fiat, there’s no cognitive benefit of that proposition, meaning that it doesn’t improve our understanding of the world. Consciousness and intentionality would still be mysterious if God is the ultimate reality, since God would have those very same properties and so they’d be left perfectly mysterious. Again, we need to distinguish between social or emotional advantages and philosophical ones. Theism helps to hold at bay certain unpleasant existential problems, such as the fact of our personal death, but it doesn’t increase our knowledge—now that we’ve recovered a good idea of what knowledge and philosophy really are, in our secular Age of Reason.

None of this is to say that some of these mysteries or anomalies, such as consciousness, morality, free will, and our godlike power through technoscience pose no challenge to secular humanism or to new atheism. I’ve argued on my blog that they are in fact challenging and they should push us to an existential reckoning, as Nietzsche and the other existentialists maintained. But it’s a bridge too far to say that these mysteries should push us instead to theism. That seems to be our main disagreement. We agree on your main assumption, if not on all your examples, but we disagree about the conclusion that should be drawn. For you it’s theism, but for me it’s a combination of existentialism, cosmicism, and pantheism. I think it would be fruitful for us to focus on that disagreement and on the problems with liberal secular humanism and new atheism.


Darwin Skeptic’s Second Reply:

Hecht's explanation seems stretched. Would a more plausible explanation not be that the Church decided to pick the Greek philosophers whom they liked or whose thought seemed to be more compatible with Christian theology (i.e. Plato and Aristotle), and incorporated this into Church doctrine to the exclusion of others? As one physicist put it, “Among the Greeks, many different beliefs were held by different philosophers, whereas the Hebrew and Christian belief in the orderly creation of the world by God was century by century hammered into the European mind to the exclusion of all other beliefs until in the High Middle Ages it provided the fertile ground for the birth of modern science” (P. E. Hodgson, Theology and Modern Physics).

I'm not sure that outlawing pagan religion is the same thing as opposing Greek philosophy. There were Christian theologians who opposed Greek philosophy, but this was a minority position. To quote another authority on the subject,
[T]he logical tools developed within Greek philosophy proved indispensible. Furthermore, aspects of Platonic philosophy seemed to correlate nicely with, and therefore support Christian teaching…Thus in the second and third centuries we find a series of Christian apologists putting Greek philosophy, especially Platonism, to good use...[A] more typical attitude was that of Augustine…, another north African, who accepted Greek philosophy as a useful, if not perfectly reliable, instrument. Philosophy, in Augustine's influential view, was to be the handmaiden of religion—not to be stamped out, but to be cultivated, disciplined, put to use….And in his own works, including his theological works, Augustine displayed a sophisticated knowledge of Greek natural philosophy (David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450, 1992, p. 150)
The Library of Alexandria as being destroyed by science-hating Christians is one of the great myths recycled by ideological neo-atheists, but neutral scholars have showed that this is again complete nonsense.

By crushing animism and the Church persecuting Hermeticism, Christianity in some sense might have fueled belief in atheism. Sure.

Having said that, non-teleological theories of evolution, which were equivalent in substance to theories such as Darwin's theory of natural selection were around before and during Aristotle's time. Much of his project in biology (affirming genuine teleology) can be said to have been in opposition to these theories of evolution, so atheists were clearly around (at least in Greece) during the height of animism.

Hypatia did not die for her philosophical or religious views; she was even a monotheist (at least, for the era, she believed in "The ONE.")

You couldn't get Newton more wrong. He invoked the intervention of God as a scientific solution to the instability problem of the solar system, he rejected the Trinity as traditionally understood, and he denied the deity of Christ. But he was skeptical of secondary causes as being sufficient to explain all of creation. He even denied that gravity can explain the initial arrangement of the celestial bodies. Newton was an alchemist, sure; he was a weirdo, but he was not a deist.

I am aware that evolutionists invoke all sorts of mechanisms. But the consensus among "selectionists" (of the Dennett or Dawkins type) is that NS does the heavy lifting, and this is the majority position to this day. However, this is questioned by leading biologists (Kauffmann, Newman, Shapiro, among others). One need not be a creationist or an ID-advocate to see that the theory has serious limitations. The masses for the most part—especially neo-atheists, but many religious folk too, such as Biologos peeps, Catholics, etc.—simply take it for granted that Darwin basically got it right.

Given that Darwin's goal was to explain away the appearance of design as illusory, and given that our current champion for Darwin defines biology as the “study of complicated things which give the appearance of having been designed,” I am going to say the burden is on the Darwinist to demonstrate that it is. Darwin never came close to explaining the origin of species as the result of purely undirected processes. In reality he gave us a string of theological arguments[1] (he invoked the problem of evil as a way to rule out design from the start); he used human breeding as an analogy for natural selection, which scholars have shown was atrocious as an analogy[2]; he didn't understand genetics, and he erected a gigantic wall with which to protect his theory, whereby he pushed the burden back onto the skeptic. As the philosopher Robert Koons put it,
How could it be proved that something could not possibly have been formed by a process specified no more fully than as a process of ‘numerous, successive, slight modifications’? And why should the critic have to prove any such thing? The burden is on Darwin and his defenders to demonstrate that at least some complex organs we find in nature really can possibly be formed in this way, that is, by some specific, fully articulated series of slight modifications.

[1] Charles Darwin's use of theology in the Origin of Species 
[2] Darwin and his pigeons. The analogy between artificial and natural selection revisited. 


Darwin Skeptic’s Third Reply:

Smolin's criticism misses the mark because we are not talking about a correspondence between the totality of maths and nature, but rather about a very special subset of maths that required a very advanced development of mathematics to fully appreciate. As Peter Woit put it, “The lesson drawn here from history is that the fundamental laws of physics point not to some randomly chosen mathematical structure, but to an exceptionally special one, requiring a deep understanding of the mathematical world in order to fully appreciate it.”

You say theism is unfalsifiable. I am baffled by that statement. Problems with naive falsificationism aside, I don't think theism or atheism is a scientific theory or even remotely as provable or disprovable as a scientific theory.

Also, I don't see how theism is any less unfalsifiable than atheism is. It is virtually impossible for God to demonstrate his existence by inducing physical effects, in the way that, say, human intelligence can or aliens could, since the atheist could simply expand his probabilistic resources to the point where he has an infinite number of universes (in which literally anything can happen).

An irony is that you have no issues with evolution theory despite the fact that it is effectively impossible to show that some system could not have been formed by some unguided (out of a potentially infinite number of) processes.

Now you are saying it is ad hoc, since if the universe were unintelligible, we could still say God made it that way. The point is that most non-monotheistic cultures never took it for granted that nature was intelligible, much less that it should be so to us. Joseph Needham, in the end, gave this as his explanation for why modern science did not take off in ancient China:
The de-personalization of God in ancient Chinese thought took place so early and went so far that the conception of a divine celestial lawgiver imposing ordinances on non-human Nature never developed...It was not that there was no order in Nature for the Chinese, but rather that it was not an order ordained by a rational personal being. Hence there was no conviction that rational personal beings would be able to spell out, in their lesser earthly languages, the divine code of laws which He had previously decreed.
Einstein also granted this point: “a priori, one should expect the world to be chaotic, not to be grasped by thought in any way.”

