Champions Of ‘Religious Freedom’ Should Be Careful What They Pray For

Champions Of ‘Religious Freedom’ Should Be Careful What They Pray For – Published in HuffPost Australia 6 October 2017

Religious liberty should not become a Trojan horse for perpetuating certain views.


By invoking a supposed threat to religious freedom, the scare campaign against same-sex marriage illuminates a common misunderstanding of what the term means — highlighting how it has become a proxy for religious privilege, used to shield a particular subset of traditionalist beliefs. The same beliefs held by John Howard, the Australian Christian Lobby, Tony Abbott and conservative pundits such as Paul Kelly.

They should be careful what they wish for, because a wider understanding of religious freedom would threaten the many privileges faith groups continue to enjoy in this country. That’s why Christian groups have opposed all new laws aimed at assuring religious freedom since 1980. By trading on an historical respect for faith, but seeking to protect only their own narrow range of beliefs, they risk eroding that respect even further.

Religious freedom cannot mean that one set of beliefs ought to take precedence over another, or that religious ideas should trump nonreligious ideas.

However, religious freedom is widely understood to be exclusive to faith-based beliefs. And, for the ‘threat’ argument to have any teeth, one must accept that society should actively discriminate in favour of religious convictions.

Cake makers, florists and wedding registrars must be allowed to act in accordance with their faith, notwithstanding the beliefs of those supporting the same-sex union. The ‘threat’ is that the law will force the faithful to act against their conscience.

This is framed as ‘protection’. But, why are only religious beliefs worthy of protection? What this would mean in practice, is the faithful gain a special pass to exempt themselves from the laws of the land. But, paraphrasing George Orwell, why are some beliefs more equal than others?

religious freedom

Sabre-rattlers of religious freedom are running a campaign antithetical to their own agenda.


We generally don’t exempt individuals from the law on account of their beliefs. Government employees who disagree with immigration policy cannot refuse to implement policy. Business owners cannot ignore laws which impinge on their conscience. Controversially, only religious organisations get the privilege of exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation.

But here’s the problem — freedom of belief was never intended as a magic wand for the faithful.

Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights vouchsafes “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, and protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, and the right to profess any belief. The progenitor of religious freedom is freedom of thought; which U.S. Supreme Court Judge Benjamin Cardozo described as “the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom”.

undhr freedom of thought

There is no belief hierarchy where certain beliefs carry more weight than others — beliefs are protected until they impinge on others. Religious liberty should not become a Trojan horse for perpetuating certain views.

Nor is religious freedom unlimited. The High Court of Australia has always enforced Section 116 rather narrowly, balancing religious freedom with the public good. In 1912 it upheld compulsory military training for boys in spite of their religious objections, and in the 1943 Jehovah’s Witnesses case, it ruled that the Constitution did not protect the church from engaging in activities prejudicing the war effort. In Kruger v Commonwealth(1997) it was found that Section 116 allowed laws which indirectly prohibit the free exercise of religion.

Thus, according to our own High Court, the right to manifest religious beliefs is not absolute, and must exist in balance with other considerations.

In many countries, religious freedom is protected as part of a Bill of Rights along with other key freedoms. However, the same-sex marriage opponents explicitly reject a Bill of Rights, evidently, preferring religious freedom to remain unfettered by a modern understanding of human rights.

Which raises the question of how marriage equality represents a threat to our freedoms?

In an article for ABC Religion & Ethics, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher described as follows, the supposedly dystopian future Australia which would result from legalising marriage equality:

  • evangelical business owners are threatened with legal action for discriminating against gay weddings,
  • religious schools would be forced to teach a state-approved tolerant ‘gay friendly’ curriculum,
  • religious instruction in secular state schools has been scrapped,
  • religious organisations have lost their charitable status, and now “pay the same taxes and rates levied on any other business”.

What a prodigious slide down the slippery slope! Just how legalising same-sex marriage would suddenly result in the end of tax free status, is not explained. Even so, these ‘consequences’ are hardly horrifying.

Indeed, they are all issues in which freedom of thought, conscience and religion is balanced with the rights of individuals and the public good.

Religious freedom does not only apply to those who take the Bible literally. Equally, it applies to Christians who support same-sex marriage; to the 40 percent of LGBTQ people who are Christian, to those who hold spiritual beliefs, those of other faiths, and those with no faith.

Capturing the essence of religious liberty, the UK Secretary of Employment said in 2005, that a hallmark of a civilised society is respect for each other’s beliefs. Safeguarding and balancing the rights of individuals in a pluralist society enables multiple belief systems to coexist in harmony.

Thus, sabre-rattlers of religious freedom are running a campaign antithetical to their own agenda. They should exercise caution with their blades, lest their wishes are granted.

Poker and the science of intuition

Can spotting bluffs provide insight into human intuition?

(As published in the Rationalist Society of Australia journal)


poker bluffing


Can you tell when someone is lying to you? Scientific studies say that most people are virtually blind to falsehoods: in using their reasoning, the average person scores only marginally better than pure guesswork (2014 University of California Study). But recent studies suggest that listening to our gut feelings can help us to do better.

Do you sometimes know something without knowing how you know? Of course you do: we call this gut feeling or intuition.

As a member of the Rationalist Society of Australia, and an advocate for the use of reason in public debate, I’m not entirely comfortably with this “woo woo” about trusting gut feelings.

But, my experience in playing poker in casino card rooms – the popular Texas No Limit Hold Em’ version poker – has drawn me to the subject because, in this arena, gut feelings and instincts are routinely discussed.

Poker players are superstitious, moving from one seat at the table to another, placing trinkets or lucky charms on the table, wearing a lucky shirt, and referring to the vagaries of “luck” relentlessly. In a casino or cardroom, life seems aleatory: gambling’s attraction and buzz is the momentary surrender to the vicissitudes of outrageous fortune.

Whereas some card players place inordinate value on feeling lucky, other, more successful players, place a high value on being able to read their opponents, and appear to be able to “sense” strength and weakness, and optimise their play accordingly. I’ve seen one or two players who are amazingly adept at flushing out their opponents: staring across the table and somehow being able to deduce almost exactly the cards their opponent holds. “I knew he had nothing”, they say, calling off a big bluff. Are they using intuition, or rationally assessing the available evidence?

Based on my own experience, it’s a bit of both. Observing the basics of solid poker strategy, many of my decisions are based on game flow, reads and visual “tells”. A “tell” is when you detect something in the body language or behaviour of a player which influences your decision.

For example, beginners in live poker will often give themselves away when holding a winning hand by making gestures suggesting disappointment. Shaking their head or making an audible “tsk tsk” sound, or, metamorphosing into “Sad-Face”: a person apparently weighed down by deep melancholy. While reluctantly putting all of their money in the middle, such players will make comments such as “It’s only money,” and “Well, I came here to gamble”, as if to suggest that they do not in fact hold the “nuts” (best possible hand), when of course they do.

While such tells are obvious to experienced players, there have been many other times when I’ve observed a person’s behaviour and felt a strong impulse as to whether their hand is weak or strong, without consciously knowing why. Thus, the question becomes whether or not to act on this feeling.


Most famous bluff of all time?

Most famous bluff of all time?


Some Examples

A couple of years ago I was playing a hand against an inexperienced opponent. He had just sat down at the table, along with one of his buddies, and soon he and I were in a hand.

In Texas No Limit Hold’em players are dealt two cards and then make the best poker hand possible from the five cards placed face up on the table. First, three cards are dealt – the flop. Then one more card – The turn, and finally the last card – the River. There are 4 betting rounds, the deal, the flop, the turn and the river.

In the hand concerned, when the river card was dealt, I held only a medium strength hand. My cards were a queen and a jack, so I held 2nd pair on a board of KJ358, and my opponent went all in for his remaining $150.00. Normally this situation is a clear fold. But, before acting, I took note of my opponent. Something seemed off. He glanced briefly towards his friend after betting, and then adopted an odd little smile: an unusual, smug expression, one that you rarely see, and commensurate with the feeling that he was enjoying seeing me squirm. Feeling puzzled by this expression, I reasoned that it could mean either strength or weakness. Nonetheless, I retained a feeling he was bluffing.

After a few more moments, I decided to call.

“Ah, you’ve got me”, he says and mucks his hand.

A few weeks later, and I’m near the lead in the local $50k tournament. If only two more people are knocked out, I’ll be one of the final twenty players, and will partake in the money. Sitting to my right is last year’s tournament winner – a flashy, aggressive player who I’ve suspected of making bluffs earlier on. It’s worth noting that big bluffs are actually the exception, rather than the rule, in poker. The more common mistake is to make bad calls, justified by rationalising that the opponent is bluffing. The suspiciousness of poker players, combined with the natural desire to win, makes them fall prey to making bad calls as opposed to good folds.

Soon I’m in a hand with this foe, and again I have second pair on the river: my hand is K7, on a board of K498A. On the fall of the Ace on the river, he dramatically announces “All in!”

If I call and win I will be the tournament chip leader – if I call and lose I’m out. Feeling sick, I pause to consider my position. “All in!” calls the dealer, and as a break is called, players from the surrounding tables gather around. Adding to the pressure, there’s now about a hundred people watching me grapple with this dilemma.

My instinct here is to fold. Looking over at my opponent he leans back on his chair and a little smile appears on his face. (Again, the little smile!) He acknowledges a friend who’s watching.

I begin to get the feeling that he’s bluffing. Further, I picture folding and seeing him show his cards as a bluff. (If I fold he does not have to show his cards). It’s an obvious spot to bluff, since an ace is an over card to the board, and it’s not very likely that I hold an ace. Eventually I rationalise my competing instincts by reasoning that since my opponent is an advanced player, it’s more likely that he’s trying to induce a call rather than a fold.

Finally, I fold, and he turns over the bluff – 72 of diamonds – and everyone gasps. He says, “No offense intended, you know it’s all part of the game”. To most poker players my decision is a difficult one: it could go either way, and largely comes down to your instincts – players often describe such spots as a “soul read”.

Soon after, I read a very interesting book on poker tells, and discovered that the “little smile” is indeed a common tell indicating a big bluff. Since then, I’ve used this knowledge successfully on a number of occasions. Now, rather than a feeling, it’s become part of a checklist I go through when I suspect a bluff.

But it also demonstrates something about intuition. Evidently, prior to knowing the meaning of the “little smile”, my decision making was influenced by the feeling it induced. Body language is widely regarded as a tool that may provide information about a person’s mental state. And poker players are often sensitive and observant of their opponent’s demeanour. If it’s possible to unconsciously pick up patterns in body language, then it should be possible to harness the feelings they cause.

Does Science support this?

Psychology has taken an avid interest in intuition in recent years. Indeed, a quick review of recent studies shows numerous ways in which unconsciously processes drive decision making.

