Does the Abrahamic God Exist Debate

Debate on the existence of God – 14 April 2020. My notes from the debate.

In my first talk I will present 7 positive arguments for disbelief in the Abrahamic God, including some arguments many will know but at least one argument that’s new.

First, a quick story to set the scene. Let’s cast our minds to the superstitious Pre-Enlightenment middle ages – when we thought storms and lightning were caused by demons and evil spirits. Of course, according to Christianity there were ways of warding off these evil spirits: prayer, exorcisms, Chanting over bonfires, large processions through the streets. The stormbusting Pope even made and sold his own products – Agnus Dei – discs of wax, with lamb of god + cross.

But, the main way of thwarting Satan became the consecrating and ringing of church bells. Typical inscriptions on church bells described their power to “vanquish tempests, and repel demons.” Of course, churches themselves are vulnerable to lightning strikes and many were destroyed.

Thankfully science intervened when Benjamin Franklin  invented the lightning rod in 1752. But, Unfortunately, the clergy opposed these “heretical” rods. So, bell ringing continued and in France alone over the next 30 years, 103 bell-ringers were electrocuted holding on to wet bell ropes. Lightning struck the Church of San Nazaro, near Venice, igniting 200,000 pounds of powder which had been stored there causing an explosion which wiped out one sixth of the city of Brescia and killed 3,000 people.

The comedy and tragedy of these events illustrates the folly of false belief. Most of what we thought we knew scientifically before the 17th century was flat out wrong. Many superstitions of old have since evaporated under the bright light of the scientific method.

So, let’s bear in mind, the pre-Enlightenment enchanted world which gave rise to Abrahamic religion as we consider the arguments this evening.

 What is God?  

He is (1) a person, (2) supremely powerful, (3) morally perfect, (4) all-knowing, (5) the uncreated creator of the universe, (6) specifically concerned with human beings, (7) the only deity, and (8) essentially immaterial or non-physical.

  1. More than two options

Intrinsic to this debate is what grounds existence. And It is NOT just a “God or not” question. There are various potential solutions.

  • Creation could have a seed within existence
  • Non personal creator, a Force,
  • Quantum theory & Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – extreme positive and negative quantities of energy randomly fluctuated into existence
  • Impossibility of nothingness
  • Eternal Universe
  • Big Crunch Closed universe which expands, contracts and starts again
  • A brute fact, such as eternal quantum field or dimension
  • Multiverse scenario
  • Pantheism – god is the whole universe
  • Deism – some sort of God but non-interventionist
  • Finally, & most likely, something that we humans are incapable of imagining

So Matthew must not only show that God is a reasonable proposition, he must also show why the other possibilities are unreasonable.

  1. The burden of proof.

For any proposition, the onus is on the claim maker to provide evidence to support it. As Hitchens noted, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

The god hypothesis is unfalsifiable. No evidence can be provided to prove it false.

WE cannot disprove it, we simply choose not to believe in a God in the absence of sufficient evidence.

Just as we presume the nonexistence of unicorns, big foot, the loch ness monster, fairies at the bottom of the garden, Bertrand Russell’s floating tea pots in space…

the DEFAULT position are that they are not there.

The default position, is that God does not exist.

  1. No evidence.

Not only is there no empirical evidence of God, but by theisms own definition of the Abrahamic creator, he sits outside Spacetime and therefore we can necessarily know nothing of him directly.

Lacking any evidence, the default position that God does not exist holds.

How’s God looking so far? Not good.

  1. Effects of god?

Scientist Victor Stenger has also argued that if an Abrahamic interventionist God exists then we should easily be able to detect, and observe the effects of his existence. Alas, we cannot. And not for want of trying.

Prayer has been scientifically studied and does not work. Miracles remain unverified. Where there should be evidence of supernatural events, there is none.

  1. Many Gods

 10,000 religions, and 1000 or so Gods in recorded history.

Which is ore likely:

  • Only 1 God exists, and all the others are fake
  • None exist.

So, Matthew’s rationale must show why the Abrahamic God exists, and also why he rejects all other Gods.