It seems trivial only because we are living today when science has come so far. But prior to the rise of modern science, none of this was even thought possible; the Romans thought science was snake oil business, whereas Christians on the other hand had a firm belief in the possibility of science long before there was good reason to think so.

On naturalism, we are just a species of ape, no more significant than any other, and nature is not obligated to make any sense to us, as the philistine Neil deGrasse Tyson would put it. We are nothing in the grand scheme of things on naturalism, and yet nature does make a good deal of sense to us (to an insignificant species of ape). Again, this is less surprising on theism than on atheism.

You brush off one of the most hotly-debated topics in the philosophy of mathematics as something based on emotion. It seems as if emotion is responsible for spawning all the alternative philosophies of mathematics, because certain people are emotionally invested in naturalism:
Mathematical platonism has considerable philosophical significance. If the view is true, it will put great pressure on the physicalist idea that reality is exhausted by the physical. For platonism entails that reality extends far beyond the physical world and includes objects which aren't part of the causal and spatiotemporal order studied by the physical sciences. Mathematical platonism, if true, will also put great pressure on many naturalistic theories of knowledge. For there is little doubt that we possess mathematical knowledge. The truth of mathematical platonism would therefore establish that we have knowledge of abstract (and thus causally inefficacious) objects. This would be an important discovery, which many naturalistic theories of knowledge would struggle to accommodate.[1] 
Your criticism of aesthetics I think also misses the mark. On naturalism there is no reason to prefer one theory over another when they are empirically equivalent, since each has a 50/50 chance of being true. But if the universe is the work of a Divine Artist, then chances are that aesthetics might be a good guide. This is also a great signature for God if he wanted us to have knowledge of his existence, since this is very difficult to explain away with multiverse- or anthropic-principle type explanations.

You say a designer of life would leave life unexplained, and yet science always made progress by positing novel, unobservable entities (Bolzmann's kinetic theory of heat, dark matter, etc.). We might as well argue that such entities explained nothing unless we could explain or observe those entities.

You say proteins do evolve and evolutionists can measure this. The math doesn't add up very well: in one study, evolutionists concluded that the number of evolutionary experiments required to evolve a simple protein was 10^70 trials [2] while another study concluded that the maximum number of evolutionary experiments possible is only 10^43 [3]. Note that this number is generous since they start off with a planet filled with bacteria, which as you know is full of proteins.

With regard to morality, you are trying to give an account of the epistemic problem of morality, but for me it is the ontology of morality on naturalism that is the issue. We act as if morality is objective and binding. For most of us, including atheists, this fact is no less obvious than that we are aware of the fact that an external world exists.

I guess the point that I was trying to make was that naturalism’s options are limited when it comes to the philosophy of mind, since naturalism will most likely entail some form of eliminative physicalism, and for physicalism consciousness and intentionality certainly pose a special challenge. As Jerry Fodor put it, “[S]ome of the most pervasive properties of minds seem so mysterious as to raise the Kantian-sounding question how a materialistic psychology is even possible. Lots of mental states are conscious, lots of mental states are intentional, and lots of mental processes are rational, and the question does rather suggest itself how anything that is material could be any of these.”

My beef is not with old atheism or with atheists who treat theism as a live existential possibility; my beef is with the inconsistency and overconfidence of the irrationally-happy neo-atheist.




Ben Cain’s Third Reply:

Although I still disagree with much of your discussion of the details of how you think theism explains certain phenomena better than naturalism (evolution, Platonism, beauty of nature, etc.), I’m going to focus on your overall argument. This is because each of those nine issues is big enough to merit its own long discussion, and if I’m right about the unfalsifiability or explanatory emptiness of theism, there’s no need to go into those details, because your conclusion wouldn’t follow. You suggest that the issue of falsifiability is irrelevant, since theism isn’t being judged as scientific, so you presumably have Popper’s falsifiability criterion in mind. But that’s not my point. I grant that theism doesn’t have to be scientific to be true. However, to be philosophical and not just dogmatic, theism must be rational as opposed to purely faith-based. Therefore, philosophical theism must adhere to the principles of critical thinking as these apply to arguments and explanations.

Your entire argument for philosophical theism is that theism makes sense of various phenomena, whereas the naturalist is supposed to struggle with them. You’re saying, then, that theism tells us the cause (God’s intelligent design) of certain facts (cosmic fine-tuning, utility of math and Platonism, existence of consciousness and morality, and so on). You’re saying theism increases the probability of these facts, whereas atheism makes them unlikely. Specifically, you’re saying theism makes for a valid inference to the best explanation of those facts. Therefore, your argument for theism must include a valid case of abductive reasoning—not according to strict scientific standards, but according to general rational ones.

One such standard is that an explanation must add to our understanding, instead of piling one mystery on top of another; that is, a rational explanation mustn’t be itself mystifying. Moreover, the explanation must be a form of reasoning in the first place, not purely a work of fictional art. That is, we must be dealing with intelligible propositions whose contents aren’t entirely poetic, subjective, or vacuous. Also, a rational explanation mustn’t be circular, meaning it must explain Y in terms of X, where X and Y aren’t the same in relevant respects. So for philosophical theism to provide the cause of cosmic fine-tuning and all the rest, it must first be a valid form of causal reasoning. I’ve argued that it’s not and I’ve even explained why it’s not and why we shouldn’t expect that it would be, because of how religion evolved from anthropocentric mental projections in the animistic phase of hunter-gatherers, and how its propositions function as poetic myths. Theism doesn’t rationally explain anything; therefore, it doesn’t explain the several facts (or alleged facts) you’ve raised. That’s my main counterargument.

Positing God as a cause doesn’t increase our understanding, because God would be the biggest mystery and miracle of them all. If you wish to counter this point by leaning on the anthropomorphic metaphors, according to which God is rather like a human person, you’ll only push the mystification back a step. This is because the literal conception of a personal deity quickly becomes incoherent and thus, once again, empty of explanatory content. For example, God’s mind would have no brain and his thoughts and feelings would have to be sequential and temporally bound, whereas God is supposed to be eternal; moreover, God would have to be perfect, whereas there’s no such thing as a perfect human person, by definition, since the meaning of person’s life is to struggle to overcome obstacles such as those that arise from her internally divided nature (the older and newer evolutionary layers of her brain). In other words, by our lights, a person is essentially flawed and mortal, and so the notion of an immortal, perfect person makes no sense.  Notice, for example, how the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus’ alleged perfection works by skipping over his adolescence so the reader doesn’t have to wonder how Jesus overcame the awkward years of puberty and acting-out, and how those formative years would have shaped his adulthood—as happens in the case of every genuine person as opposed to a cardboard-cutout, fictional character.