A 2016 University of New South Wales study, published in the journal of Psychological Science, showed how subliminal images designed to evoke an emotional response could influence preferences in a cognitive task. Participants were asked to perform a simple task of selecting which direction dots on a screen were generally moving. When they were shown positive subliminal images they performed better, and when shown negative images they performed worse, demonstrating that the subconscious does indeed affect decisions.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio showed how the unconscious mind influences decisions through “somatic markers”: feelings in the body caused by emotions. The Iowa Gambling Task involves participants choosing from four decks of cards on a monitor to win money. Two decks are weighted towards high risk and produce generally negative outcomes, while the other decks produce generally good results. Participants consciously pick up on which are the “good” decks after about 50 cards. Significantly however, after only ten trials, galvanic skin response showed signs of stress from hovering over the “bad” decks. Thus, pattern seeking apparently happens at the subconscious level, and people can sense the bad cards unconsciously.

Bargh and Morsella (2008) take a wider view, arguing from an evolutionary perspective, that subconscious action predates and often supervenes over conscious actions. Surfacing only in comparatively recent times, conscious awareness applies to well adapted and sophisticated species, such as humans. Recent psychology, in their view, erroneously focuses on “awareness” as the prime driver of intention, where, as Freud knew, instinct and intuition drove behaviour, long before conscious intentionality. Additionally, consciousness and unconsciousness are not so neatly divided: think of easy, automatic actions such as driving or brushing one’s teeth – our consciousness can fade in and out.

There’s been a recent explosion of interest in micro-expressions following the research of Paul Ekman, which led to the television series Lie To Me. Based on studies of pre-literate tribesmen in Papua New Guinea, there are seven universal facial expressions which include anger, sadness, happiness, fear, surprise, disgust and contempt. Lasting only a fraction of a second, micro-expressions consist of involuntary facial expressions, which are thus, very useful in trying to determine what a person who is trying to conceal their feelings. Note, the bluffer’s little smile is similar to the micro-expression for contempt.

Separating good intuitions from bad intuitions

Daniel Kahneman’s ground-breaking book, Thinking Fast and Slow (2011), showed how often humans elect to make snap judgements based on intuition (System 1), rather than carefully deliberating with the available evidence (System 2). Cognitive scientists believe thinking and memory occur on two levels – dual processing – the conscious, aware and deliberate, and the unconscious, automatic and implicit.

Thinking fast and slow

Our brains are capable in delivering quick heuristic judgements, or mental shortcuts, but these often result in poor outcomes. Kahneman identified several cognitive biases, influencing decision-making, applying to both modes of cognition. For instance, most people are loss-averse: biased towards averting a loss rather than risking a possible gain.

Drawing on the work of psychologist Paul Meehl, Kahneman describes various areas where the intuitions of “experts” are less reliable than basic algorithm’s. Meehl’s studies showed that clinical psychologists perform worse than a statistical algorithm in making long term clinical predictions.

Kahneman joined forces with one of his vocal critics, Gary Klein, whose research had found an apparently opposing conclusion: that expert intuition is reliable. Experienced firefighters seem to develop a sixth sense of when a roof is about to collapse, and can instinctively develop an optimal course of action based on a given scenario. They can do so without knowing how they know. Klein’s studies, documented in his book, Sources of Power, looked at how experienced experts developed skill in intuitive judgements.

Firefighters use associative memory and unconscious pattern recognition, to develop a tentative plan or hypothesis. Then, based on this intuition, they form a detailed plan using second level conscious reasoning. Intuition becomes a form of recognition, or simply memory, as described previously by the scholar of decision making Herbett Simon:

“The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more than recognition”.

Together, Kahneman and Klein forged agreement on the conditions required to make gut feelings reliable. How is it that firefighters, physicians, chess players, and anaethesiologists, could all make good decisions where clinical psychologists, stock market analysts, log-term political forecasters, wine price predictors were outperformed by statistical algorithm’s?

They found intuitive skills could be developed by experience in regular, controlled environments. A regular environment must be distinguished from an irregular environment – where events are too unpredictable to be learned through pattern recognition. An environment allowing extended practise in learning the regularities of outcomes and experience is required. Kahnemen and Klein agree these environments are satisfied in games of skill such as Chess, Bridge and Poker. Which helps explain why intuitive decisions and feelings seem to work in Poker!

An inbuilt lie detector?

The 2014 University of California Study, authored by Dr Leanne ten Brinke, that found that humans are only marginally better at detecting lying (54%) using reason than guesswork, also found that “automatic associations” at the subconscious level were substantially better. Subjects were able to associate words such as “dishonest”, and “deceitful” with the liars, and words like “honest” and “valid” with the truth tellers.

“These results provide a new lens through which to examine social perception and suggest that – at least in terms of detection of lies – unconscious measures may provide additional insight into interpersonal accuracy,” said Dr ten Brinke.
A Final Hand

Playing deep-stacked – where I and other players at the table had amassed considerable chips, I got into a hand with a frisky player. By frisky, I mean that he was active, playing a weaker than average range of starting hands, and thus, making more bluffs. He already been caught out bluffing twice, but I’d also seen him “get paid off” when he made a good hand because other players simply don’t believe him.

I’m in first position, and I am dealt a strong starting hand of 10 spades, and 10 diamonds. I raise it to $30 and 3 players, including “frisky” call.

My hand:

10spades   10 diamonds

The flop is:

8 clubs 8 spades 9 clubs

8clubs 8spades 9clubs

For me, this is a good flop because my tens are an over pair to the board, and few hands beat me. Unless, one of my foes holds an 8, that is!

So I bet $65, 2 players fold, and my frisky opponent takes little time and raises to $135.00.

Now, this has become dangerous for me. We both have roughly $1000 in chips in front of us. My opponent has “position” giving him an advantage as he can act last in the hand.

I consider my options. I’m confident this player will be raising with bluffs and drawing type hands, such as 6 7 suited, as well as strong hands. If I re-raise he will call with all of his draws and fold all of his stone bluffs. So I decide to just call, with the intention of calling again on the turn and reassessing the river.

The turn:

3 clubs

3 clubs

A problem. Now there are three clubs on the board, so the flush draws have hit. So, if my opponent had say, 57 of clubs he just made a flush – a very strong hand.

I check. My opponent bets $155.00. I take little time in calling.

Now I am dreading the river card. It falls:

The Ace of spades.

ace spades

I check, and “frisky” instantly moves all in with a bet of $550.00. Disaster.

My first reaction is to fold. It’s just too big a bet and players in general are more likely to be holding a strong hand in this situation.

But something prevents me from folding. The frisky player is adopting a neutral expression.

I ask, “Have you got it mate?”

He gives me an “I dunno” look combined with a slight head shake. He challenges, “Call me and find out”.

Maybe I’m good, I think.

I would have to call $550.00 to win roughly $2000.00 if my hand is good. The odds point towards a call if I think I am good 25% of the time. However, on a bet this big most players, and I am no exception, hate to call and be wrong.

Thinking about the action, I decide that it’s unlikely he has a full house or trip 8’s. If he had an eight on the flop, I don’t think he would have raised: my experience is that the “bluffy” style of player will not usually try to scare away his opponent in this situation.

He really could have the flush though. And there are plenty of combinations of cards he could have been dealt that make this hand possible. 35 of clubs, 9 10 of clubs.

Thinking further, I don’t think he has the ace. I think it’s extremely unlikely he would make such a large bet with a medium strength hand like AJ, or AQ. He would bet $200.00 or even check back such a hand.

Therefore, his range of hands is polarised to either very strong or very weak.

By now I have taken about 5 minutes and people are fidgeting. I apologise for taking so long. My foe has been shifting about a bit in his seat.

I’m good, I think. But this is a huge call.

“I’m putting you on the flush”, he suddenly says.

I let this sink in.

“Your trying to say that you’ve got a full house?”, I ask.

I dunno, expression.

Well this decides it. I think it’s extremely unlikely he holds a full house, and if he’s telling me he thinks I have a flush, then it’s a sure bet he doesn’t have one. And that was the hand I was worried about.

I throw one chip in the middle to signify a call.

He shakes his head sheepishly, and turns over K spades 4 spades, for absolute nothing, no pair, no draw – a stone bluff.

I win.

I turn over my two 10’s and the other players at the table are visibly shocked. Mostly, they don’t think my play was good even though I won. “He could have had an ace!” whispers someone.

My opponent gave himself away with his comment about the flush. It’s rare something like that happens. I wonder if I would have made the same call without that comment.

But it’s certain that the strong feeling I developed assisted me in getting to that point and engaging my conscious decision making process in order to make the right decision. Or, maybe I was just lucky!

Proceed with caution

The science gives us good reason to think our intuition can enhance our decisions in certain specific areas. In situations where we are experts and have a great deal of experience in controlled environments, it seems our associative memory stores patterns and information which are helpful.

But how do we know when those circumstances exist? Kahneman also tells us that our System 1 intuitive thinking is going to lead us down a fallacious rabbit hole if circumstances are unfavourable.

And so, I write about the benefits of gut feelings with some reservation. Especially, given the inordinate credence given to New Age wisdom, much of which connects loosely to scientific research, but then moves tangentially to unjustified and wondrous conclusions. Add to this, the inordinate value most people seem to place on their own personal intuition, witnessed by statements such as “my gut never lies!”, and bookstores stacked with titles on finding our inner wisdom, our sixth sense, and developing personal power.

So, we need to watch out for the pitfalls of intuition. That’s where they help us rationalize choices we’re driven to make, not because our hunch is true, but because we want it to be true, because of a myriad of cognitive biases, and because we’re determined to deceive ourselves.

Evidently, we need more research into the role of intuition in decision making. And, even though the concept runs counter to most of my pre-existing beliefs, I’m forced to concede that the possibility of harnessing gut feelings presents some exciting possibilities.

If weak naturalism is untrue then provide your evidence

Response to Gary Robertson’s post: The Burden of Proof Naturalism versus Supernaturalism: Gary’s Robertson’s Response to Post 4


human looking at space

Weak naturalism 

Gary complains that my definition of weak naturalism is narrow, and then proceeds to conflate that definition with naturalism, claiming I equivocate. Allow me then to clarify so that any further discussion can be clear.

My claim that “As far as we know, the natural world is all there is,” is not, pace Gary’s claim, a knowledge claim about fundamental reality. It is agnostic about fundamental reality. This is a crucial distinction, as Gary is at pains to maintain the position of false equivalence between weak naturalism and supernaturalism. My position clearly states “as far as we know”, thereby delineating a point beyond our current level of “knowledge” (know). Weak naturalism does not enter this unknown country, rather it maintains that the natural world is all that exists, as far as we know.

