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 natural theology, philosophy and science.

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.

2 replies
  1. Peter Jones
    Peter Jones says:

    Hello Hugh
    I have been occasionally reading your site
    and I would like to thank you for your efforts.

    The Kalam cosmology argument reminds me of the story of Aristotle
    claiming that women have fewer teeth than men,
    when he failed to even think of asking Mrs. Aristotle to open her mouth.

    The Kalam Argument A (1) is surely an example of the fallacy of composition?

    Then, there are counter claims from experimental physics.
    Eg there are several examples of objects coming into existence without a cause.
    Am I right in thinking these are in nuclear decay, photons from electrons changing orbital shells,
    virtual particles in a vacuum and, golly gosh, even this universe?

    A short 3 minute video on “Do Cause and Effect Really Exist?”
    by Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist at Caltech
    seems to suggest that these are macro concepts?

    For A (2) are we yet sure that there was a beginning?
    Again from Sean, “Does the Universe need God?” :
    The value 10^-43 seconds is the “Planck time,” before which we expect
    spacetime itself to be subject to quantum behavior.
    Currently we don’t have a reliable theory that describes gravity in
    quantum-mechanical terms; the search for a theory of “quantum gravity”
    is one of the foremost goals of modern physics.
    But, it might well be as some say, that this universe has always existed.

    For Argument C, I did not think that time can be separated from space.
    Time may even run backwards as well as forwards from the singularity.

    If there is something beyond the natural world there could be at least two possibilities:

    (1) It has no affect on the natural world and so it need not concern us.

    (2) If it has an affect then perhaps that can be detected.
    Has anybody found any hint of that?

    Finally, I quite like this tweet from the English comedian Ricky Gervais:
    (2:33am – 29 Dec 2015)

    “There have been nearly 3000 Gods so far but only yours exists.
    The others are silly made up nonsense.
    But not yours.
    Yours is real.”

    • Hugh Harris
      Hugh Harris says:

      Thanks for your comment Peter. Love the comment about Aristotle – he’d never have got away with that in my house!

      I like your summary of points. You’ll notice my response mentions some of them. I also love Sean Carroll’s essay you cite – “Does the Universe need God?”. He has a recent book but I haven’t read it yet.


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