Theistic language is properly poetic and subjective, which allows Christians, for example, to interpret their scripture in all sorts of contrary ways. Is a scriptural passage meant to be taken literally or is it metaphorical? Is it meant to be prophetic and to speak to everyone, even millennia after it was written? Is it inerrant or did God only inspire the human authors so that parts of the Bible are fallible, reflecting their historical context? There are no objective criteria for settling such disputes for theists, so they end up appealing to a Holy Spirit which supposedly guides their interpretations, but this is a fancy way of admitting that biblical truth is entirely subjective. In any case, poetic, subjective statements are devoid of explanatory power, which is what I meant by calling theism unfalsifiable. The point isn’t that theism is unscientific, but that it’s rationally empty as a kind of talk about causal relations. You can interpret God as the cause of anything, because God’s mind acts as a magic top hat out of which you can pull a rabbit or a dove or whatever else you happen to want. For example, you can say God intervenes in our life sometimes but not all the time, and since God works in mysterious ways and it’s sinful to put God to the test, there’s no way to predict when or how God will act. Sometimes, according to conventional theistic wisdom, God answers our prayers by saying “No,” but it would be futile for us to attempt to understand why God acts or doesn’t act. That’s the whole point of the Book of Job.

By welding together the wildly-incompatible Old and New Testaments, Christians ensured that their theism, in particular, would be untestable, which is why their religion has been able to last for centuries. The more foolhardy prophets who stood by their clear-cut declarations were swiftly refuted by facts, and so their cults fell by the wayside. Only a creed with primarily subjective content can be flexible enough to appeal to anyone at any time, and thus only such a creed can serve a long-lasting global religion. Similarly, so-called psychics like John Edward can claim to read anyone’s mind on TV, by playing a sophisticated game of twenty questions with the audience member (as explained hilariously in a South Park episode). The audience member does all the work, so the psychic merely has to speak vaguely enough at first, narrowing his statements as the member inadvertently reveals more and more by her answers. It’s also how fortune cookies function: the reader does all the work of applying the text to her life, because the text is treated as poetry rather than as an objective statement of testable fact. Subjective truth and emotional appeal have their advantages, of course; alas, one such advantage isn’t that a work of art that functions in those ways can serve as a rational explanation.

Finally, theism is obviously circular as an explanation of anything to do with reason, meaning, design, or value, since God, the purported cause of these phenomena, would himself have such properties, so it would be like explaining the existence of trees by saying they all come from a big tree. It’s actually a case of equivocation, since only most members of a kind would thereby be explained by appealing to a special member of the same kind. If we proceed to deny that that special member itself requires an explanation, we’ve likely committed the fallacy of special pleading, as I’ve said in previous responses. The theist can say God doesn’t have his properties but somehow equals them, but that doesn’t work, as I’ve explained: again, it makes the concept of God bewildering, and it equivocates on God’s personhood since God would thus be quite unlike any human person.

You’ve said atheism would be just as unfalsifiable as theism, since the atheist can always deny evidence of God’s existence. I agree that atheism as a worldview may have an emotional core, which means the secular worldview rests on a leap of faith, as William James said. Indeed, new atheists such as Jerry Coyne and P.Z. Myers have disagreed on this question of whether any empirical evidence would ever be decisive proof of God’s existence. For example, if a five-mile high Jesus figure began walking the earth proclaiming that God exists, atheists could maintain that this is the work of extraterrestrials, as in the old Star Trek: Next Generation episode.

But again, we need to be more precise with our labels. Atheism by itself isn’t a worldview and so the atheist has no positive burden of proof. Atheism is just the denial of theism. The atheist’s substantive worldview tends to be naturalistic. That worldview, then, is well-supported by the success of science and its technological applications. So philosophical naturalism is falsifiable; if science and technology stopped working, we’d search for alternatives, although in that chaotic scenario we wouldn’t likely be able to formulate doubts about science or to think at all. Both theism (supernaturalism) and naturalism take natural order for granted, but naturalism is the ontologically simpler explanation. Naturalism is also more useful because it’s (at least imperfectly) reductive, whereas theism explicitly adds confusion and even obfuscation. Like the notion of the elan vital, or life force which biologists rejected as an explanation of organic evolution, “God” is only a place-holder in search of a reference to an understandable cause. Thus, the deeper reason why no empirical evidence of God’s existence would suffice to convince a skeptic is that the meaning of theism is never rendered precise enough to warrant rational inquiry into evidence for theism in the first place. You either choose the theistic mindset or lifestyle or you don’t, just as you either choose to like a poem or a movie or a song or a food or a hat or you don’t.

You point out that some Eastern religions don’t take the intelligibility of nature for granted. Christianity did, you say, and therefore deserves credit for getting it right, since scientists have found order in nature. But once again, Judeo-Christians can have it both ways since they can interpret Genesis (or whatever) as saying that God created nature to be understandable to humans, but they can also turn to Job if they want to say that much of nature, including the existence of evil (unnecessary suffering), is inexplicable to us; to the Fall of Adam and Eve, to allow for the limitation of our cognitive faculties, as part of the strife their descendants would have to suffer as punishment for original sin; to the numerous Christian celebrations of miracles, if they want to say that the world isn’t entirely natural, after all, contrary to scientists who are methodological naturalists; or to Paul, who said that worldly wisdom is foolishness to God. Indeed, you’ve appealed to abstract objects, consciousness, freewill, and morality as phenomena which can’t be naturalistically or reductively explained, which is why they supposedly call for a deus ex machina. But you also want to give theism credit for predicting that the world could be scientifically (naturalistically and reductively) explained. It seems your first fact in your list of nine conflicts with several of the others in the list, such as the fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, and ninth.

But it’s strange to hold up Christianity as a beacon of Reason compared to Eastern religions, since Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian texts are far more rationally advanced and argumentative than Christian ones. Many of the Eastern religions are themselves philosophical and naturalistic. Medieval Christian rationalism amounted to copying Plato and Aristotle, and the Age of Reason happened largely in spite of the Church, not because of it, since the Church prohibited any method or statement which it found to disagree with its dogmas. Moreover, not even scientists believe the universe is necessarily intelligible to us. They subscribe to methodological naturalism, which means their naturalism is only tentative and pragmatic; they assume only that we might as well try to extend scientific reasoning as far as it proves useful to do so. Therefore, naturalism and atheism are consistent with there being parts of the world that will forever be counterintuitive to us, such as the subatomic world or the Big Bang.