This position deliberately allows its opponent to provide the evidence that the assertion is false. If the natural world is not all that exists, then the supernaturalist is free to provide the evidence of what exists beyond.

Gary claims that the qualifier “as far as we know” is illegitimate, as many other claims to knowledge are based on what we know at present including claims to a transcendent reality. This is false. The qualifier reduces the claim of naturalism to weak naturalism by it’s own definition. Further, we must distinguish knowledge claims or hypothesis or theories or conjecture from actual knowledge. To be clear, when I say “as far as we know”, I mean to say, that as far as is generally agreed by the human community as forming part of our knowledge. And that general agreement by the human community at large is based on verifiability and sufficient evidence – not, mind you by my own definition, but by fact. It is a far different matter, to base knowledge claims on knowledge and extrapolate from there, as is the case for supernaturalism, and theology in general. In this universally accepted understanding of knowledge, the Big Bang is evidence only for the Big Bang.

Gary is determined to stretch the position of weak naturalism so that is effectively equivalent to naturalism, as he can thereby assert equivalence between knowledge claims which are equally unverifiable. Weak naturalism is only a knowledge claim in asserting that the world exists, and that the universe represents a current limit to our knowledge. Examples of where I had previously used weak naturalism to posit a prima facie case for naturalism, provide no contradiction or suggestion that my definition of weak naturalism is anything less than clear. Ie. Naturalism makes a knowledge claim about fundamental reality whereas weak naturalism does not.

Gary appears to think I was arguing that naturalism can be proven from premises that “(1) nature exists; and (2) there is no evidence of a supernatural reality) that nature is all there is (which, of course, does not follow)”. Rather, my essay argued that there was a false equivalence between the two metaphysical views, not that I considered naturalism proven by the limits of our knowledge. In any case, making a straw man of my claims does nothing to substantiate claims of a supernatural realm.

To refute weak naturalism the supernaturalist needs to provide positive evidence of a supernatural world. It is not sufficient to present semantic disagreement on what the terms mean or to attempt to puncture weak naturalism by conflating and straw manning the concept. It is trivially true that the world exists, and undoubtedly true that we have no compelling evidence of a world beyond.

The question is: what sort of evidence would be adequate to refute weak naturalism? And by degree, this question becomes, what quantum of evidence would be sufficient to justify belief in a supernatural realm?

Scientism Red Herring

Following a strong recent tradition, Gary then seeks to discredit the argument for weak naturalism by accusing me of scientism. Although this tactic is quite familiar, it misunderstands my argument. I am not saying that science is all there is and that philosophy has no merit. What I am saying, is that you have to provide evidence to back up your claims.

It does no harm to my claims to suggest that all bachelors are unmarried. It does not matter if you consider this claim a scientific claim or not. One still needs to provide sufficient evidence for one’s claims of a supernatural dimension.

Gary claims that my statement that “The scientific method has become the accepted method of inquiry,” is false because there are other methods of inquiry. This simply introduces another point of semantics pertaining to where science starts and stops, and what other methods of inquiry might provide sufficient grounds for epistemic justification. This is fine and does not contradict my argument at all. Tell me what sort of evidence you have for a supernatural realm and we can consider it!

However, Gary does not attempt to refute my claim that hypothesis pertaining to fundamental reality are unlikely to be accepted without scientific consensus. It will not be the philosophers who determine to general satisfaction that God exists, or that there is a supernatural dimension. For any theory regarding fundamental reality to be confirmed, it will take the verification and testing of the scientific method. This is not scientism, it is an uncontroversial observation of reality. This is how the world operates. It is not based on my opinion.

But I agree with the convention.

To be absolutely clear, and as demonstrated in my first essay, I think that knowledge claims should be based upon evidence. I don’t care if you call that evidence science, history, philosophy or something else.

Evidence: the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.

Is Empiricism Self-Defeating?

Proceeding from the red herring of scientism, Gary then quotes several statements which aim to show that science and empiricism rely on philosophical presuppositions. Gary then goes on to state that he thinks theories are distinct from science (they are not), and cites scientists such as Smolin as if he were a philosopher. Theories are an essential part of science, and that’s why Gary was able to quote extensively from Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawking, both of whom explicitly reject a theistic worldview.

Quoting Catholic theologian Edward Feser at length, one is perplexed to find that for science to have legitimacy it must prove itself! The ample evidence of the success of the scientific method in improving our lives is evidently not enough.

This is a spurious and foolish brand of sophistry, which, even if it succeeded, would do nothing to provide evidence for a supernatural realm. The extensive writings of someone like Feser are aimed rather narrowly at discrediting the assertions of atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. What they don’t do, is provide any evidence that the theistic worldview has merit.

In a similar way, Gary consoles himself by arguing that my worldview is conceptually flawed. But how does this provide any solace for the supernaturalist? Answer, it doesn’t.

In aiming to justify philosophy in such a belaboured manner, it appears as though Gary has convinced himself that this is really just a disagreement about buildings in a University. If he can pump up the tyres of philosophy enough, then he will feel less of an onus to provide actual evidence. And, as is evidenced in his need to quote scientists, this feels very much like a case of trying to convince oneself rather than others.

Invoking hypotheses and intuition as if they were proof

Gary then goes on to inform me that the missing means of evidence, “typically involve either deductive philosophical arguments based on solid empirical and/or metaphysical premises, or abductive inferences drawn from observational data”.

And here we see clearly the difference. Gary thinks that sufficient evidence can be pieced together by adding philosophical arguments and inferences based on empirical evidence. And in this manner, Gary posits the Big Bang as evidence of a supernatural realm. He then quotes Stephen Hawking saying the Big Bang “smacks of divine intervention “, despite the fact that he knows Stephen Hawking does not believe in God or think that the Big Bang proves a supernatural realm.

And this is where we can answer our earlier question. What is sufficient evidence? Is it sufficient to speculate that the Big Bang suggests a beginning to the universe, and then extrapolate that this must mean a supernatural realm exists outside of it? Is it sufficient to insert some quotes of others who think the Big Bang infers a creator?

No. No. No.

We can intuit or infer any number of causes or explanations of the universe, based on the Big Bang. I’ve outlined some examples, in A Fallacy of Cosmic Proportions – the Kalam Cosmological Argument ,and so needn’t repeat them here.

But, it does highlight the difference between our views. It is apparent that Gary thinks an intuition or theory based upon a set of facts is a sufficient warrant for belief. Gary explains:

“Of course, the empirical data doesn’t prove the transcendent cause is God; it merely suggests that an inference to supernatural causation is plausible on evidentiary grounds.”

A telling admission. It’s such a small claim as to be trivial: a plausible inference. Are you really basing your world view, and your observance of your religion, on a belief claim based on a plausible inference?

What we are discussing is the relative likelihood of a supernatural realm. Given there are an infinite number of possibilities as to the source (if there is one) or explanation of ultimate reality, the plausibility of a supernatural realm (with a Creator God, presumably Catholic) provides no indication of likelihood whatsoever. Of course, it is plausible.

But there is insufficient evidence to consider it likely.

Sufficient Evidence

In order to demonstrate some likelihood of a supernatural realm, one would need to demonstrate some actual evidence pertaining to that realm. (As opposed to a set of inferences based on the natural world).

What might this evidence consist of?

First, we might expect the supernaturalist to be able to define what this realm entailed. What does the realm consist of? How does it relate to the natural world? What information leads us to believe that the supernatural realm has these characteristics?

For example, does the supernatural realm consist of heaven and hell? Either eternal torment or eternal bliss?

In summary, if there was sufficient evidence of a supernatural realm, then we would have a generally agreed description of what was contained in that realm. Alas, we have virtually no agreed ideas. Further, we have no universally agreed upon evidence of the existence of a supernatural realm.

As such, proponents of such a realm need to content themselves with finding holes in the naturalist argument. Implicit in the argument that supernaturalism is equally likely to naturalism, is that the lack of evidence of a supernatural realm means that neither can be proved empirically. This is why weak naturalism is powerful. To discredit weak naturalism , it’s opponents proponent must provide positive evidence of a supernatural realm. Alas, there is none.

The Burden of Proof Naturalism versus Supernaturalism: Gary’s Robertson’s Response to Post 4

Gary Robertson replies to Hugh’s post 4 based on the essay:Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy”


In Part 1 of his rejoinder to my previous post (Post 3: ‘Is Naturalism More Probable than Supernaturalism?’) Hugh argues that the burden of proof in debates pitting weak naturalism against theistic supernaturalism rests solely with proponents of the latter. His justification is that, while the supernaturalist’s position involves a claim to knowledge, the weak naturalist’s position does not. However, this justification is based on a very broad definition of weak naturalism that even encompasses non-naturalistic beliefs and, crucially, the justification contradicts Hugh’s narrower definitions of the term. But far more problematic for Hugh’s naturalistic worldview is that it is based on a self-defeating epistemology that renders it either false or meaningless.

Claiming Knowledge

As with the essay and ensuing discussion this debate is based on, Hugh equivocates on the meaning of the term ‘weak naturalism’ to sidestep an obligation to provide sufficient warrant for his position.1 Sometimes Hugh defines weak naturalism as merely disbelief in a supernatural realm “given the lack of evidence,” or as “simply lacking belief in the supernatural dimension,” while at other times his characterisations are more forthright. For instance, Hugh defines weak naturalism in his rejoinder and in his preceding post as follows: “As far as we know, the natural world is all there is.” But clearly a claim that fundamental reality is comprised only of the natural world is a knowledge claim. And Hugh cannot credibly argue that the qualifier “As far as we know” exempts his definition from knowledge claim status as many claims to knowledge are based on currently available evidence (that is, what we ‘know’ at present), including the competing ontological claim of a transcendent reality that I’m defending in my posts. Therefore, since Hugh’s version of naturalism entails a claim to knowledge about ultimate reality, the onus of proof lies with proponents on both of sides of this debate.

Key Contradictions

Hugh retorts: “Proposing weak naturalism does not entail ‘appealing to the fact that nature exists rather than providing any positive evidence showing why it’s probable nothing transcends nature’. Rather, it appeals to the lack of evidence for anything supernatural, period.” This contradicts his earlier statement: “in my essay Naturalism versus Supernaturalism – the false dichotomy – I argue that the observance of the natural world along with its laws combined [emphasis added] with the absence of any evidence of the supernatural, amounts to a strong prima facie case for naturalism”. It is also inconsistent with his explanation of weak naturalism in his rejoinder, wherein he states the view involves “asserting the existence of the natural world”.