  1. Problem of evil – why can’t a God who is all good, allpowerful and has free will, make humans all good and with free will? Why does he create a world where indifferent nature lays waste to thousands in natural disasters.
  2. Human evolution conflicts with special creation

 We all know that under the Abrahamic God, humans are specially created as the principal focus of God’s creation. Genesis: “God willed for his own sake”. If special creation is false then the Abrahamic God is false.

The following brief account of our evolution stands in direct contrast to special creation,

We can fully account for the advent and development of humans, through the fossil record and genetics.  We diverged from other primates approximately 5 million years ago. From proto-humans, walking apes we evolved into to stone tool wielding cave men 2.5 million years ago to 700,000 years ago including species such as Homo erectus, Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis. These evolved into more modern human species including Neanderthals, Homo Sapien Idaltu, Denisovans, Homo Floresiensis, Red Deer Cave People and the extant Homo sapien sapiens.

Human traits and phenotypes evolved through random mutations and natural selection. Evolution is an extremely gradual process – there was no special day when an ape birthed a human. We are a continuous unbroken line, indivisible in kind or nature, from those who preceded us – contrast to set aside or special.

Other human species came from the same ancestors as us and who existed alongside us, shows that other outcomes were possible – defying the belief that we are predetermined, and that our traits were predetermined to be a specific kind.

Modern humans are called Homo sapien sapiens. We share a common ancestor with Neanderthals – Homo Heidelbergensis. Originating in Africa some of these moved to Europe 800,000 years ago becoming Neanderthals, and some stayed in Africa and became, Homo sapien sapiens (us).

All non-African humans have a % of Neanderthal DNA (4% or so), due to interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans. Neanderthals were 99.7% genetically identical to humans, but were distinct with larger brain cases, stronger bones, stocky, slower, and lived in smaller communities.

Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers, they were capable of symbolic thought, they had cave paintings, they complex stone tools (similar to modern humans), and using rudimentary chemistry they developed a synthetic glue out of a complex process to fixing their arrow tips.

Yet Neanderthals, so similar to modern humans, became extinct about 40,000 years ago.

In summary, Evolution provides a sufficient explanation for humans, we are not predetermined in nature, we are indivisible from our ancestors, and we continue to evolve one day becoming different species.

So, the questions is, why would God chose to create Homo sapien sapiens in his own image, through an uncertain and random natural process over 5 million years, allowing several other human species to become extinct, before intervening supernaturally insert the immortal soul into modern humans? Does not make any sense.

Meteorology displaced the belief in ghosts and devils of the air,

Evolution should similarly supercede special creation. Since special creation is implausible then the Abrahamic God is implausible.

The Abrahamic God does not exist.

That’s the end of my first argument.


Cardinal Pell: Catholic Guilt and a Crisis of Faith

As published in 10 daily

Pell Is In Prison But Hypocrisy And Scandal Are Still At Large In The Church


Cardinal Pell is in jail. What a seismic shock for the Australian Catholic Church. Until recently, the third most powerful Catholic in the world, and for decades, the face of Catholicism in Australia. A confidant and confessor to Australian Prime Ministers. A companion of the Order of Australia. A guardian of traditional conservative values. A staunch opponent of homosexuality, contraception and abortion.

He was the stern face of the church’s unfeeling attitude to the survivors of clerical abuse. His Melbourne Response, although one of the first attempts at remediation in the world, was miserly in its compensation for survivors. The $1 million plus spent on the so-called Ellis defence, ensuring the Roman church could not be sued by complainants, was a monumental blunder – emblematic of a church placing its own image ahead of the welfare of innocents.

Many will recall Pell’s complaints of the press exaggerating clerical child abuse. They will recall him accompanying Gerard Risdale – convicted of assaulting 65 boys – to court in order to help minimize his sentence. They may recall him standing aside in 2002 for the Catholic Church commissioned Southwell Report into a complaint made against him of sexually abusing a boy at Phillip Island, (the complaint was neither proven or dismissed). They’ll recall his evasions at the Royal Commission over why he failed to prevent violent criminals from being reported to police.