By contrast, if God made the universe primarily for us (which is absurd now but wasn’t always so, since we now know the Earth isn’t cosmically central and the universe is so enormous that we become insignificant by comparison), there should be no reason for any gaps in our understanding, nor should our prehistoric ancestors have needed the tens of thousands of years for them to have struggled to understand the world, like the ignorant babes in the woods they were evidently forced to be by the absence of any divine parent. After all, humankind wasn’t born able to understand everything we’d have to know to survive easily in nature. For many millennia, we clawed our way up from ignorance, often dying prematurely because of our natural confusion and because of the frugality of natural selection, which evidently built the instincts that enabled us to endure. The haphazardness and gradualness of human cognitive advancement is more simply explained by naturalism than by theism. To the extent that the theist can make sense of both nature’s partial intelligibility and incomprehensibility to us, the theist is only making it up as she goes along, in which case theism should be judged as a subjective work of story-telling, not as a rational explanation or argument.


Darwin Skeptic’s Fourth Reply:

You claim that cosmic fine-tuning cannot support philosophical theism in principle because “religion evolved from anthropocentric mental projections.” Yet to be consistent, I would also have to reject modern physics since its success was largely the result of “anthropocentric mental projections” in the form of mathematical formalisms. But again, this is a genetic fallacy.

You assert that positing God would not increase our understanding because God would be the biggest miracle of all. Yet this only begs the question because you presume that God’s mode of existence would or could be no different from that of any being or object that exists in our Lorentzian spacetime. You assume that God would exist as a caused cause, actualized actualizer, or a moved mover (to borrow some Aristotelean jargon); that she would exist as a composition (and thus require a designer) and exist contingently (existing with the possibility of failing to exist), etc., in which case it would be true that God’s existence would be miraculous. But this is a straw god.

As for God providing no explanation, this doesn’t follow. By your logic, an explanation would have an advantage even if the explanation were false.

Suppose life was planted on earth by other life forms, and I concluded that life on earth was designed because we happen to find the same patterns in biology that we know are habitually associated with prior intelligent activity (e.g. massive chunks of digital code in DNA). You object, saying, “No, since unless you can explain where the aliens came from, you have not explained anything.”

Or suppose I invoked a sculptor-of-the-gaps to explain the familiar shapes on Easter Island. Applying your logic, the design skeptic could conclude that his explanation was superior because he only needed to invoke unguided natural causes, leaving no unexplained mysteries (such as the whereabouts of the Islanders, their origin, why and where they vanished to, the lack of evidence for their tools, etc.).

This doesn’t follow. Science gives explanations for things all the time by postulating the existence of something novel which is itself either not explained or unobservable.

Finally, there are no shortcuts in philosophy: you cannot give yourself an epistemic advantage and claim your explanation is somehow logically superior as a matter of principle simply because you produce some effect free of charge.

I think you are stuck with this idea that “person = human person,” but this is not at all what theistic personalists mean when they say “God is a person.”

“Perfection” as it applies to God means something different.

I think there is a simpler explanation for why there is little information in the Gospels of Jesus childhood. Most people started talking about this Jesus guy, only after the crucifixion and resurrection; people only then started to compile Gospels (it is not as though people were writing Gospels and recording the words of Jesus in real-time). People did not realize this obscure preacher from a small dusty village was actually God until much later.

I agree the scriptures are complicated; the Bible is after all a book written over thousands of years by more than 40 different authors. It is an easier task, though, to see that certain books are of a certain genre or vastly different from other books. Virtually all scholars agree that the Gospels, for instance, were written as Greco-Roman biographies (with varying levels of theological embellishment, to be sure, though Mark has less of that).

Again, saying that a transcendent God is our ultimate source is not at all the same thing as saying that all trees came from a tree. Your analogy would actually be a more accurate description of the atheist position, since the atheist believes that ultimately we came from some physical object that either always existed (as a brute fact, without explanation) or that existed necessarily, i.e. that caused itself to exist.

You say that atheists have no burden of proof because “Atheism is just the denial of theism.” This is again a nice semantic trick. I could return the favor by simply redefining “theism” as nothing more than the denial of the proposition, “God does not exist,” or of the proposition, “Nature is complete.”

None of this actually settles anything.

Atheism most certainly is not merely a lack of belief in or a denial of theism. Atheism is a commitment to a positive ontological status of the universe. Atheism says something positive (and bold) regarding the mode of existence of our universe; that is, that it exists necessarily or is self-caused, or that it exists as a brute fact, and atheism adds other positives such as that the order we see in it is merely apparent, etc. These are all positive propositions. Theism can be defined as the lack of belief in these positives.

Atheism is well supported by the success of science? Tell that to Charles Peirce who doubted our ability to discover the laws of the subatomic world, since evolution would have no reason or need to equip us with the tools to do so. It is extremely ad hoc to sit back now and declare that this success validates naturalism. This is especially ironic, seeing that physicists relied on an anthropocentric strategy (relying on mathematical formalisms designed for purposes of aesthetics and convenience) in order to decode the workings of nature.

You say that both theism and naturalism take order for granted, and yet science as a self-sustained enterprise only took off in Western Europe when Christianity dominated the intellectual space. For naturalism the order is merely an appearance; it is ultimately illusory.

You say I want to have my cake and eat it, since I want to give Christianity credit for having the correct prediction as far as intelligibility goes for the natural world; however, I switch to being a skeptical theist when it comes to the problem of evil. I think this is a false dilemma. If we posit God, I think we can see that some things follow logically from that, especially for the natural world (that it would likely be rationally constructed, for instance, etc.). I don’t think it follows, therefore, that we should be able to know everything about God, though (exactly how he constructed it, or why he allows evil, etc.).

I don’t think intelligibility entails complete reductionism. Yes, monotheism inspired the first great unification of physics i.e. terrestrial (physics) with celestial (astronomy) mechanics, but this idea flowed from a rejection of Greek pantheism. The premise was that only God was divine, meaning distinct from nature and not in the celestial realm, and that therefore there was no distinction between terrestrial and celestial matter. I don’t think it follows, therefore, that all unifications will or must succeed. The driving forces pushing chemical evolution are obviously of a very different sort.

I think you misunderstood my point on ancient China. I was never trying to imply that they were somehow less sophisticated than Europe. The scholar I quoted attributed nearly every single invention known to mankind to China (not without criticism); he was very biased in his views on ancient Chinese civilization. You said that theists were hijacking the success of science after the fact, to which I was trying to make the point that the assumption of the possibility of science was rare in the ancient world. Christian Europe had a firm belief in the possibility of science, given their metaphysics, whereas such a belief was lacking in ancient china:

“There was no confidence that the code of Nature’s laws could be unveiled and read, because there was no assurance that a divine being, even more rational than ourselves, had ever formulated such a code capable of being read” (Joseph Needham, The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969).)

Haha, and no, Christian rationalism did not simply amount to “copying Plato and Aristotle.” Christian physicists were brilliant also for going beyond Aristotle and Plato, starting with John Philoponus planting the first seeds for inertia already in the 6th century and with Aquinas for pointing out where Plato made an error: “Plato strayed from the truth because he believed the form of the thing known must necessarily be in the knower exactly as it is in the thing known.”

The idea that the earth was cosmically central was actually a product of Greek rationalism, since the ancient Greeks proposed that the earth needed nothing below it; Anaximander postulated that the earth floated in the center of infinity and was held in position because it is an equal distance from all the other parts of the universe.