Not only does Hugh contradict himself in his definitions of weak naturalism, his naturalistic stance, which he concedes “is indeed a philosophical position,” does not even meet his own standards of justification – that is, his criteria a proposition must fulfil to have epistemic credibility. For example, Hugh concludes from the premises in his essay (i.e. (1) nature exists; and (2) there is no evidence of a supernatural reality) that nature is all there is (which, of course, does not follow). Instead of withholding judgement and assuming an agnostic stance given the supposed absence of evidence for or against a supernatural reality, Hugh makes the unsubstantiated knowledge claim that there is nothing beyond the physical world. But since his claim is philosophical and thus “beyond the limits of empiricism,” using Hugh’s logic the claim is “unknowable by nature, and thus, by definition, lacks any epistemic likelihood.”

Let’s look at it another way: We know the natural world exists as we have definitive proof of its existence, but is the natural world all there is? Does the natural world comprise all of reality? According to Hugh’s epistemology, we don’t know the answers to these questions because there is no empirically verifiable evidence available. Following Hugh’s logic, if the answers cannot be known scientifically or empirically then metaphysical views based on answers to those questions are without any epistemic credibility. So, since naturalism is a philosophical position and its central claim that nothing transcends nature is not empirically verifiable, to be consistent we must also regard naturalism as having no epistemic likelihood. Hence, ultimately Hugh shoots himself in the foot. Moreover, as I argue in the next section, Hugh’s standards of justification not only invalidate his own position of weak naturalism, they also reveal the reliance of his position on several self-defeating philosophical concepts, which serves to further deepen an already gaping wound.

Self-Defeating Epistemology

Hugh says “Without relying on the accepted definitions of naturalism (i.e. philosophical naturalism, methodological naturalism), or of the rich philosophical history, weak naturalism is justifiable on its own terms.” I suspect we have only been informed of some of these terms up to this point with more of the key ones still to be revealed, but from what I’ve seen so far in this debate weak naturalism is far from justifiable as a rational worldview, or as an evidence-based one. Indeed, as I pointed out in my last post any reductionist or non-reductionist naturalistic belief system that incorporates evolutionary theory is epistemically self-defeating since, if the worldview is true, it means naturalism (and all other human beliefs, which would be selected purely for their survival value rather than for their truth value) cannot be rationally adhered to. (More on this point in my upcoming response to Part 2 of Hugh’s rejoinder).

Additionally, it is quite evident from the first part of his rejoinder to my last post that a number of Hugh’s assertions relating to the epistemology of his type of naturalism exhibit elements of scientism, empiricism and verificationism – all of which are either self-refuting or meaningless concepts. For instance, we’ve already seen that Hugh deems a proposition that is “beyond the limits of empiricism” to be “unknowable” and therefore lacking “any epistemic likelihood.” He also maintains that “methods of enquiry beyond the scope of empirical science” can be used to justify “any belief whatsoever,” and that propositions which are “beyond the purview of science” have “equal epistemic justification” with propositions claiming the existence of “fairies, unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster.” Further, according to Hugh “all causes are empirical and naturalistic” (Post 2) and if evidence is not empirically verifiable “then it is not really evidence”. These views are archetypal examples of scientism.

Further, although Hugh is correct when he states “it’s not scientism to expect knowledge-claims to be verifiable, or testable,” he follows with: “The scientific method has become the accepted method of inquiry.” But this is only correct when referring specifically to a posteriori inquiry, such as the investigation of natural causation, and quantitative research into physical phenomena. Applied generally, the statement is incorrect as the scientific method does not pertain to a priori knowledge or aspects of reality not amenable to experimental testing. We would certainly not use the scientific method to check the validity of the statement ‘There are no unmarried bachelors’; instead we would assess its logical coherence. We could confirm whether Leonardo da Vinci produced the mural painting The Last Supper by examining public records and historical documents without recourse to measurements or scientific methodology. Naturalists would attempt to reconcile the existence of numbers and other entities lacking spatiotemporal locations with their naturalistic beliefs through philosophical analysis and argument – not via “Hadron colliders, telescopes and space probes”. As crucial as science is for discovering and understanding the world around us, there is obviously more to knowledge than only scientific knowledge. (See the sections ‘Philosophy is Prior to Science’ and ‘Empiricism vs Rationalism vs the Middle Ground’ below for more on this).

A few standard definitions of ‘scientism’ should suffice to demonstrate the purely scientistic character of Hugh’s comments:

“Scientism is a term generally used to describe the cosmetic application of science in unwarranted situations not covered by the scientific method” and it is a hallmark of scientism to believe in “the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or the most valuable part of human learning — to the exclusion of other viewpoints.” (Wikipedia: ‘Scientism’).

To borrow from Wikipedia again: the term scientism also describes “the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measured or confirmatory.” (‘Scientism’) The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines scientism as “the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry.” (Blackburn, 2005)

Unfortunately for Hugh scientism is self-defeating as the truth of the view that no proposition is valid unless it can be verified scientifically or empirically cannot itself be scientifically or empirically verified. The Skeptic’s Dictionary explains scientism’s self-referential incoherency as follows:

“Scientism, in the strong sense, is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless.” (‘Scientism’)

Philosopher Edward Feser provides a more elaborate explanation:

“Despite its adherents’ pose of rationality, scientism has a serious problem: it is either self-refuting or trivial. Take the first horn of this dilemma. The claim that scientism is true is not itself a scientific claim, not something that can be established using scientific methods. Indeed, that science is even a rational form of inquiry (let alone the only rational form of inquiry) is not something that can be established scientifically. For scientific inquiry itself rests on a number of philosophical assumptions: that there is an objective world external to the minds of scientists; that this world is governed by causal regularities; that the human intellect can uncover and accurately describe these regularities; and so forth. Since science presupposes these things, it cannot attempt to justify them without arguing in a circle. And if it cannot even establish that it is a reliable form of inquiry, it can hardly establish that it is the only reliable form. Both tasks would require ‘getting outside’ science altogether and discovering from that extra-scientific vantage point that science conveys an accurate picture of reality—and in the case of scientism, that only science does so.

The rational investigation of the philosophical presuppositions of science has, naturally, traditionally been regarded as the province of philosophy. Nor is it these presuppositions alone that philosophy examines. There is also the question of how to interpret what science tells us about the world. For example, is the world fundamentally comprised of substances or events? What is it to be a ‘cause’? Is there only one kind? … Scientific findings can shed light on such metaphysical questions, but can never fully answer them. Yet if science must depend upon philosophy both to justify its presuppositions and to interpret its results, the falsity of scientism seems doubly assured.” (Feser, 2010)

Philosophy is Prior to Science

Professor Feser’s comments not only demonstrate the futility of scientism, they also illustrate the philosophical underpinnings of science, such as science’s dependence on philosophy for establishing its rational basis, interpreting its results and justifying its methods. It is therefore absurd to state that the only way we can know about the world is through scientific inquiry, since this activity is dependent upon assumptions that are not determined by science. In Australian Rationalist, writer Terry Noone reinforces Feser’s insights on science’s reliance on philosophy with the following astute observations:

“Underlying the empirical method are a number of assumptions which are not themselves justifiable by that method, nor by any other product of materialism. … The problem with all of these assumptions is that, in an empirical materialist sense, their existence is not provable by observation. They are classic examples of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem which states, more or less, that no system can explain itself from evidence arising exclusively within that system. This is not to say that the assumptions are incorrect. As stated above, science works and we are all grateful for its positive achievements. What science cannot do is explain itself on its own terms and this should lead us to be at least cautious in embracing materialist empiricism as the sole acceptable method for acquiring knowledge in all areas of human experience. The fundamental basis of science is not material, or susceptible to empirical examination. It is on a different level to the physical. It is in fact metaphysical. This may explain the traditional hostility of some philosophers of science to so called speculative philosophy. It may be that is simply too difficult to understand metaphysical concepts from the standpoint of materialism. It requires not so much pulling a number of rabbits out of a hat as pulling the hat itself out of nothing.” (Noone, 2013)

Thus, it would appear that philosophy is the rational basis of science. Further, philosopher John Kekes makes a strong case for regarding philosophy as the very paradigm of rationality:

“A successful argument for science being the paradigm of rationality must be based on the demonstration that the presuppositions of science are preferable to other presuppositions. That demonstration requires showing that science, relying on these presuppositions, is better at solving some problems and achieving some ideals than its competitors. But showing that cannot be the task of science. It is, in fact, one task of philosophy. Thus the enterprise of justifying the presuppositions of science by showing that with their help science is the best way of solving certain problems and achieving some ideals is a necessary precondition of the justification of science. Hence philosophy, and not science, is a stronger candidate for being the very paradigm of rationality.” (Kekes, 1980)

On that basis, philosophy has a serious claim to being prior to science. Indeed, since everyone has an ontological perspective, and since engaging in metaphysics, ethics, logic, and philosophy in general, is unavoidable, philosophy could be considered the predicate of conceptual thought.

Empiricism vs Rationalism vs the Middle Ground

Given its vigorous exaltation of empirical evidence, Hugh’s version of naturalism seems to either disregard or downplay the crucial interaction between theoretical analysis and experimentation in research within physics and other scientific disciplines – an interaction that is an inherent part of much of the scientific endeavour. As notable English astronomer, physicist, and mathematician Sir Arthur Eddington noted some time ago:

“Observation and theory get on best when they are mixed together, both helping one another in the pursuit of truth. It is a good rule not to put overmuch confidence in a theory until it has been confirmed by observation. I hope I shall not shock the experimental physicists too much if I add that it is also a good rule not to put overmuch confidence in the observational results that are put forward until they have been confirmed by theory.” (Eddington, 1935)

Such a middle-ground approach is adopted in “a moderate version of naturalistic epistemology” described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It states that an extreme version of naturalism argues that:

“To bring epistemology on the right path, it must be made a part of the natural sciences and become cognitive psychology. The aim of naturalistic epistemology thus understood is to replace traditional epistemology with an altogether new and redefined project.”

In contrast, a moderate version of naturalism:

“does not require of its proponents to replace traditional epistemology. Rather, this moderate approach accepts the need for ‘cooperation’ between traditional conceptual analysis and empirical methods.” (SEP: ‘Epistemology’)

In terms of epistemic justification, the competing fundamentalist positions of rationalism and empiricism miss the mark. A moderate or middle-ground approach is the most sensible position as we know that the empirical and the theoretical are both of value and often intersect, and that there are limits to the applicability and epistemology of each domain.

