In defence of weak naturalism – Post 2: a response to Gary Robertson

In defence of weak naturalism – Post 2: a response to Gary Robertson’s Is Naturalism more probable than Supernaturalism?

by Hugh Harris


The position I propose to defend is weak naturalism. Conforming broadly to the standard of scientific inquiry known as methodological naturalism, it can be distinguished from the stronger position of philosophical naturalism, which claims categorically that the natural world is all there is.

Weak naturalism: as far as we know, the natural world is all there is. I defend the claim that naturalism is more probable than supernaturalism, in my essay Naturalism versus Supernaturalism- the false dichotomy – I argue that the observance of the natural world along with its laws combined with the absence of any evidence of the supernatural, amounts to a strong prima facie case for naturalism, and its likelihood in comparison to the sans-evidence claims of supernaturalism.

In his first post, Is Naturalism more probable than Supernaturalism?, Gary Robertson seems to exclude science from the debate, only to later revive it to provide the foundation for the kalam cosmological argument. Gary states that “Methodological naturalism restricts scientific enquiry to the study of natural causes and processes”, thus, “methods of enquiry into the existence of a supernatural reality are beyond the scope of empirical science”, and thus, “all propositions about ultimate reality will necessarily be philosophical”. I’m not sure why Gary does this, but I suspect that it’s so he can trade off the equality between the definitions of naturalism and supernaturalism . Perhaps philosophically they are equal inversions, in the sense that naturalism is the denial of the supernatural and the supernatural is the affirmation of it. But evidentially, they are not equal.

Virtually all scientists operate under the assumption of philosophical naturalism – all causes are empirical and naturalistic ones which can be measured, quantified and studied methodically. When our children are ill, we don’t look for magicians or witch doctors summoning supernatural forces. Why? Because there is no evidence they work, and much evidence suggesting they’re harmful. And this is despite the plethora of religious faith healers such as the discredited John of God faith healer, who scratches at the eyes of the credulous and who has made over $10 million out of selling crystals and other fake cures, and yet, had his own cancer treated by chemotherapy in a hospital.

And so Gary might have to forgive my reluctance to sideline science altogether from this debate. Additionally, I assume we’d agree that philosophy cannot exist in its own bubble, separated from empiricism, with no regard for the real world. Ontological naturalism is indeed a philosophical position, but as a study of the ultimate nature of reality it cannot be simply hived out and segregated from science. Further, the ultimate nature of reality is unlikely to vary depending on what University faculty building one happens to be in.

Evidently Gary agrees, given he goes on to claim that “supernatural causation logically follows from empirical evidence in the field of cosmology that strongly suggests the universe had a beginning and that nature…did not exist prior to the universe coming into being. Thus, … the universe transcended nature and was, therefore, supernatural”.

But I disagree that that’s what the scientific/empirical evidence suggests, as indeed do the majority of philosophers and scientists. The kalam cosmological argument:


Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

The Universe began to exist.

Therefore, the Universe had a cause


Objecting to my previous critique, Gary issues the following challenge: “I would certainly be keen to know how the deductive arguments formulated above equate to “conflating the process of coming to an invalid conclusion using empirical evidence rather than simply observing the empirical evidence itself””.

The cosmological argument uses the causality, we observe in the known world to make the case that the known world itself must have a cause. But this self-referentially uses the laws of causality, to explain their own existence. Bertrand Russell exposes that moving from the contingency of the components of the universe, to the contingency of the universe, commits the Fallacy of Composition, which mistakenly concludes that since the parts have a certain property, the whole likewise has that property. If all bricks in a wall are small, is the Great Wall of China small?

The kalam cosmological argument makes the invalid assumption the universe began to exist. Given that space and time are inextricably linked, the contention that the universe began suggests a moment preceding its existence. But, as Stephen Hawking has pointed out, this is like seeking a point more northerly than the North Pole – the universe can be both finite and without a prior moment or beginning.

Adolf Grunbaum 1994, explains that the singularity of the Big Bang does not conform to an actual “physical event” given its unbounded nature, infinite density and scalar curvature. Thus, it does not even have the requisite chrono-geometric relations specified by the space-time metric, to which a cause could be applied – it cannot in fact “be the effect of event-causation or agent-causation alike”.