The fact that the universe is massive does not imply that we are insignificant. To quote the French philosopher, “By space the universe encompasses and swallows me up like an atom; [but] by thought I comprehend the world.”

Also, we know why the universe is big, since it is a function of its age. As Barrow explains,
This state of expansion means that the size of the Universe is inextricably entwined with its age. The reason that the Visible Universe is more than 13 billion light-years in size today is that it is more than 13 billion years old. A Universe that contained just one galaxy like our own Milky Way, with its 100 billion stars, each perhaps surrounded by planetary systems, might seem a reasonable economy if one were in the universal construction business. But such a universe, with more than a 100 billion fewer galaxies than our own, could have expanded for little more than a few months. It could have produced neither stars nor biological elements. It could contain no astronomers.


Ben Cain’s Fourth Reply:

I can see how you might think the point about the origin of anthropocentric theism in the ancient animistic mental projections commits the genetic fallacy, but it’s more of an alternative inference to the best explanation. Moreover, the point isn’t just genealogical, since I’m saying the current naïve conception of God as human-like is also more easily understood as similar to the ancient animist’s mental projection. So I’m saying the textbook notion of God as a personal creator of the universe is more simply explained as resting on anthropomorphic projections than on a real deity. I’m not saying theism is false or dubious because of its origin; rather, I’m saying theism more likely has one sort of origin (the deflationary one) than another (the naïve, literal theistic one).

Your next point gets hung up on my use of “miracle” in my saying that God would be “the biggest mystery and miracle of them all.” You left out the mystery part, so you’ve missed the main point. The point is that any deity worth worshipping must be essentially mystifying to us. If we could understand what God really is, how he came to be or how he thinks, God would be just another object, not the transcendent source and ground of all particular things. I think you might agree with that. So the problem I’m raising for the philosophical theist is that once you grant this more subversive, mystical definition of God, you can no longer appeal to that transcendent God by way of offering a rational explanation for anything. Philosophical theism can’t help but objectify God, because reason is our main tool for controlling things by understanding them, by carving them up into conceptual boxes and analyzing the information for advantages and weaknesses.

What philosophical theism gains in a plausible concession that God would have to be beyond our paltry metaphors—meaning that the metaphors would misrepresent rather than provide partial truth (the partial truth would be an idol, which is the main point of Judaism and perhaps Islam, which Christianity contradicts)—it loses in the implication that philosophical theism becomes equivalent to atheism: God, mystically defined, becomes impersonal, an absolute emptiness (as in Buddhism) which is beyond all objects and limited conceptions, and thus beyond the comparison with any sort of mere person. And my point is that such a deity can’t be used in any rational explanation, because it’s useless to explain something more understandable in terms of something far less so. Remember also that my opening statement went into this equivocation or pendulum swing between the mystical and the literalistic notions of God.

So I’m not begging the question. Instead, I’m reducing certain definitions of “God” to absurdity. I’m showing that the consequences of defining “God” in certain ways don’t sit well with philosophy. The point of the philosophical Absolute, as in Kant’s noumenon, is to recognize the end of philosophy and the end of rational explanations. (Kant thought reason “regulates” experience by leaping into such transcendent ideas, even though the attempt to understand those ideas leads to incoherence.) The bottom line is that while you say a mystifying or miraculous God would be a “straw God,” I’m saying anything less than such an absolute, transcendent non-being or non-object wouldn’t be God at all, but just one more being or object which submits at least partially to our meager cognitive faculties. No such latter deity would be worth worshipping, and so philosophical theism misses the point of talking about God.

I agree that a partial explanation might be better than none. But I’m saying the naïve notion of God as a personal being doesn’t explain anything even partially, because that notion collapses into incoherence or semantic emptiness. When you say God created the universe or designed life, you’re saying nothing at all, upon analysis. So explaining the origin of terrestrial life by positing a connection to life on another planet might be useful as a partial explanation, even though it obviously wouldn’t count as an explanation of life itself. That partial explanation would differ from theism in that the former would make sense whereas the latter only mystifies and obfuscates. Theism isn’t a partial explanation; instead, it’s a sort of semantic fraud.  

I agree that scientists explain some things by positing unobservable causes. But there are at least two checks on those posits. First, the unobservables must be understood to be natural entities as opposed to being intrinsically mystifying like God or Spirit or any other poetic, unquantifiable entity. As I said, any natural object or particular being, including a person with one sort of character rather than another, wouldn’t be worth worshipping. Second, the scientific explanation must have an objectively testable payoff, not just a subjective, emotional one. Theism has the latter sort of payoff which doesn’t count as good evidence for theism’s truth, since the fact that theistic belief makes people happy can easily be explained in only psychological terms which don’t require that God actually exist. Even if God didn’t exist, we might have to invent God to feel better about the sadder, godless alternative.

You say my main argument attempts to take a “shortcut” to an “unfair” epistemic advantage. But there’s nothing unfair about my argument. All I’m doing is analyzing the philosophical and the theistic sides of “philosophical theism,” to show that your argument doesn’t even get off the ground, which is why I don’t think we need to delve into the specifics of your nine examples of things that theism supposedly explains better than naturalism. I’m pointing out that a philosophical mindset has consequences. For example, it obligates you to adhere to certain basic rational standards such as the ones I outlined in my third reply. You’re the one who argued by appealing to the best explanation and you’re the one who thinks theism can be supported by philosophy rather than just by faith. All I’m doing is showing you the consequences of thinking about God in that way. I’ve analyzed the terms (“rational explanation by appealing to the best explanation” and the philosophical/mystical versus the naïve, literalistic conceptions of God) and reduced them to absurdity for the philosophical theist.

The reason I talked about human persons as central to the naïve conception of God is that those are the only persons of whom we have direct experience. You’re free to compare God to a chimpanzee or a dolphin or a fictional alien such as E.T., if you like. Either way, to be a person is to fit into a particular conceptual box. Persons have thoughts and feelings, consciousness and free agency, a mind and a body. If you’re arguing for a personal God in that sense, your concept of God will be incoherent and thus won’t figure in a rational explanation of anything. That’s what I’ve argued. If instead you think of God’s personhood as different from any familiar kind, I’d say you’re equivocating on “person” and you should choose a different word to refer to God’s identity, so there would be no temptation to misuse the familiar word “person” when applied to something transcendent and therefore necessarily impersonal (and unlike anything else in nature). The same goes for “perfect.” Philosophers of religion typically define God’s perfection as a matter of ramping up all his attributes to the maximum degree. So God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipotent. He’s also immortal because he exists outside of time, so he doesn’t change. And if you combine that perfection with personhood, you naturally end up with contradictions and incoherence. Once again, then, we shouldn’t attempt to rationally explain anything by appealing to such a mystifying nothing.