Now, to see him convicted of child abuse, his dramatic fall is complete. He has been removed from the Pope’s inner circle. His reputation is shattered beyond recovery. The luxury of the Vatican replaced by a cold cell.

Australian Catholics have greeted the news with sadness, dismay and disbelief. Long-time defenders conjuring a fantastical conspiracy of angry progressives determined to cut down Australia’s most celebrated Catholic. But most will see this is another blow to a flawed institution; a church disembodied from its own creed.

To that end, Catholics around the world are distancing themselves from their own church. A recent US poll showed only one third of US Catholics think priests are honest and ethical, down from nearly half in 2017. A Gallup poll showed only 44% expressing confidence in organised religion.

The continual publicity surrounding child sexual abuse is hastening the fragmentation of religious communities and accentuating the nominal nature of belief. While 20% of Australians still identify as Catholic, they are less connected to the institution than ever before. Few attend church, pray, or hold to biblical strictures on sex, and most support legalising assisted dying. None could fail to see the glaring juxtaposition between the church’s behaviour and its stated mission.

In coming days, many will reflect on what the Pell verdict means. How does someone so flawed climb so high and fall so far? Die hard supporters and religious apologists will offer the usual platitudes. They’ll say this is a chance for renewal, a new beginning. That this is not a failure of doctrine, but of management. The church has faced scandal before and will again in the future.

And I guess that’s the point. There have always been scandals. Church history is a procession of lurid and abhorrent behaviour. It’s difficult to pinpoint one key source of the rottenness: is it the obsession with sex, the notion of infallibility, canon law, celibacy, the seal of the confessional, or the rules prohibiting exposure of impropriety? It’s much more difficult, however, to imagine that this is not an endemic failure.

But the church is nothing if not resilient. As the richest private institution in the world, it is virtually invulnerable. Tomorrow, it will still own the hospitals, it will still run the schools, it will still curate the artwork and still oversee its immense real estate portfolio. While Pell languishes in jail, the church business will keep kicking along, proceeding from scandal to scandal, from one tight-lipped apology to another, whilst occasionally lecturing society at large on morality.

To me, what should be more troubling to Christians is the crisis of faith. The church has deliberately covered up heinous crimes and protected their own at the expense of children. How could they do so whilst earnestly believing their own creed? This is beyond compartmentalisation. How could they engage in such calculated evil whilst still believing a judgmental God was assessing their deeds? How could anyone, possibly?

This is beyond hypocrisy. Hypocrisy was George Pell refusing communion to those wearing rainbow sashes, or claiming sexual abuse was a media beat-up. This problem goes to the heart of belief itself.

The church needs new ideas, a renewal of faith, and a new leadership. Someone to tip over the money tables, and remind them that their creed is about protecting the weak and vulnerable, not about cosying up to the strong and powerful. It needs to figure out what it believes in and what it stands for. For now, that amounts to very little.

Piers Morgan’s silly attack on atheism, backed up by hapless Philosopher

Philosopher Nikk Effingham makes some monumental philosophical gaffes as he weighs in on the Twitter “debate” about the existence of God between Piers Morgan and Brian Cox. (Text of article below)

Here’s Piers Morgan’s tweet which succeeded in raising the hackles of atheists.

“Atheists can never say what was there before the Big Bang. They just say ‘nothing’ but they can’t explain what ‘nothing’ actually is. No human brain can, which is why I believe in something that has superior powers to the human brain.”

In answer to Piers supposedly penetrating question Brian Cox offers:

“Why is there something rather than nothing? Why not?”

To this Effingham offers:

“Can scientific phenomena really have no explanation? Isn’t science based on the idea that all things have discoverable explanations?”

Disturbingly, a philosopher is making a fairly obvious false comparison, confusing science with reality. Science is a method of inquiry – not commensurate with reality itself, and as a series of disciplines investigating reality, it has no bearing whatsoever on what that reality ultimately is. Further, there is no means of inquiry which can demonstrate that all things must have explanations.