Additionally, the laws of conservation do not suggest that we can keep on subtracting elements from the universe until we get nothing. Parmenides famous adage, “from nothing, nothing comes”, does not suggest that nothing preceded something and that something needs a cause. Rather, it expresses the riddle of existence itself. There is no reduction of something into nothing in the natural world. And so, the state of nothing which is supposed to precede something, is doubtful at best, and antithetical to our observations of the natural world at worst.

Grunbaum 1994, further argues that “a galaxy of theists… take it to be axiomatic that if there is a physical world at all, then its spontaneous, undisturbed or natural state is one of utter nothingness, whatever that is… Why, in the absence of an external supernatural cause, should there be just nothing?” Further, the “presupposition of the spontaneity of nothingness lacks even the most rudimentary plausibility”. Many philosophers have argued against the proposition of nothingness as unintelligible. Why assume nothingness as a default, or a brute fact?

The other consideration, is that the cosmological argument assumes the universe itself cannot be a brute fact (or eternal) because everything that begins must have a cause; and then goes on to suggest that therefore there must be a brute fact (such as God) to explain it. This is begging the question. One cannot logically deny the existence of brute facts as a premise (whatever begins to exist has a cause) and then insert a brute fact as the conclusion (a necessary, uncaused being). One can simply ask why can’t the universe, or an element within it, be the brute fact. Crucially, even if one accepts that the universe begins, why cannot it not begin due to a timeless natural force which governs all of existence?

Thus, it’s invalid to suggest that the evidence points to a supernatural cause of the universe. In regards to teleological arguments we’ll have to discuss the specific versions. Then, my generalisations on this subject – “arguments from incredulity” – can be supported by considering the particular teleological argument in question.


Is Naturalism more probable than Supernaturalism? – Written Debate

Post 1 Gary Robertson

This is the first post in a written debate between Gary Robertson and Hugh Harris based on a discussion of the essay : Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy


by Gary Robertson

Gary works in the media monitoring industry.


My worldview is a theistic one (non-denominational, non-fundamentalist Christian) informed primarily by classical philosophy, particularly Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics, and science, including contemporary intelligent design theory.

I would generally define naturalism as the view that nature is all that exists, but would also deem the less rigid position you appear to espouse (that the existence of a supernatural realm “is more improbable than probable”) to be a naturalistic one.

While we both agree that nature exists, we differ in our respective answers to the metaphysical question of whether there is a reality beyond nature. To determine whether there is a realm that transcends the natural world we need to closely examine the evidence and draw rational, logically consistent inferences based on this evidence. Simply knowing that “the natural world does in fact exist” does not empirically confirm the proposition that nature is all there is. Indeed, such a proposition can neither be confirmed nor disproved empirically as, like all philosophical positions, it falls outside the purview of methodological naturalism.

Methodological naturalism restricts scientific enquiry to the study of natural causes and processes, which a priori excludes hypotheses and explanations relating to the reality of extra-natural dimensions. Thus, methods of enquiry into the existence of a supernatural reality are beyond the scope of empirical science and are by definition philosophical methods – not scientific ones. Consequently, all propositions about ultimate reality will necessarily be philosophical, irrespective of what they affirm or deny.

That naturalism is a philosophical view (specifically metaphysical or, more specifically, ontological) can be readily verified by consulting any reputable encyclopaedia or dictionary. Hence, I have not tried to “frame the discussion” as one metaphysical view against another. Since both positions are inherently metaphysical ones most informed discussions pitting naturalism against supernaturalism are assumed to be presenting the debate in that context, whether this is made explicit or not. This does not mean both positions “must be equally probable” either. As I noted in a previous comment, their respective strengths depend on the quality of the evidence supporting their premises and their degree of rational coherency.

You claim “there is no evidence of any other world beyond [the natural world]”, yet supernatural causation logically follows from empirical evidence in the field of cosmology that strongly suggests the universe had a beginning and that nature (space, time, matter, energy and physical laws) did not exist prior to the universe coming into being. Thus, if the prevailing cosmological position is correct the cause of the universe transcended nature and was, therefore, supernatural.