Regarding the parody in which all trees are explained as coming from a special tree, I notice that you respond to the parody by switching to the mystical conception and speaking of “a transcendent God.” Again, that’s the pendulum I expected to swing into action, from my opening statement. In so far as God is a person (the naïve, exoteric, literalist conception), God would have all the qualities the theist is supposed to explain by appealing to God. Thus, my tree parody would hold. If instead God is impersonal (the philosophical, mystical, esoteric conception), the tree parody wouldn’t hold, since God would be no particular object of any kind and thus nothing we even partially understand. In that case, your argument would still collapse because the concept of your cause that supposedly explains various facts throughout the universe would be empty, and your theistic explanation wouldn’t adhere to rational standards of appeals to the best explanation.

Regarding the burden of proof, I said atheism has no positive burden of proof. The burdens of proof here are unequal, just as they would be in a debate about whether Mickey Mouse or leprechauns or unicorns exist. This isn’t a semantic issue of redefining our views to be positive or negative, even though I agree that denying that something exists has positive implications. If leprechauns don’t exist, that means certain Irish individuals who try to lure the creatures out of rainbows would be kidding themselves. So a-leprechaunism would entail that the world is a certain way. Nevertheless, the person who denies that there are leprechauns doesn’t have the same burden of proof as the believer in leprechauns. It’s up to the person who claims to know how the furniture of the world should be added to, to prove that that extra thing exists. If I say there’s an invisible elephant standing next to you, do you really think it’s up to you to disprove that assertion? And if the Church of Invisible Elephants condemns your disbelief in such elephants and imprisons you as an infidel, do you really think such a church would be remotely fair and rational?

I know you think the concept of God is more useful than that of an invisible elephant, but in either case it’s up to the believer to demonstrate as much. The disbeliever has the burden only to evaluate the believer’s case, to determine whether she should change her mind (although the disbeliever is free to go beyond her epistemic burden and offer separate negative arguments). And when you talk of the atheist as being positively committed to a kind of ontology, you’re getting into a muddle I tried to free you from by distinguishing between atheism and naturalism. Atheism has no such commitments, since an atheist can say she doesn’t know what reality’s like except that she knows God isn’t part of it. There need be no inconsistency there. But atheists do tend to be naturalists, and yes, naturalism entails a commitment to a certain ontology, and naturalism is independently well-justified in the ways I said (science and technology work).

In saying that naturalism is justified, I don’t mean to say that naturalism is complete or perfectly satisfying. On my blog I’ve argued against a commonplace understanding of naturalism, and such cosmologies as Hawking’s and Krauss’s, which attempt to show how a natural universe arises from “nothing” are philosophically dubious, because these cosmologies inevitably presuppose laws and equations which wouldn’t hold in a prior state of absolute nothingness. Unfortunately, rational argument ends at some point, so the ultimate question of where the universe came from may have to be decided in an existential choice of what sort of person we want to be. We can take a leap of faith in theism or in some reductive naturalism, or we can be agnostic and ignore the question. That’s the Kierkegaardian level theists and atheists should be arguing on, in my view, not from a pseudoscientific discourse of appeals to the best explanation. Theism won’t fare well on philosophical (non-existential) grounds.

Regarding theism’s unfalsifiability, I don’t think you get out of the problem by saying our knowledge of God would be partial. The problem is that there are no checks on what would be included in that partial knowledge. That’s why there are thousands of contrary religions and sects: you say we know X, Y, and Z about God, someone else says we know A, B, and C about him, and there’s no common ground for deciding between the options. So the problem is that the theist is always free to reinterpret the creed or scripture to get out of an apparent difficulty, because her concept of God is infinitely malleable. That sort of vague, poetic notion would be out of place in a rational explanation; instead, such a notion clearly functions well in emotional, social terms.

Your point that “Christian Europe had a firm belief in the possibility of science given their metaphysics” is an interesting one. If it’s true, it could be only an accident, not due to any predestination. Indeed, I hardly think ancient Jews wandering in the desert had science in mind when they worshipped one deity above all others. Instead, they meant to declare that their ethical culture is superior to all other cultures. The main point of monotheism is to be culturally exclusive. As Descartes showed with his skeptical doubts, just because God created the world doesn’t mean we must be able to understand what he created. Indeed, the Christian Gnostics themselves said the creator God is evil and meant to beguile and imprison us in a lower reality. And yet it may follow, as you say, that if God transcends nature, the earth is united with the heavens, as the early modernists realized. But notice that that requires taking the mystical side of the pendulum swing, which practically entails atheism, not any kind of theism. If God is literally some kind of person, he must be somewhere in the natural universe, in which case all of outer space couldn’t be united with Earth. So I’d maintain that it’s the atheistic implication of the philosophical, mystical conception of God which allows for the possibility of science.

I don’t see how your point about the size and the age of the universe helps you. The universe is ancient to allow for the natural evolution of planets and living things. At best, that entails pantheism, not theism. And the reason we’re insignificant, given that our planet isn’t cosmically central or crucial, is that our values must be subjective and arbitrary rather than grounded in ultimate reality. Our significance rests, then, entirely on our fragile self-confidence, which flickers and fades as soon as we turn our attention to the underlying absurdity of all life when life is viewed, as it were, from the universe’s inhuman perspective.


Darwin Skeptic’s Fifth Reply:

I think the reason why you go back to old inferences is because you are trying to reduce all inferences to God as nothing more than an argument from ignorance. But the mark of a good philosopher is to note key distinctions, as David Snoke writes,
We must distinguish between bad explanations for certain things within the theistic world view, and arguments for the theistic world view itself. People arguing that comets were signs from God or that demons caused all sickness did not argue that God existed because comets and demons existed; rather, starting from belief in God, they posited a reasonable, though ultimately falsified, theory about comets and demons. In the same way, people working within an atheistic world view have proposed bad explanations for things, such as the theory of spontaneous generation or the Lamarkian theory of evolution. The falsification of a subtheory within a larger world view does not falsify the whole world view. If it did, every falsified scientific theory would cause everyone to reject all of Western science.
Compare a modern design inference with the argument that we don’t understand magnets, ergo God:

(1) Crick’s sequence hypothesis (exact order of symbols records the information) applies directly to genetic code and written text, and so this is not an analogy
(2) Written text can always be traced back to an agent or programmer, not an undirected process
(3) DNA software is best explained as the product of agency (whether directly or indirectly)

OK, so you say that for God to be worthy of worship, it is necessary that he remain mysterious. I’m not sure that this follows; for instance, surely God could be more clearly revealed in the beautification in the here-after. Would it follow that God would somehow be any less worthy of worship?

Also, how much of God’s essence would actually be revealed, say, if some patterns in nature continued to be resistant to materialistic explanations and we found out that the reason for this is agent causation? Or what if Plato was right, God used a demiurge and was thus not directly responsible for the patterns we observe, but only indirectly so?

I think the central theorem of theism is arguably the notion that God is the cause of everything that exists apart from him. So in a sense, everything reveals something about God, since God is ultimately the Creator of everything that exists. What follows from your reasoning is that God would not be worthy of worship simply because we can observe the universe. But I think it is almost the opposite: God is worthy of worship in part because we can observe the universe; this is after all, a demonstration of his power.