Take the limitations of empirical science for instance:

“It is generally accepted by philosophers of science that scientific theories can never be finally confirmed. For starters, the past may not be an absolutely reliable guide to the future, so that what has been observed might not be what will be observed in the future, even in the same circumstances. This is part of the problem of induction. Moreover, for any given experimental result, there might be several theories capable of predicting that result, so how do you know which is the correct theory, given that evidence? This is the so-called under-determination problem.” (Wilkinson, 2016)

Moreover, the success of Albert Einstein’s methods abolished the prevailing notion since Newton and Hume that hypotheses may be derived only from observation. For Einstein, creative ideas leading to deductions were just as important, if not more so, to generating theory as inductive generalisations from sensory experience. Einstein stated:

“It seems that the human mind has first to construct forms independently before we can find them in things. Kepler’s marvelous achievement is a particularly fine example of the truth that knowledge cannot spring from existence alone, but only from the comparison of the inventions of the intellect with observed fact.” (Einstein, 1982)

Elsewhere, Einstein was quite explicit on this issue:

“We now know that science cannot grow out of empiricism alone, that in the constructions of science we need to use free invention, which only a posteriori can be confronted with experience as to its usefulness. This fact could elude earlier generations, to whom theoretical creation seemed to grow indirectly out of empiricism without the creative influence of a free construction of concepts. The more primitive the status of science is the more readily can the scientist live under the illusion that he is a pure empiricist.” (Pais, 2005)

Although we require sense-experience to attain valid knowledge about many things, for other things reasoning provides valid knowledge, either alone or in conjunction with sense-experience. The calculation of the circumference of the Earth by the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes of Cyrene is an apt example. Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth by measuring the shadow cast by the sun on identical sundials at the Egyptian cities of Alexandria and Aswan. The gnomon of each sundial was perpendicular to the Earth, and the measurements were taken at noon on the day of the summer solstice. There was no shadow at Aswan, but a shadow of 7.2o at Alexandria. From this anomaly Eratosthenes knew that the Earth had to be spheroid – 2,300 years before anyone had actually seen the evidence from space. Knowing the difference between the two cities, he was also able to calculate the Earth’s circumference to be about 24,500 miles. The significance of Eratosthenes’ experiment is not the remarkable accuracy with which he was able to compute the circumference of the Earth, but his demonstration that empirical confirmation is not necessarily required to gain knowledge of the physical world, and that knowledge can be attained from investigating the paradoxes in our experience, rather than just from experience itself.

Of course, there are also examples of scientific discoveries made through the interplay of theory and data without any physical experimentation: British physicist Paul Dirac predicted the existence of antimatter purely on the basis of mathematical considerations, and modern string theorists such as Edward Witten work at the cutting edge of mathematics. Black holes were predicted based on singularities in the tensor equations of relativity, and the Big Bang itself was discovered mathematically by Belgian astrophysicist Georges Lemaitre before it was detected empirically.

This important interaction between theory and data gives us an indication why a New Scientist editorial discussing the origin of our orderly universe from nothing stated:

“Without an escape clause, physicists and philosophers [emphasis added] must finally answer a problem that has been nagging at them for the best part of 50 years: how do you get a universe, complete with the laws of physics, out of nothing?” (Editorial, 2012)

The mention of philosophers by New Scientist in this context is notable in light of Hugh’s belief that an announcement by a team of philosophers that they had discovered “an incontrovertible answer to the existence of the universe” would be “greeted with derision.” Given the experimental and theoretical nature of research into the origins of the universe, and the fact that there are philosophers engaged in theoretical analysis at the forefront of such research (see for example: Smolin, 20152), the notion of an interdisciplinary team consisting of philosophers and physicists and/or cosmologists making such an announcement would only come as a surprise to the uninitiated.

Philosophical Inquiry

Hugh claims “The supernatural is defended by proposing methods of enquiry beyond the scope of empirical science,” and that “the supernaturalist posits other means of evidence.” What this entails exactly appears to elude Hugh, as he remarks “it’s not entirely clear what this ‘evidence’ is.” Fortunately, I can reveal to Hugh that these other methods of inquiry and means of evidence typically involve either deductive philosophical arguments based on solid empirical and/or metaphysical premises, or abductive inferences drawn from observational data. For example, one of the argument’s I have employed so far in my case for a transcendent reality (the kalām cosmological argument) starts from well-supported metaphysical and empirical premises and draws a conclusion that necessarily follows from these premises. In other words, the argument is neither entirely empirical nor merely analytic. Instead, it combines premises that have firm empirical and metaphysical foundations with a logically sound (deductive) conclusion. Thus, Hugh’s allegation that proponents of supernaturalism generally seek to justify the existence of a transcendent reality “by inventing [their] own special realm of supernatural evidence” is erroneous.

Exhibit A

Big Bang Graphic - gif

Hugh asks “Where is Exhibit A?”, yet there are plenty of ‘exhibits’ right under his nose. Since we’ve been discussing it already, I submit the Big Bang as my first exhibit in this debate. This cosmological event involves the creation of the natural world from nothing. The question we need to ask is: What logically sound inferences can be drawn from a beginning point at which complete nothingness became an early stage of the physical universe? According to Stephen Hawking, “the idea that time has a beginning … smacks of divine intervention” (Hawking, 1988: p46) and “A point of creation would be a place where science broke down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God.” (Grossman, 2012). A New Scientist editorial echoes Hawking’s view:

“The big bang is now part of the furniture of modern cosmology, but [Fred] Hoyle’s unease has not gone away. Many physicists have been fighting a rearguard action against it for decades, largely because of its theological overtones. If you have an instant of creation, don’t you need a creator?” (Editorial, 2012)

The late Sir Arthur Eddington, Professor of Astronomy, Cambridge University, expressed the implications thusly:

“The extrapolation towards the past…gives real cause to suspect a weakness in the present conceptions of science. The beginning seems to present insuperable difficulties unless we agree to look on it as frankly supernatural.” (Eddington, 1940:117)

Further, John Maddox, a former editor of the world’s pre-eminent science journal Nature, stated in an editorial in the 10 August 1989 issue that the theory of a Big Bang origin of the Universe was “philosophically unacceptable” because it gave theists “ample justification” for inferring supernatural creation. (Maddox, 1989). Thus, many physicists and cosmologists perceive the notion of a beginning of a universe ex nihilo as lending credibility to the biblical notion of a supernatural designing intelligence. The fact that many of them reject the inference from observational data that the universe had a transcendent cause is often based on the inference’s theistic implications and therefore reflects their materialistic or naturalistic commitments, not the plausibility of the inference. Of course, the empirical data doesn’t prove the transcendent cause is God; it merely suggests that an inference to supernatural causation is plausible on evidentiary grounds.

Framing the Debate?

The accusation that “supernaturalists seek to frame the debate in a philosophical, rather than scientific manner” is bewildering for a number of reasons:

Firstly, Hugh would be hard pressed to find any authoritative scientific or philosophical body that would consider a debate between adherents of competing metaphysical positions (eg, philosophical naturalism and theistic supernaturalism) over the ultimate nature of reality to be a scientific debate. Perhaps Hugh would like to cite a professional or government source to support this allegation.

Secondly, as mentioned above, Hugh admits that “Ontological naturalism is indeed a philosophical position”, so why he thinks arguing whether naturalism depicts reality more accurately than supernaturalism constitutes a scientific debate is a bit of a mystery. A debate on the validity of philosophical positions cannot be anything other than a philosophical debate, no matter what type of supporting evidence is cited. Hugh follows this admission with: “but as a study of the ultimate nature of reality it cannot be simply hived out and segregated from science.” That is correct, however neither of us are segregating our respective views on the constituents of ultimate reality from science. Philosophical propositions are not formed in a vacuum and many, including my own, employ scientific findings in one or more of their premises. Similarly, Hugh appeals to science in this debate, but his posts heavily rely on philosophical arguments. In fact, his post prompting this response chiefly consists of philosophical claims and arguments – from its very title (regarding the philosophical burden of proof), to what counts as a valid epistemology, through to what constitutes the soundest metaphysical explanation of reality.

As I have pointed out in previous posts, proponents on each side of the ‘naturalism versus supernaturalism’ debate often use scientific facts and empirical data as supporting evidence for their respective positions. But this does not change the nature of the debate, which is philosophical in character. That scientists are engaging in metaphysics when they advocate a naturalistic worldview, whether empirical considerations form part of the rationale behind their naturalism or not, is expressed cogently by British philosopher Roger Trigg.

“Those who say that science can answer all questions are themselves standing outside science to make that claim. That is why naturalism—the modern version of materialism, seeing reality as defined by what is within reach of the sciences—becomes a metaphysical theory when it strays beyond methodology to talk of what can exist. Denying metaphysics and upholding materialism must itself be a move within metaphysics. It involves standing outside the practice of science and talking of its scope.” (Trigg, 2015)

Professor Trigg’s comment is well supported by numerous authoritative sources. For example, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:

“…naturalism is a decidedly philosophical approach and an entrant in the grand debate about what is the true global view. As noted above, naturalism is itself a philosophical view, though it claims to be a rejection of a great deal that historically has been distinctive of philosophy. Even if naturalism is articulated in strictly empirical terms, and strives to be scientific, we are still faced with the issue of whether strictly empirical terms are adequate to capture and express all that there is and all we can know. It is not as though naturalism can avoid questions about whether it is itself a true view, and all the associated concerns about how to interpret truth, and what would make it a true view. The issue of whether naturalism is true may be the sort of issue that is not clearly resolvable in exclusively naturalistic terms. At least it seems that the view that it can be, is itself a distinctively philosophical view. Once we begin to explore such questions, we are of course doing philosophy, even if our aim is to make the case for naturalism.” (IEP: ‘Naturalism’)

Therefore Hugh’s accusation against exponents of supernaturalism shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the debate, which is innately a philosophical one and, hence, does not need to be ‘framed’ that way

Conceptual Concerns

In summary, a naturalistic worldview that accommodates macroevolution, scientism, empiricism and verificationism is in serious trouble, being both incoherent and self-defeating. Hugh insists that his brand of ontological naturalism “is justifiable on its own terms,” however from his posts on the topic so far it seems that these terms are designed to shield his worldview from counterarguments and disconfirming evidence. Aside from evading the onus of proof by equivocating on the definition of weak naturalism, Hugh adopts an epistemology that restricts admissible counterarguments against his philosophical position to just those entirely based on empirical evidence, and even then he only deems such counterargument to be legitimate if they interpret the evidence, or its implications, in the context of methodological naturalism.

Hugh states, “By weakening naturalism to a belief held in the absence of evidence to the contrary, weak naturalism becomes an even more formidable opponent to supernaturalism.” Hugh’s confidence in the validity of his version of naturalism notwithstanding, I find nothing “formidable” about “a belief held in the absence of evidence to the contrary”; one that simply “appeals to the lack of evidence for anything supernatural”. Indeed, theists could similarly apply the same dubious reasoning and proclaim that supernaturalism is a formidable opponent to naturalism because of the absence of evidence to the contrary. Very few naturalists would be convinced by such an argument, and rightly so.