The argument can be expressed as follows (argument A) and expanded (arguments B and C):

A. The kalām cosmological argument:

(1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause (nothing comes from nothing)

(2) The universe began to exist (2nd law of thermodynamics, evidence of a cosmological singularity)

(3) Therefore, the universe has a cause


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. Necessarily then, the origin of nature (ie, the entirety of physical reality) must be supernatural.

(1) The cause of nature is either natural or supernatural

(2) The cause of nature cannot be natural

(3) Therefore, the cause of nature is supernatural

The demand of deductive logic to avoid the circular fallacy makes (2) necessarily true and (1) is a true dichotomy, therefore (3) logically follows.


C. Moreover, since time is a physical property of nature, logic dictates that the cause of time must have been independent of time if we wish to avoid the circular fallacy.

(1) The cause of time must have been either dependent or independent of time

(2) It is logically impossible for the cause of time to have been dependent upon time

(3) Therefore, the cause of time must have been timeless/eternal

(4) It is logically impossible to cause a timeless entity to come into existence

(5) Therefore, the cause of nature is eternal and, ipso facto, a first cause


From the above logically valid arguments, we can conclude that the cause of the universe must be supernatural, timeless, eternal and uncaused.

Since the kalām cosmological argument (A) appeals to scientific evidence to prove the beginning of the universe – not the existence of God, it is not a “God of the gaps defense”. Likewise, arguments B and C logically deduce properties of the universe’s cause but do not infer that God is this cause. Thus, there is no God-of-the-gaps reasoning involved in any of these arguments. And since the conclusion of argument B logically follows from the premises, it is not a matter of arbitrarily or gratuitously inserting ‘supernaturalism’ into gaps in scientific knowledge.

I would certainly be keen to know how the deductive arguments formulated above equate to “conflating the process of coming to an invalid conclusion using empirical evidence rather than simply observing the empirical evidence itself”. The same applies to teleological arguments based solely on interpreting empirical data through standard scientific methods. Simply making bare assertions, like “teleological arguments are invalid arguments – arguments from incredulity” and evolution “turned [the argument from design] on its head”, is not a counterargument.


Possible Grooming in SRE Materials – A response to Neil Foster

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On his blog, Law and Religion Australia, Neil Foster claims 2013 Gold Walkley winner Joanne McCarthy in the Newcastle Herald, makes unfair connections between the Queensland Review of Connect Scripture Classes (SRE) learning materials and “possible grooming behavior”. By his own description Foster is “an evangelical Christian”, and as far as I can tell, has never written anything critical about Connect or SRE Scripture classes.

So, let’s see how unfair Joanne McCarthy’s “crusade” has been.

In the 31 January article, Education Minister Rob Stokes asked to immediately suspend scripture in NSW schools, Joanne mentions grooming in connection with the Education Queensland Connect review (my emphasis):

“There are calls for NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes to immediately suspend scripture in schools, and release a long-awaited NSW review of special religious education (SRE), after a Queensland Department of Education review raised serious concerns about Anglican “Connect” scripture content used in both states, including lessons consistent with “possible grooming behaviour” and advice to scripture teachers about punishing children.”

Now, Foster suggests the McCarthy’s references to “possible grooming behaviour” unfairly links Connect’s materials to child abuse and the Royal Commission.

Joanne McCarthy quotes the Education Queensland Review as identifying “lessons consistent with grooming behaviour”. Compare this reference with the relevant page of the review, which repeatedly mentions “grooming behaviour” (my emphasis):

“5.4.2 Student Protection

Some of the advice and activities in the Connect teacher’s manuals were identified as being inconsistent with preferred student protection practices. Of particular note was an activity to share and keep secrets; mentions having ‘special friends’; and a suggestion that teachers meet one-to-one with students who are interested in finding out more about Christianity.

Encouraging and practising behaviours such as these does not align to current approaches in teaching children protective behaviours. It is worth noting however that more recently published manuals suggest another adult should be present for any one-to-one discussions.

Examples include:

  • “Just as Jesus used everyday events to disguise his secret, ask each pair to discuss and then write a story to disguise their own secret” (Upper Primary, A2, Lesson 2, p. 28).