He also misses the point. The “why is there something?” question can be turned on it’s head. Why do many assume that something came out of nothing? Why is nothing the default scenario?

And then this howler:

“What about the eternally existing chain of universes? Imagine you stumble across a perfect statue of yourself. Wondering why the hell it’s there, is it really satisfactory if someone says it just happens to have been there for all eternity? I doubt it.”

I wonder if this statue is made of straw. Effingham confuses a specific thing (statue) with existence itself. The universe is not a specific article exhibiting a likeness or connection with humans. Quite the opposite.

His point is reminiscent of the classic intelligent design argument which was once so convincing. If you find a watch laying in the ground one immediately senses the need for a designer. For centuries it was accepted folk wisdom that this logic should apply to humans and the world around us. Alas, Darwin found a better explanation in evolution.

Effingingham also makes a silly false comparison between scientists believing in their theories, and religious belief in God. As though most religious believers are simply proposing a hypothesis they think is likely, rather than the reality, which involves devoting themselves to a whole platform of tenets, commitments and rituals which assume the factual truth of the existence of their own specific God, usually to the exclusion of all others.

And this is what frustrates many atheists. Why are apparently intelligent people fooled by bad arguments?

In the absence of explanation for existence we:

  1. Demand there must be an explanation B. Find an explanation from our preexisting belief system B. Rationalise that the answer must be God

Piers Morgan’s argument is preposterous: The human brain can’t explain “nothing” so there must be something superior to the human brain.

Non sequitur. Nothing is suggested by what human brains can’t explain. In the absence of knowledge we used to think evil spirits caused storms. None of the enduring mysteries of existence have so far been explained by God.

The fact that we don’t know, equals an insistence to suspend belief. This suggests atheism and agnosticism. It does not suggest we should just conclude that God did it.



Piers Morgan and Brian Cox debate the existence of God: a philosopher’s take

Nikk Effingham The Conversation

Piers Morgan started a Twitter debate about God. “Atheists can never say what was there before the Big Bang” starts a recent tweet posted by the journalist-turned-television presenter. Morgan then moves to the existence of a higher power. A quick scan of the replies shows that the mere suggestion is enough to raise hackles.

Morgan’s tweet is a “cosmological argument” – one that argues that there must be an ultimate cause or explanation for the existence of the universe and that it must be God.

When focusing on causes, the idea is to question what caused, say, the Big Bang? If science finds that it’s a physical cause, we’ve gone nowhere, for what brought that about? And if the cause is non-physical, it must be supernatural. When focusing on explanation, the question is what explains the sum total of all facts? If it’s a scientific explanation, such as the fundamental laws of nature explaining everything, then what explains those laws? And the argument goes round again. If the explanation is non-scientific, then God isn’t far behind.

Piers Morgan: enquiring mind. EPA-EFE/Neil Hall

I doubt such arguments prove God’s existence for sensible objections abound. For instance, in response to Morgan, scientist (and television presenter) Brian Cox – who, as any fan of his radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage will know, is not philosophy’s biggest fan – nevertheless turns philosophical and suggests that perhaps nothing explains these things.

Another objection to this kind of argument is that God isn’t a good explanation because what would explain God?

Or consider one last objection. We might say that a prior universe was responsible for the Big Bang, and before that one, there was another. And so on, forever. Because this chain of universes has been around forever, the suggestion is that they need no explanation.

Problems with the objections

To each objection there are rejoinders – if there weren’t, philosophers like myself would be doing it wrong.

Can scientific phenomena really have no explanation? Isn’t science based on the idea that all things have discoverable explanations? Even particles popping into existence in the quantum foam have an explanation for their existence (namely, the laws of quantum physics) even if they have no specific cause.

And maybe it’s OK for God’s creation of reality to be inexplicable. Some people – “libertarians” – suggest that people’s free choices have no explanation. If our choices were wholly explained (for example, by our brain activity) there would be no free will. So even if scientific explanations always need explanations, God’s actions don’t.

Read more: The psychology of believing in free will

What about the eternally existing chain of universes? Imagine you stumble across a perfect statue of yourself. Wondering why the hell it’s there, is it really satisfactory if someone says it just happens to have been there for all eternity? I doubt it.