Hugh claims that weak naturalism leaves itself “open to disproof by evidence of a supernatural realm,” however, as I have argued, what Hugh considers ‘evidence’ is distorted through his adherence to a flawed epistemology. More accurately, and with the greatest of respect to Hugh, his worldview mainly leaves itself open to disproof by being conceptually flawed. The naturalism Hugh embraces is in deep self-referential trouble. There is no good reason to believe it and, given its unsalvageable epistemological problems and other substantial difficulties, many valid reasons to reject it.



  1. Hugh himself acknowledges the equivocation in his reply of January 13, 2017 to a comment about his essay ‘Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy’. He states: “Yes, I concede that I equivocate between weak naturalism and strong naturalism in my essay.”
  2. Physicist Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, which aims “to advance our understanding of the universe at the most fundamental level, stimulating the breakthroughs that could transform our future,” states:

“Cosmology has new questions to answer. Not just what are the laws, but why are these laws the laws? How were they chosen? We can’t just hypothesise what the initial conditions were at the big bang, we need to explain those initial conditions. Thus we are in the position of a computer program asked to explain its inputs. It is clear that if we are to get anywhere, we need to invent new methods, and perhaps new kinds of laws, to gain a scientific description of the universe as a whole. Physicist James Hartle has talked about the “excess baggage” that has to be left on the platform before we can board the train to further progress in cosmology. In work together with philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger [emphasis added], we believe we have identified several of pieces of this baggage. The first thing that must be discarded is the assumption that the same kind of laws that work on the scale of small subsystems of the world work, scaled up, at the level of the whole universe. We call this assumption the cosmological fallacy because it leads to a breakdown of predictability – as in the multiverse.

“… Mangabeira Unger and I [emphasis added] propose three principles, which we argue are necessary to underlie any theory capable of explaining big cosmological questions – like the selection of the laws and initial conditions of the universe – in a way that is open to experimental test.” (Smolin, 2015)



Blackburn, S (2005) The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy Oxford University Press. pp. 331-32.

Editorial (2012) ‘The Genesis problem’ New Scientist (2847) 11 Jan 2012.

Eddington, A (1935) New Pathways in Science. Cambridge University Press. p.211.

Eddington, A (1940) The Expanding Universe. Penguin, Middlesex, UK. p.117.

Einstein, A (1982) ‘On the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Kepler’s death’ in Ideas and Opinions. Three Rivers Press, New York. p.265.

Feser, E (2010) ‘Blinded by scientism’ Public Discourse 9 March 2010.

Grossman, L (2012) ‘Why physicists can’t avoid a creation event’, New Scientist (2487) 11 Jan 2012.

Hawking, SW (1988) A Brief History of Time Bantam, London. p.46.

Kekes, J (1980) The Nature of Philosophy, Rowman & Littlefield, New Jersey. p.158. Cited in: Moreland, JP & Craig, WL (2003) Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, InterVarsity Press, Illinois. p.348.

Maddox, J (1989) ‘Down with the Big Bang’ Nature (340) 10 August 1989. p.425.

Noone, T (2013) ‘Can materialism explain itself?’ Australian Rationalist. Summer 2013: p.5.

Pais, A (2005) Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein. Oxford University Press. p.14.

Smolin, L (2015) ‘So you think there’s a multiverse? Get real’ New Scientist 17 Jan 2015. pp.24-5.

Trigg, R (2015) ‘Why science needs metaphysics’ Nautilus (29) 1 October 2015.

Wilkinson, T (2016) ‘Was Einstein Right? by Clifford M. Will’ [Book Review] Philosophy Now (117) Dec 2016-Jan 2017.


A Fallacy of Cosmic Proportions – the Kalam Cosmological Argument

A further response to Gary Robertson’s Is naturalism more probable than supernaturalism? which was a rejoinder to Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy


Most contemporary philosophers regard the cosmological argument as unconvincing. Despite the best efforts of William Lane Craig, the famous argument never recovered from the assault it took at the hands of David Hume and Immanuel Kant. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, even noted theologian, Alvin Plantinga concludes “that this piece of natural theology is ineffective”. Other philosophers similarly reject the argument: Michael Martin (1990: chap. 4), John Mackie (1982: chap. 5), Quentin Smith (Craig and Smith 1993), Bede Rundle (2004), Wes Morriston (2000, 2002, 2003, 2010), and Graham Oppy (2006: chap. 3).

To hang one’s metaphysical hat on the cosmological argument is to watch it sail away on the breeze.

William Lane Craig’s recent form of the Kalam Cosmological argument:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The Universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the Universe had a cause.
William Lane Craig

William Lane Craig

Gary Robertson disagrees the KCA invokes the fallacy of composition by applying the same principle of causality which applies to the universe’s constituent parts, to the universe as a whole. Citing philosopher Edward Feser, who unconvincingly asserts that “it is hard to see how” things which are individually contingent are no less contingent when part of a group, the objection conveniently ignores what is so special about the mystery of existence.

The universe is not merely just an assortment of planets and stars. The riddle of existence, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, would not be a riddle if it could be so simply answered, “it must have been caused!”. The riddle is founded upon Parmenides famous statement – “from nothing, nothing comes”. So, when musing about the answer to existence itself, the question becomes perspicuously different. We are now talking about the origin of existence itself, and why does it exist instead of nothing at all, and how and whether it arises from nothing.

Further, the powerful and interacting forces of nature, such as the pulling and repulsing of gravity, which determine the complex relations between physical things within the universe, tells us emphatically that reality is more than just a hamper full of stuff. The universe is not a glass menagerie, nor is it a bag of mixed lollies.

We could further speculate on the origin of the principle of causality. One assumes that the theist would say it was part of God’s creation. Viz. not an eternal principle. Thus, it’s circular and self-referential to invoke the causal principle to explain the existence of the universe of which it is a part.

And so, for the aforementioned reasons, it is indeed a fallacy of composition to assume that what is true of causality in the universe applies to the universe itself.

Gary Robertson disputes my objection to premise 1 of the KCA, that the universe had a beginning, by claiming the consensus of physicists and cosmologists agree the universe had a beginning. This may well be true, but I could more powerfully argue that a larger consensus of physicists and cosmologists reject a supernatural cause of the universe. As stated, a consensus of philosophers rejects the KCA! A consensus, being a survey of opinions, does not prove anything. Thus, the challenge to premise 1 remains.

Gary claims a brute fact, in the sense of an eternal force governing all of nature, can be ruled out, because it would have to exist before the Big Bang and be either timeless or self-caused. Thus, it would either transcend or sit outside of nature. But this objection only suggests such a force would sit outside of Gary’s rather narrow view of “nature” – which evidently constitutes the known universe from the time of the Big Bang.

Even on Gary’s definition this does not preclude a “supernatural” force. But if we did discover such a force, or identify it through evidence gathered in the material world, it’s only a matter of semantics as to whether we would name it as natural or supernatural. Thus, it’s a reification fallacy, given that human definitions have no bearing on what actually exists in the universe. Further, scientists consider the prospect of multiverses to be eminently possible, but none posits these as supernatural, as they would be under Gary’s definition.


Brute Facts and Necessary Beings

nexessary being

The denial of God as a brute fact highlights the special pleading required to insert God as a necessary cause. Gary Robertson cites Broussard (2016) who exempts God from being an unexplained brute fact, because his existence is explained by his essence. It seems childish and unnecessary to point out how circular this argument is – how can the essence of a hypothetical, unverified being ever be established – not to mention how it might be used in favour of any potential being, thing or force.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the Cosmological Argument:

“If theists are willing to accept the existence of God as the necessary being as a brute fact, why cannot nontheists accept the existence of the universe as a brute fact, as a necessary being? Bede Rundle, for example, argues that what has necessary existence is causally independent. Matter has necessary existence, for although it undergoes change as manifested in particular bits of matter, the given volume of matter found in the universe persists, and as persisting matter/energy does not have or need a cause. This accords with the Principle of Conservation of Mass-Energy, according to which matter and energy are never lost but rather transmute into each other. As indestructible, matter/energy is the necessary being. Consequently, although the material components of the universe are contingent vis-à-vis their form, they are necessary vis-à-vis their existence. On this reading, there is not one but there are many necessary beings, all internal to the universe. Their particular configurations are contingent, but since matter/energy is conserved it cannot be created or lost.”

The theist argues that the existence of the universe points to a necessary being – since all contingent things look to something else for their existence. Thus, the creator is a necessary being.

But the theist also maintains that the universe at some point did not exist, and in fact, was created from nothing by the necessary being. This indicates that the description of a creator as a necessary being is contingent on his own decision to create a universe, in such, that if the universe did not exist there could be no necessary being. Since the universe could have failed to exist by the theists own argument, then the concept of a necessary being becomes self-defeating.

hume's necessary being

Finally, even if we accepted the Cosmological argument, it still doesn’t get us to God. If we accepted the logic that everything has a cause, this does not demonstrate a cause which is “supernatural”, or some kind of deity.

The further arguments B and C presented to purportedly deduce the nature of a cause are silly arguments. For instance:

“B. It is logically impossible to provide a natural explanation for how nature came into existence as such an explanation must assume the existence of nature in its opening premises, thus committing the circular fallacy.”

No, it may mean that nature contains another element which is as yet unobserved. Or even an existing element of nature which has the, as yet unrecognised, property of seeding the universe. Further, a brute fact is a candidate because, by definition, it has no explanation.

The theist is all too keen to fill any uncertainty with supernatural explanations. As per my previous post, it will not be philosophers who solve the riddle of the universe’s origin. It will not happen by using logic. The secrets of nature have been gradually revealed using the scientific method. Cosmologists, astrophysicists and many other scientists continue to search the universe for answers. It is now time to dispense with the semantic trickery of the cosmological argument and indeed the other discredited logical arguments, and look to Hadron colliders, telescopes and space probes for the answer.

Australia’s Census Result Heralds a Religion-neutral Secular Shift

As published in Areo Magazine Australia’s Census Result Heralds a Secular Shift – 29 June 2017

The surge in “No religion” in the 2016 Census heralds a more secular Australia. With a rise from 22.3% in 2011 to 30.1% in 2016, “No Religion” has overtaken Catholicism to become the most popular belief category.

Mirroring the trend in similar western countries, Australia has been losing its religion over a long period — Christianity has fallen from 88% in 1966 to 52.1% in 2016. Given one third of Australians are now nonbelievers, and Christianity has fallen to below 50% in six out of eight states, we are now without a dominant belief system.