Finally, we don’t really know fundamentally what human intelligence is (we only know for instance what thinking is not, i.e. computation, as demonstrated by Searle’s Chinese room, but not what it is), and the fact that we can make design inferences in the case of prior human intelligent activity (archaeology, forensics) or alien intelligence (SETI) would in no way help fill this gap. So if the mystery concerning the essence of human intelligence is conserved despite the fact that we can recognize the physical effects induced by human intelligence, I see no reason why it should not hold also for the effects induced by a transcendent intelligence.

You say you agree that partial explanations are better than none. But this was not at all my point. My point was that, ultimately, all explanations are incomplete, and ordinary design inferences no less so, but no one would on such grounds consider them incoherent. There is nothing incoherent in saying that Hitler wrote Mein Kampf even if you don’t have an account of how Hitler’s ancestors (or the human race as a whole, or life) came into existence. Similarly, we can infer design from patterns in nature (if they warrant such inferences) even if we could not understand where God came from or what God is.

You say the notion of God as a personal being doesn’t explain anything. But God as a being with will and intellect would have certain consequences. It would mean that such a being is capable of communicating with us, and it could mean that such a being can move things to achieve an end. For instance, God could actualize one tiny subset of laws out of the whole set of possible laws because he intends for complex carbon based life forms to exist. On theism, other universes with different laws don’t have to exist, precisely because the conception of God is of a being with intellect and will.

Luke Barnes uses the analogy of a burglar:
Naturalism is, in the terminology of probability theory, non-informative. Consider a crime scene. Security cameras show the burglar opening the safe on the first attempt, using the twelve-digit code. Detective Alphonse suggests that the burglar guessed the code. This theory is non-informative. A clueless burglar could have guessed anything. Detective Bertrand suggests that the robbery was an inside job. This is informative. Only an informed burglar would have been likely to enter the correct code. This is an important distinction. Non-informative theories are at the mercy of the relevant set of possibilities. We might entertain the probability of guessing a three-digit code. But as we add digits, the set of possible codes grows, and the likelihood of guessing the correct code drops. By contrast, extra digits will not affect the performance of the informed burglar.
On the burden of proof, you talk about God (that is, the cause of the universe) as an extra contingent object among objects or a Mickey Mouse. Nothing is unified or explained or dependent on invisible elephants (or insert whatever extra contingent objects here). If such nonexistent entities happen to exist it would make difference to the universe, and they too would only exist in a manner no different from the universe as a whole; that is, they would exist derivatively, receiving their existence from the paradigm Existent. Finally, nothing we observe in the universe causes us to think that such entities exist, whereas as Cicero put it, “Nature herself has imprinted on the minds of all the idea of God.

You seem to be almost contradicting yourself, since you say that scientific atheism ultimately fails because rational argument ends at some point. Interestingly, you cite the origin of the universe as a question that will simply have to be decided as an existential choice about the sort of person you want to be. (Note that the origin of the universe is one thing I left out in my nine reasons.) This is very close to my position on the origin of the universe, but I would add also cosmic fine-tuning and intelligibility to the list.

On falsifiability, you are making a different point now. OK, there are different religions, but there is also a lot of overlap between the monotheistic religions, such as on the point that the universe as an object created by God ought to reflect his power and wisdom. (True, a dominant Muslim sect would overemphasize God’s will over his intellect, and this would have different metaphysical implications, such as ruling out secondary causes and the very possibility of natural laws). But this proves my point, as your very conception of God has nontrivial metaphysical implications.

You say the Gnostics said the creator God was evil, but it is my understanding that they believed matter was evil because it was created by an evil demon, not God. (This is why they believed, for instance, that Jesus was only a spirit who gave off the superficial appearance of having human flesh). The demon was using the physical world to blind us from the truth of the One true God. There is perhaps a lot of overlap here with Greek thought. As Thomas Torrance put it,
Christian belief in the goodness and integrity of the physical universe…played an incalculable part in transforming the ancient worldview. It destroyed the Platonic and Aristotelian idea that matter is, if not evil, the raw material of corruption and unreality and the source of disorder in the universe, and it also ruled entirely out of consideration the pessimistic views of nature that emanated from the dualist sects such as the Manichaeans and Gnostics, thereby emancipating the material reality of the universe for serious scientific attention.
You say that the unification of physics with astronomy entails atheism because the celestial realm is now demystified (supposedly God was a cosmic teapot hidden somewhere in the celestial realm). So heads you win, tails I lose? Remember when you said that naturalism doesn’t entail complete reductionism? (The last step of reductionism is the unification of physics with chemistry, which was expected to follow Einstein’s unification of gravity with spacetime and Maxwell’s unification of light and optics with electromagnetism).

Two points. First, the level of demystification achieved came at a cost for the naturalist. It came with the introduction of a theological concept: universal natural laws.
The orthodox view of the nature of the laws of physics contains a long list of tacitly assumed properties. The laws are regarded…as immutable, eternal, infinitely precise mathematical relationships that transcend the physical universe, and were imprinted on it at the moment of its birth from “outside,” like a maker’s mark, and have remained unchanging ever since…In addition, it is assumed that the physical world is affected by the laws, but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe…It is not hard to discover where this picture of physical laws comes from: it is inherited directly from monotheism, which asserts that a rational being designed the universe according to a set of perfect laws. And the asymmetry between immutable laws and contingent states mirrors the asymmetry between God and nature: the universe depends utterly on God for its existence, whereas God’s existence does not depend on the universe… (Paul Davies and Niels Henrik Gregersen, eds. Information and the Nature of Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics)
This is why the concept of universal natural laws is hotly debated among philosophers of science. The “scientific view of the world” is thoroughly theological. This is why Davies would say that all scientists (whether atheist or theist) essentially presuppose a theological worldview.

Second, the demystification is not as clear-cut as you make it out to be:
It is not always realised how exceedingly abstract is the information that theoretical physics has to give. It lays down certain fundamental equations which enable it to deal with the logical structure of events, while leaving it completely unknown what is the intrinsic character of the events that have the structure…All that physics gives us is certain equations giving abstract properties of their changes. But as to what it is that changes, and what it changes from and to—as to this, physics is silent. (Bertrand Russell, My Philosophical Development, p. 13)
Yes, unguided natural processes are dependent on deep time and chance, but the inverse does not hold for God. What are billions of years to God who is outside time? Also, if we can see that our physical laws are tuned to permit intelligent life, it seems less a coincidence that I couldn’t observe a smaller universe. The universe was probably rigged so that it could produce the building blocks necessary for life. (However, we currently have no theory for the origin of life, so it is pure speculation to extrapolate from necessary to sufficient conditions for complex life).

On your last point, you basically asserted that our values must be arbitrary and subjective and could not be based on anything objective. I would agree only if I thought there were no God.