For a wide range of reasons, including that students of all ages should see teachers and school staff as trusted adults and feel safe to share information, this content is not appropriate. In general, activities should not teach or encourage students to keep secrets, particularly secrets between a child and an adult.

Creating secrets with a child is identified as an example of possible grooming behaviour within the Department’s Student Protection Guideline.

  • Use of the term ‘special friends’ – “Jesus was asking Matthew to be one of his special friends” and “Jesus calls us to become one of his special friends” (Lower Primary A2, Lesson 10, p. 92-3). When considered in a protective behaviours context, the use of the term ‘special friends’ should be avoided where possible and where there is a suitable alternative. Whilst the context in this instance is understood, in terms of student protection, adults creating ‘special friendships’ with children is viewed as an example of possible grooming behaviour.
  • Helpful teaching techniques’ provides advice on ‘Talking one-to-one with a student’, indicating that instructors should talk to students in full view of other students or teachers, even though the conversation is private (Upper Primary, A2, p. 197). Best practice would be for instructors to ensure that all discussions with students (including whole class, group or individual discussions) take place in full view of a school based staff member and other students.”


Unavoidably, the comments in the review bring to mind the systemic abuse and cover up within church organisations and schools. But no more so than the way McCarthy refers to them. In fact, it’s the QLD Education, not McCarthy, which specifically identifies and says it views aspects of the lessons as examples of possible grooming behaviour. The caveat “whilst the context is understood” in no way excuses the fact that this material is unequivocally “not appropriate”, and “inconsistent with preferred student protection practices”.

Foster complains about McCarthy using the phrase in connection to quotes by Greens MP David Shoebridge and Bishop Peter Stuart of Newcastle Anglican Diocese. For clarity, I quote the relevant sections from McCarthy’s articles (incorrectly noted on Foster’s post).

1 Feb, Newcastle Herald:

“Father Rod Bower said Anglican Special Religious Education material produced by a Christian evangelical group and authorised by Sydney Anglican Diocese was “of great concern”, a view backed by Newcastle Anglican Bishop Peter Stuart after a review raised serious concerns, including questions about “possible grooming behaviour” linked to some material taught to children”.

31 January, Newcastle Herald:

“Lessons for children about keeping secrets with adults and having “special friendships” with them were particularly concerning because “We know from the Royal Commission that encouraging ‘special friendships’ and secrets with adults endangers children and plays into the hands of predators”, Mr Shoebridge said.

“Keeping children safe must be the number one priority in our schools, not pandering to extreme religious views.””

I don’t understand why Foster ignores the fact that the connection to child abuse is made explicitly by Greens MP Michael Shoebridge, based on the QLD review, not by Joanne McCarthy.

The pertinent question is not whether McCarthy was out of line for accurately reporting the contents of the Education Queensland review and the reactions to it. The real question is how we’re supposed to view the horror of decades, if not centuries, of systemic child abuse and the deliberate shielding of predators by religious organisations, and then fail to register any concern about inappropriate teaching methods encouraging the keeping of secrets, special friendships, and one-on-one activities between adult and child. Not to do so, seems careless in my view.

Tellingly, the myriad of other concerns raised by Joanne McCarthy receive no rebuttal whatsoever.

For example, Neil Foster doesn’t mention the concerns of NSW Primary Principals Association president Phil Seymour that lesson materials are not checked or endorsed by the department, or his “surprise” that even the Education Minister is unable to exercise any control:

“But Mr Seymour and association treasurer Rob Walker expressed concern about whether parents had enough information to give informed consent to their children attending scripture in NSW public schools, and whether all principals knew scripture material was not approved or vetted by the Department of Education”.

Foster leaves out any discussion the merits of dissecting small animals to simulate animal sacrifice. We also left in the dark about his view of “a lesson requiring children aged 7-9 to list ways to “get rid of” a person, after a Bible story about people “getting rid of” Daniel, and a concluding prayer where children “pray that we may not be like the Israelites””,

Also omitted is Father Rod Bower’s comment that Scripture in NSW public schools is “an echo from a bygone era and now needs to be reconsidered”.

What about the $300,000 ARTD Consultants report in to Scripture and Ethics which remains unreleased more than a year later? Anyone actually interested in the facts would surely be keen to see this report.