Good arguments needn’t be proofs

The literature on the cosmological argument is vast. It’s an open question whether the crucial premises are true or not. So it isn’t proof of God’s existence. But that doesn’t mean the cosmological argument is a bad argument. To be good, an argument doesn’t have to conclusively and undeniably prove its conclusion. Good reasoning needn’t be impervious to doubt.

Brian Cox: ‘no personal faith’. EPA-EFE/Neil Hall

Intelligent, well-informed adults can be justified in believing different things. Two physicists might disagree over a correct fundamental physical theory. One might say it’s superstring theory. Another might believe it’s loop quantum gravity. And both can be justified, even though they have the same body of information to hand. Indeed, they can be justified even though at most one of them is right. Being justified in believing something doesn’t mean it has to be true. Sometimes rational trains of thought can lead us astray – such is life.

And it’s not just science. Veteran politicians disagree even though they’re privy to the same information. Politics also shows that non-experts can similarly disagree. People who haven’t waded through all of the available information nevertheless get to have justifiable political views. Liberal democracy is founded on the idea that voters make sensible, justified decisions when they vote. You don’t need to be the West Wing’s fictional Nobel Prize-winning president, Jed Bartlet, in order to justifiably believe that lower business rates could work out well, that railway nationalisation is the way forward, or – in short – justifiably have a political opinion.

New atheism and Brexit

The, often outrageously rude, debate on Morgan’s Twitter feed shows that people tend to want religious arguments to meet some crazily high standard of proof. This is not unusual – it characterises a lot of New Atheist debates. But it’s an unfair burden. Churchgoers aren’t simpering morons just because they can’t prove God exists in the same way that we can prove to anyone that there are an infinite number of prime numbers.

So Morgan may not be telling atheists why they have to believe in God. Rather, he may be making a claim about why he is justified in believing in God. Those things are different. It’s implausible to believe that 140 characters is going to change the mind of every atheist. But if Morgan is just giving us an insight into his own belief structure – claiming only that his faith is justified – then, since the jury is out when it comes to the cosmological argument’s crucial premises, he’s on solid ground.

In the same way that a scientist may believe superstring theory in lieu of conclusive experimental evidence, or how politician Jeremy Corbyn can think that nationalising energy is sensible even though questions remain (for don’t questions always remain?), Morgan can be justified in believing in God.

This lesson isn’t just one for religious debate. The world (and the internet, especially) would be a better place if we worried less about whether someone was wrong and more about whether they’re justified. As new technologies allow for evermore public clashes of views, such as with the often vicious Brexit debate, realising that intellectually sophisticated adults can be justified in believing diametrically opposed things has never been more important.



Don’t always accept the prevailing wisdom, its usually wrong

… especially in regards to freethinkers!


As published in The Rationalist Journal June 2018


One of the key reasons we identify as rationalists, sceptics, or free thinkers, is because we value reason and evidence-based inquiry. We oppose government policy based on superstition, prejudice, or pseudoscience. We oppose charlatans exploiting the gullible. We advocate against magical thinking, fake news and the increasing acceptance of science-denialism. We emphasize the antidote to magical thinking – virtues of reason, science and evidence-based policies. We want to interrogate truth claims, and challenge the prevailing wisdom – after all, most of us know that it’s usually wrong.

And so, it’s disappointing to read articles by local rationalists and sceptics denigrating some of the exemplars of the freethought movement because they supposedly (amongst other things) exaggerate the importance of science and evidence. According to James Fodor “Not So Simple”, and Tim Harding, “A Step Too Far”, the following luminaries – Richard Dawkins, Neal De Grasse Tyson, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss and Peter Boghossian – can all be lumped together, and termed pejoratively as “crude positivists”; guilty of propagating such horrors as “strict evidentialism”, “scientism”, and “pragmatism”.

Both Fodor and Harding are local free thinkers who are thoughtful and insightful in the commentary, but, in this case, I think they have succumbed to the prevailing orthodoxy which labels public atheists, and science advocates, as a little too strident, blinkered, and prone to exaggerate the importance of science.