Ben Cain’s Fifth Reply and Conclusion:

I agree there’s a difference between arguments for theism, and arguments within theism. Unfortunately, your argument for theism assumes that theism counts as a good explanation, and you listed nine facts that theism supposedly explains better than does naturalism. My main criticism has to do with that assumption and so it does undermine your argument for theism. If theism never counts as a good explanation for anything, then obviously your argument for theism—which, again, is that theism explains nine facts well—doesn’t work, because it can’t even get started. Remember that you’re the one who appealed to theism’s explanatory power. You’re the one who assumed that “God did it” counts as a valid explanation. I disagree with that assumption made by your argument for theism. You think you can accept science and philosophy along with theism, because you believe theism is well-supported by reason. But I think the more rational you attempt to make theism, the more your god becomes an idol, which makes your theism incoherent because you’ll need to go back and forth between the intuitive picture of God as a personal designer who’s like us, and the transcendent, esoterically-rational picture of an entity that’s unlike anything in the universe.

If God were plainly the cause of the universe so that we could read the signs embedded in the effects that indicate the nature of their divine cause, then indeed the universe would testify to God’s existence, as theists imagine. And indeed, if we were talking about nature as the animists conceived of it with their anthropomorphic projections, then sure: a personal source of a living universe would make sense. But this isn’t the universe that scientists found. It makes more sense to explain life and intelligence as emergent phenomena than as metaphysically primary, because the vast majority of the universe is lifeless and mindless. Saying that a person created nature makes no sense, because our concept of personhood has implications that wouldn’t apply to a monotheistic God. A person requires not just a brain but a society. When a person grows up in the wild with no parents, he or she becomes feral and loses the quality of being a person, because that creature would have no language or culture. If God is timeless and doesn’t develop or learn, God is no kind of person that we understand at all. In fact, calling both God and a human “persons” would require equivocation: the theist would be illicitly assuming two definitions of “person,” because of the obvious differences between our and God’s intelligence, intentions, and will.

Computation seems to be insufficient for a broad kind of intelligence, but we know a lot more about intelligence than just that negative likelihood. We know, for example, that we have to be taught to fulfill our potential for intelligence, not just individually but collectively in history. We know intelligence is based in the cerebral cortex, we know other animal species have degrees of intelligence, and we know intelligence is an evolutionary adaptation and that it evolved from stimulus-response behaviours. None of this would apply to God, so calling God and us intelligent involves an equivocation. We plan ahead by thinking of alternatives, because we live in a dangerous environment and need advantages to survive. Our intelligence can impact the world because our mind is seated in the brain, which is wired into our physical body, and our body can interact with the rest of the physical world. Again, none of that would apply to God. God needn’t fear anything, so why would he need to plan to avoid certain possibilities? Why not just blindly create all possible universes? And the Western monotheist’s God has no body so we have no idea how his intelligence could have natural effects.

I agree that all rational explanations are incomplete, if only because our concepts are simplifications. That’s why theism isn’t a rational explanation, because positing God is supposed to explain absolutely everything in the universe. Incoherence isn’t a result just of an explanation’s incompleteness, although the attempt to fit together incomplete explanations or models can result in an incoherent synthesis. Theism is incoherent for lots of reasons, but the one that’s emerged in our discussion is that the philosophical theist’s conception of God as an intelligent designer must take seriously the anthropocentric metaphor of the personal nature of ultimate reality, and this conception conflicts with the philosophical doubts about naïve, exoteric religion, which imply the mystic’s conception of God as transcendent and entirely beyond our comprehension (our metaphors being futile and ultimately misleading).

I agree, by the way, that the notion of a natural law is crypto-theistic. This raises the question why atheistic scientists would adhere to that deistic notion. I’m pretty sure the answer is just that most scientists are scientistic, meaning that they’re dismissive of philosophy and so they don’t take the time to consider the philosophical implications of their discourse.

For me, though, a deeper question is why we should trust our cognitive powers when it comes to the ultimate questions, especially if we end up flattering ourselves with theistic answers. I agree with mystics who say that exoteric theism stems from an ethical flaw. It’s unimaginative or vain for us to think of ultimate reality as being anything like us! Even if it turns out that God does exist and did create the universe, I suspect God would reward atheists more highly than theists, because anthropocentrism would be a sin, stemming from fear or vanity, whereas reflective atheists are more likely to be humble. Atheists who appreciate the existential absurdity of our situation, who believe that whatever strangeness is at the bottom of nature doesn’t at all favour humans and that the emergence of life is a tragic accident should have no cosmic reason to boast. By contrast, theists have more of a reason for being complacent, because they can claim to be in some proper accord with primary reality. Atheistic naturalism entails that absurdity—not a perfect plan—is fundamental to our situation, and so we’re permanently homeless, despite our restlessness in replacing the scary wilderness with an artificial world in which we’re much more comfortable. We’re lost in the universe, because our intelligence enables us to see that we’re alienated from nature, which is why we must struggle to survive and why our domination has the unintended consequence of corrupting and thus dooming us. Contrary to your quotation of Thomas Torrance, Pauline, Gnostic Christianity is correct in its Platonic suspicion that nature is fallen, that our souls don’t belong in the material world but that we’re trapped here.

Reason is a burden to bear, since philosophy thrusts this subversive viewpoint on us, which is why I think philosophical theism misses the mark. The problem with atheism or naturalism isn’t that the exoteric idea of God should be taken seriously. On the contrary, we should pay more attention to the mystical, cosmicist suspicion that fundamental reality is bound to be indifferent towards us—which is humiliating. Any other kind of cosmology or metaphysics sets up an idol that flatters or otherwise corrupts us. So say Judaism and elements of Islam. This means that new atheists and secular humanists can be as wrongheaded as naïve theists, from my perspective. Neither is nearly humble enough; neither has wrestled with the Nietzschean or Lovecraftian implications of naturalism.

If I were a theist, I’d press the pragmatic or existentialist line of argument. For example, Richard Dawkins is fond of saying that just because a belief is comforting doesn’t mean it’s true, which is correct. But Dawkins doesn’t go on to consider whether it’s possible or wise to ensure that all our beliefs are true. From Dawkins’ biological perspective, we’re all animals with a highly irrational side, so why should we expect that we’re fundamentally concerned with factual truth? Of course, we’re internally conflicted since we do have the scientific capacity for objectivity, but that means we must reconcile the nonrational and rational sides of ourselves. Dawkins does this only weakly by admiring the alleged beauty and wonder of nature. Meanwhile, he’s a secularist, and for centuries secular society has been endeavoring, as I said, to bury nature beneath the artificial cities we seem to prefer. If all worldviews have mythical, intuitive, and artistic underpinnings, the difference between theism and atheistic worldviews must be more aesthetic or ethical than empirical. The fundamental philosophical issue needn’t be truth. In fact, truth-as-correspondence may be in the same category as natural law: both notions may derive from an outmoded theistic worldview. 

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