But “secular” is not synonymous with non-belief. The impetus for a more secular society results from acknowledging the end of Christian hegemony, and in recognizing our increased cultural diversity and religious pluralism. “Secular” means the separation of church and state. Specifically, our Constitution’s Section 116 precludes the Federal government from making “any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion…”

The religious neutral approach of our founding fathers was influenced by the “establishment” clause in the US Constitution, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But while the establishment clause has been applied strictly by the US courts, the similar words contained in Section 116 only apply to the Federal government, and have been interpreted so narrowly that no court has ever found any law to be in contravention of Section 116.

establishment clause

And so, our increasing pluralism, as evidenced by the Census result, provide a strong impetus to embrace a more robust understanding of secularism. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t emulate the United States in disallowing school prayers and prohibiting teachers from preaching religion. Similarly, Christian prayers have no place in opening Parliament.

Similarly, those in receipt of taxpayer funds, should not have the power to discriminate on the basis of faith. Thus, the blanket exemptions from anti-discrimination law which exist for tax payer funded religious institutions, including private schools, must be reconsidered.

But it’s more than this. Realizing a truly secular state requires a belief-neutral and evidence-based approach to policymaking. Specifically, policy must not become beholden to the religious views of individuals or religious lobby groups. Again and again we see the same old stalemate; as issues such as same sex marriage, abortion, and euthanasia, are stymied by the “religious convictions” of a few: as if religiosity grants them a sacred power of veto.

But an equitable and fair minded approach should not extend to banishing faith from the public square. Crucially, the distinction is between state-sponsored religious favoritism, and the secular freedom to discuss the tenets and values embedded in religious or nonreligious beliefs.

Indeed, a secular approach embraces the understanding of religious freedom outlined by Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which protects the freedom to express any thought or belief, religious or otherwise.

Thus, religious beliefs continue to form a key part of our political discourse. Policies can be justified based on the tenets of religion, as long as they do not compel religious belief or worship. For example, the opponents of same sex marriage would continue to enjoy complete freedom to express their views in terms of a biblical view of marriage. Equally, the champions of policy change in abortion could express their views in whatever religious or nonreligious context they see fit.    

A neutral approach does not equate to saying that belief is only a personal matter, and that religion has no place in politics. Secularism is, after all, a tool for liberty, not a restriction on our freedoms. Free expression of all beliefs is the defining element of the secular state, and must be vouchsafed.

In that respect, a secular country is distinguished from an irreligious one. The “wall of separation” provided by the US establishment clause was built and fortified by Protestant versus Catholic enmities. Thus, the oft-repeated pejorative terms of “aggressive” or “radical” secularism, misunderstands the concept. Secularism is about fairness, not unbelief. A more robust form of secularism is evinced in the level playing field — maximizing freedom, and minimizing privilege.

JFK secularism

Thus, secularism cannot be weaponized by the nonbeliever: those who want to wield the “secular” hammer misunderstands it’s meaning. Secularism is not, as is often erroneously asserted, a separate set of irreligious values competing with Christianity in a zero sum game. We do not lose the values which underpin our society, and which are an amalgam of all of our various traditions and evolutionary history, stretching back and beyond the Athenian democracy of the 5th century B.C. We do not discard the values of Christianity; just as, we do not junk our democratic values, including the principle of government by the people and for the people.  Secularism simply means that the state cannot promote or dictate particular beliefs systems in preference to others. 

The 2016 Census result shows a significant shift away from Christianity as our dominant belief system, suggesting a shift toward a more secular society. In the long term, a religion-neutral approach would have the dual benefit of levelling the playing field, as well as protecting the rights of individuals and groups to hold and practice an increasingly diverse set of belief systems.

The Powerful New Force: Australian Politics And Media Should Reflect The Fact That Non-Belief Is On The Rise

As published in the Huffpost Australia – Australian Politics And Media Should Reflect The Fact That Non-Belief Is On The Rise – 28 June 2017


abc church and state

Take note, Australia: More Australians recorded “No religion” in the 2016 Census than any other individual religion or denomination. Surging from 22.3 percent in 2011 to 30.1 percent, non-belief has overtaken Catholicism, which fell from 25.3 percent to 22.6 percent.

Take note, politicians: Observe the irreligious voting block comprising nearly one third of all Australians — a figure comparable to the the 34.9 percent that the ALP polled in the 2016 Federal election. Thus, nonbelievers represent a powerful, new force in politics.

Take note, media: The large non-believing demographic demands a voice. Secular groups and activists are rarely seen on television or radio, even on issues featuring the intersection of religious belief and politics.

Recall the ABC’s ‘Q&A’ special episode on Church and State in April 2016? The topic was secularism, but the panel featured not one secularist. The panel were exclusively Christian, featuring Christian pastors, academics and, of course, the Australian Christian Lobby.

acb christian church and state

Our public broadcaster features numerous religious programs, but none specifically dedicated to discussing non-belief. These programs include ‘Compass’, ‘For the God Who Sings’, ‘Religion & Ethics Report’, ‘Songs of Praise’, the ‘Spirit of Things’, and ‘God Forbid’.

Despite a veritable baptism of religious programmes, the scrapping of the 15-year-old Sunday Nights necessitated crisis talks with Catholic priest, Father Frank Brennan, Baptist minister Tim Costello, and Reverend Elenie Poulos, of the Uniting Church. All this, even though a new half-hour program, ‘Religion and Ethics’, was added to Radio National.

Jesus wept. I don’t have a problem with religious shows, but surely the secular viewpoint deserves a run also. Further, overlooking one third of taxpayers, altogether runs against the ABC’s policy of presenting a diversity of views.

ABC’s online Religion and Ethics, makes a pretence of catering for the secular voice, but only rarely is a rationalist or secular view represented. By and large, the site features religious commentary by local and international academics and apologists. Tellingly, the public comments facility has been disabled and old comments deleted. One suspects, perhaps uncharitably, that it is due to their overwhelmingly negative character.

The diversity of secular views has been, until now, nearly invisible in the Australian media. But, it contains particular value. Focussing on rational thought and empirical evidence would be a breath of fresh air, in a climate of fake news, zingers, and Left versus Right ideological warfare.

In the UK, secular voices such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry, and AC Grayling appear regularly on panel shows. In the US, Bill Maher fosters are irreverent take on politics, and a variety of nonreligious authors and thinkers including Sam Harris, Stephen Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking contribute to debate. Additionally, many of the well-known Australians with secular views such as Peter Singer, Geoffrey Robertson, Clive James, and Tim Minchin, are based overseas.

The lack of secular voices in the media perpetuates Christian privilege. Declining religiosity hasn’t lessened the influence of the increasingly unrepresentative lobby groups claiming to speak for mainstream Australians. One key issue is the decline in observance and belief among the religious. A 2012 McCrindle survey showed a third of those identifying as Christian were “more spiritual than Christian”.

Empty churches sit idle on street corners, while in Canberra, Christian lobbyists perpetuate the transfer of religious observance from churches into secular state schools. Schools teaching religion as a comparative subject are the norm in most similarly irreligious countries, such as Finland, UK, New Zealand — some of which have zoomed past us in the international PISA rankings.

While fewer people believe all the tenets of scripture, the religious hierarchy successfully pressures politicians to maintain a biblical view of marriage, to oppose assisted dying, and to continue to over-subsidize Catholic schools.

For many, marking ‘Christian’ represents little more than a cultural affiliation. Emphasizing the nominal nature of their belief, is the fact that a majority of Christians support for same sex marriage, and that 70 percent of Catholics and Anglicans support assisted dying. Of those who support the latter, 84 percent are non-observant. But of those Christians opposing euthanasia, 92 percent are “true believers”: that is, prayerful, church goers. These represent a vanishing minority of Australians, given a mere 8 percent still attend church regularly.

It’s high time politicians abandoned the fallacy that religious outrage is a vote changer. For the vanishing few true believers who swap their vote, there exists an order-of-magnitude-larger group of nonbelievers to cancel them out.

The increase in non-belief marks a seismic shift in our belief landscape. So, it’s about time the voices of the godless were heard in the corridors of Canberra, and their faces became more recognisable in the mainstream media.

The Census surge in non-belief heralds a new secularism

Census surge heralds a secular state – The Courier Mail 28 June 2017

MORE Australians ticked “No religion” in the 2016 Census than any other belief category. The results, released yesterday, show non-belief surging from 22.3 per cent in 2011 to 30.1, overtaking Catholicism which fell from 25.3 per cent to 22.6.

The change represents a watershed. The number of Christians has fallen from 88 per cent in 1966 to 52.1 per cent in 2016; a free fall which looks set to continue given 39 per cent of adults aged 18-34 now report no religion.

nation of nonbelievers

Christian dominance is ending and, marking a seismic shift in our belief landscape, nearly one third of Australians are now nonbelievers.

The effect should be wide ranging: a new voting block of nonbelievers surely forces us to consider bolstering our rather weak version of secularism.

Providing further impetus to consider this change is the fact that a fading religious belief runs deeper than just the rise in nonbelievers. Many of those marking “Christian” on the Census are expressing a “cultural” preference rather than genuine religious belief.

A 2012 McCrindle survey reported one third of Christians were more spiritual than religious.

In that respect, Australian data on Christian religious observance mirrors that of other western countries such as the UK, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries. Less than 10% of us attend church regularly, and the majority of weddings and funerals are now secular events. Caring more about everyday matters, mainstream Christians are mostly nominal, and unobservant.

Driven by our sharp decline in religiosity, we can expect to see our type of secularism become more robust, and more determinedly belief-neutral. In contrast to the US, which has enforced the Establishment Clause strictly, our Constitution’s Section 116 has always been interpreted narrowly (it doesn’t even apply to the states!), allowing a blurry and uneasy relationship between religion and governance.

Which explains how we allow prayers in parliament, along with Christian chaplains and faith-based religious instruction in secular state schools. Bizarrely, blasphemy is still a crime in most states of Australia. The lip service paid to secularism stands, sits uncomfortably with our decreasing piety.

Symptomatic of this decline, parents are increasingly opting their children out of faith-taught religious classes in NSW and QLD state schools. And in Victoria, religious classes were scrapped from curriculum time, in 2015, to allow more focus on core learning.

A new understanding of secularism resists the privileging of specific belief systems in the public domain. As the handmaiden of democracy, secularism insists that Abraham Lincoln’s democratic principle of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”, remains pure and undiluted by prioritising the beliefs of one group over another.

A notable disparity exists when taxpayer-funded and tax-free faith groups enjoy blanket exemptions from anti-discrimination laws. So, the taxes of some nonbelievers subsidise groups who actively and legally discriminate against them.

Rising non-belief shines a light on certain areas of public policy where the lobbying of Archbishops and religious groups continue to stonewall progress. Why, for instance, is same sex marriage still not legal? Why is there such a deference to minority views, favouring religious convictions over nonreligious convictions, that the parliament fails to enact popular opinion?

Similarly, consider euthanasia: 75% of Australians support assisted dying and of those who object, 92% have religious connections.

Why does abortion remain technically illegal in NSW and QLD? Providing a safe and legal option for women to terminate unwanted pregnancies is supported by 80% of our populace.

Advancing religion remains a tax free charitable purpose, under laws dating back to the 1600’s, despite a 2016 IPSOS poll showing less than 20% of Australians support the measure. In the same poll, 55% of respondents answered that religion had no public benefit.

2016 census

Necessarily, the freefall in Christianity increases Australia’s diversity of beliefs, emphasizing our pluralism. Each year there are fewer of our fellow citizens who think religious freedom means the right to impose their beliefs on others. Most Australians would agree with the version of religious freedom expressed by article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which protects theistic, nontheistic, and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right to profess any religion or belief.

From this zeitgeist emerges a New Secularism. Underpinned by overwhelming popular support – 75% of Australians support the separation of church and state – the move towards secularism becomes inexorable now that non-belief joins the mainstream. Non-belief is the new normal. The bright light of secularism will guide us away from Christian hegemony, and towards a fairer, more inclusive, state-neutral approach to matters of belief.

religious chart info

Naturalism remains undefeated: an answer to Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism

Naturalism remains undefeated – a rejoinder to the Alvin Plantinga argument used in Post 3 that naturalism is self-defeating. Post 5.


lightning church

Popularizing the claim that naturalism and evolution are mutually self-defeating, Alvin Plantinga argues in the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (1993), that, given unguided evolution, our beliefs have no intrinsic relation to the truth.

Drawing on previous arguments made by C.S. Lewis and Arthur Balfour, Plantinga claims that if humans are the product of undirected processes, then we cannot reasonably rely on what we perceive. In fact, it’s just “as likely …that we live in a sort of dream world as that we actually know something about ourselves and our world.”

Thus, if we cannot rely on our beliefs, then we cannot rely on our belief in naturalism and thus, naturalism is defeated.

Well, it would be very worrying if we couldn’t rely on any of our beliefs. But evidently, humans have good reason to rely on their cognition, and we do so in myriad situations daily.

We also have no reason to distrust the accepted science of evolution and the various mechanisms which operate within it; such as the mutation of genes, natural selection, and genetic drift.

Given there is no reason to discount both our cognitive capacities and the science of evolution, then the argument becomes problematic. Another way of expressing Plantinga’s argument is that we should distrust our knowledge of evolution based on our knowledge of evolution. Nonsense.

Second, even if we somehow accepted the unreliability of our beliefs, this would mean only that we could not rely on our belief in naturalism; not that naturalism is untrue. But, nor could we rely on our cognition that it is false. Therefore, if true, the unreliability-of-beliefs premise is either self-defeating for beliefs in naturalism and theism, or not self-defeating for both. Thus, it gets us precisely nowhere.

Third, the argument presumes that theism somehow provides humans with reliable cognition.

Plantinga explains,

“God has created us in his image, and an important part of our image bearing is our resembling him in being able to form true beliefs and achieve knowledge”.

But, inserting a supernatural element (God) as a fact, is a circular argument. Viz. if God exists, naturalism must be untrue, so there’s no use invoking God as evidence that naturalism is untrue. (Prove God exists first!).

Further, the Philosopher William Ramsay has observed how human faculties are, in fact, slightly unreliable – look at our impressive array of cognitive biases! Ramsay further posits that evolution and naturalism explain this better than theism. In fact, the well-established foibles in our thinking pose a considerable challenge to Plantinga’s suggestion that we are the perfect perceivers of truth one would expect as the product of an omnipotent Creator.

Plantinga’s argument trades upon the philosophical knowledge-problem: the difficulty in providing a neat solution to the foundation of knowledge: how do we know we can rely on our beliefs? But this philosophical problem is not specific to either evolution of naturalism: the challenge pertains to all of our beliefs.

In fact, our evolution by natural selection justifies a moderate level of trust in our cognitive faculties. The brain size of the various human species has increased from 400cc to 1350cc over several millions of years. In this time, archaic humans developed more sophisticated stone tools, harnessed fire, developed language, and began to use symbolic thought. Natural selection seems to have been effective in providing reproductive advantage by selecting for those traits. Claiming this is “accidental” misunderstands natural selection. Increases in brain size and thinking ability, are selection effects we could expect to correlate to accurate perceptions about reality. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how we could have survived as a species if our perceptions and beliefs have no relation to the real world.

Nevertheless, Plantinga draws strength from a quote of Darwin expressing worry about the veracity of evolved human thought.

“But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

— Charles Darwin, to William Graham 3 July 1881

One can only wonder whether Darwin would have revised his doubts had he been able to witness the magnificent confirmation of his theory of natural selection via subsequent discoveries in the fossil record, and the field of genetics.

Natural selection has become the cornerstone of modern biology. There is no longer any doubt about the fact of our unguided evolution from prior species, and our connection to other forms of life.

Indeed, the yearning to understand our world has been a feature in the development of humans. When we observed natural events that we could not explain, we posited underlying causes. Recall, hunter gatherers performing rain dances, ancient tribes sacrificing animals and children. Up until the last 500 years, theology posited supernatural causes for most unexplained phenomena. In the 18th century hundreds of church bell ringers were electrocuted, as they tried to ward off the devils who cast lightning upon the earth.

To the current day, science and religion offer competing views of how to understand the world. Science uses the scientific method which relies on hypothesis, testing and prediction, and is always subject to revision. Theologians will always seek to explain mysteries by inserting supernatural elements such as ghosts and deities.

But science has uncovered other invisible, underlying causes of natural events. These include things like electromagnetism, gravity, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Needless to say, none of these could be arrived at through intuition alone. The gradual accumulation of scientific knowledge, where the work of one scientist enabled another, has helped humans to understand physical forces which are deeply counterintuitive; even, seemingly incomprehensible. Think of how light behaves as a wave and a particle at the same time; how particles can seemingly exist in multiple places at the same time; of how the universe is only 5% matter, the rest being made of dark matter and dark energy.

The invisible forces have been discovered and thus, we no longer need supernaturalism. We have no need to postulate other undefined and unverifiable forces. We certainly have no reason to entertain the idea that the discoveries of science are vulnerable to a superimposed truth-giving deity. Plantinga’s argument is but a rationalization allowing theists to question evolution and naturalism. But it relies on doubting accepted science, and inserting a supernatural element, and thus, is itself, self-defeating.

Weak naturalism places the burden of proof on the supernaturalist

Post 4. Rejoinder to Gary Robertson. Gary has provided a detailed response to my second post in our written debate. Given its length, I will respond to the key arguments as follows:

  1. Weak naturalism places the burden of proof on the supernaturalist
  2. Philosophical naturalism is not self-defeating
  3. Kalam Cosmological Argument


Weak naturalism places the burden of proof on the supernaturalist

As far as we know, the natural world is all there is. By weakening naturalism to a belief held in the absence of evidence to the contrary, weak naturalism becomes an even more formidable opponent to supernaturalism.

Weak naturalism is analogous to “weak” atheism. A weak atheist simply disbelieves in God given the lack of evidence. Weak naturalism disavows the supernatural for the same reason.

Without relying on the accepted definitions of naturalism (ie. philosophical naturalism, methodological naturalism), or of the rich philosophical history, weak naturalism is justifiable on its own terms. In only asserting the existence of the natural world, and by leaving itself open to disproof by evidence of a supernatural realm, the burden of proof is transferred to the “supernaturalist”.

Proposing weak naturalism, does not entail “appealing to the fact that nature exists rather than providing any positive evidence showing why it’s probable nothing transcends nature”. Rather, it appeals to the lack of evidence for anything supernatural, period.

Further, we might wonder what “positive evidence” could be provided for things which don’t actually exist? Things like ghosts, Big foot, or Atlantis. Surely, the lack of any evidence for said things amounts to at least a prima facie case for their nonexistence. Further, our default position should be that they don’t exist, rather than they do exist.

Now therefore, it’s up to the supernaturalist to provide evidence of the existence of a supernatural world. Where is Exhibit A? Unfortunately, the claims of the supernaturalist fall at the first hurdle.

Indeed, we should observe the special pleading routinely used to justify beliefs held sans evidence. The supernatural is defended by proposing methods of enquiry beyond the scope of empirical science. Since the supernatural is defined as being beyond the scope of the natural world, not governed by natural laws, and not measurable by science, the supernaturalist posits other means of evidence.

But this is an illegitimate move, which justifies any belief whatsoever. If this was acceptable, we would only need to claim a proposition is beyond the purview of science, and, “Voila!” we can demand equal epistemic justification for fairies, unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster. We can also keep superimposing new unseen layers upon the universe.

Further, it’s not entirely clear what this “evidence” is. In fact, it’s a circular argument seeking to justify the supernatural by inventing its own special realm of supernatural evidence. If such a realm is beyond the limits of empiricism, then it is unknowable by nature, and thus, by definition, lacks any epistemic likelihood.

We also see the appeal to immaterial realities, such as appreciation of poetry, literature, music and such, as if to suggest that these are evidence. As if things which cannot be seen, or which are not explainable by science, point to the possibility of a supernatural cloak upon reality. But we may briskly walk from the science lab over to the humanities building and see books of poetry. We can play musical instruments, read music, and even use an MRI machine to view our neurons firing as we listen. Our invisible thoughts constitute no more evidence of supernaturalism, than does the invisible operation of gravity.

Alternatively, supernaturalists seek to frame the debate in a philosophical, rather than scientific manner. In this way, the hard evidence of science can be replaced with philosophical argument: a softer approach which is satisfied by a lesser threshold for evidence.

Imagine this: We have found an incontrovertible answer to the existence of the universe. Would you be surprised if this was discovered by a team of Cosmologists? Or, theoretical physicists? Probably not.

But what if it the announcement mentioned a team of philosophers? The reason such an announcement would be greeted with derision, is that we know that without evidence, testing and verification, a claim made purely on philosophical grounds is lacking. A discovery of this type would only find general acceptance by scientific confirmation. Further, we know that it’s scientists who are working on these questions, not philosophers. They are questions of fact, not argument.

Thus, it’s not scientism to expect knowledge-claims to be verifiable, or testable. The scientific method has become the accepted method of inquiry.

Using philosophical argument, theists sometimes invoke Aquinas Five Ways or the cosmological argument to claim the universe must have had a cause, as though this was evidence. But alas, the cosmological argument is not accepted as empirical knowledge. In fact, the majority of current philosophers remain unpersuaded. Nor does the existence of the world count as “using evidence”, when invoked as a premise used to draw an illegitimate conclusion.

Weak naturalism limits itself to what we know. If there are realms which we cannot know, then there is no use in speculating upon them. The question of evidence becomes the key issue. If evidence is not measurable and knowable then it is not really evidence. And in the absence of useful evidence, it’s a false dichotomy to suggest that weak naturalism is equally likely to supernaturalism.