Of course, it’s still fashionable to make glib criticisms of freethinkers – in particular, the movement identified as New Atheism. Efforts to discredit the New Atheists began soon after publication of their books, the End of Faith by Sam Harris and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Because of their uncompromising and devastating attack on organised religion, New Atheists became controversial figures themselves, attracting a multitude of ad hominem attacks from the religious apologists they were actively debating. One conspicuous example was Alister McGrath’s, The Richard Dawkins Delusion – Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine, containing ad hominem in its title. New Atheists were accused in pejorative terms of being religious fundamentalists, attacking a narrow interpretation of religion, dogmatism, reductionism, gross materialism, Islamophobia, and scientism. In these emotion-charged debates, mud has been thrown and evidently some of the mud has stuck.

While it’s understandable that some free thinkers would want to dissociate themselves from the bad press, we needn’t go so far as to drink the Kool Aid of religious apology. Invoking words like scientism to demonise the promoters of science is the stock-in-trade of religious apology. But there’s no doubt these criticisms have caught on, perhaps becoming accepted generally. I intend to show these criticisms are based on a narrow caricature of New Atheist views, which necessarily simplify and abbreviate their arguments.

James Fodor labels the above mentioned freethinkers with the “crude positivism” moniker, without feeling any obligation to provide any specific examples or quotes. Evidently, the prevailing view is good enough and no further justification is required. Rather, Fodor makes his case by describing the ways crude positivists allegedly frame their arguments, as follows:


  • Strict evidentialism: the ultimate arbiter of knowledge is evidence, which should determine our beliefs in a fundamental and straightforward way, namely that we believe things if and only if there is sufficient evidence for them.
  • Narrow scientism: the highest, or perhaps only, legitimate form of objective knowledge is that produced by the natural sciences. The social science, along with non-scientific pursuits, either do not produce real knowledge, or only knowledge or a distinctly inferior sort.
  • Pragmatism: science owes its’ special status to its’ unique ability to deliver concrete, practical results – it ‘works’. Philosophy, religion, and other such fields to enquiry do not produce ‘results’ in this same way, and thus have no special status



Arguing against promoting “strict evidentialism”, Fodor admits that, as an abstract principle, beliefs should be informed by evidence. But he has concerns about how crude positivists apply this maxim in practise.

For example, a crude positivist might refuse to accept the claims of evangelical Christians that they have experienced God in their own lives. Fodor says that “nearly everyone will be able to provide some sort of justification for their beliefs, something they regard to be ‘evidence’” But he alleges that crude positivists fail to make good arguments as to why this evidence is insufficient, simply demanding that theists provide evidence – especially scientific evidence. Fodor, is of course right to say that we need to explain what constitutes good evidence. However, the New Atheists have been relentless in outlining what sort of evidence would be sufficient for over a decade.

Notice how specifically this extended quote from Peter Boghossian’s, The Limits of Knowledge, answers Fodors’ objection in advance:


The problem is that everyone thinks they form their beliefs on the basis of evidence. That’s one of the issues, for example, with fake news. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, or just surfing Google, people read and share stories either that they want to believe or that comport with what they already believe—then they point to those stories as evidence for their beliefs. Beliefs are used as evidence for beliefs, with fake news just providing fodder.

Teaching people to formulate beliefs on the basis of evidence may, ironically, trap them in false views of reality. Doing so increases their confidence in the truth of a belief because they think they’re believing as good critical thinkers would, but they’re actually digging themselves into a cognitive sinkhole. The more intelligent one is, the deeper the hole. As Michael Shermer famously stated, “Smarter people are better at rationalizing bad ideas.” That is, smarter people are better at making inferences and using data to support their belief, independent of the truth of that belief.

What, then, can we skeptics do? Here’s my recommendation: Instead of telling people to form beliefs on the basis of evidence, encourage them to seek out something, anything, that could potentially undermine their confidence in a particular belief. (Not something that will, but something that could. Phrased this way it’s less threatening.) This makes thinking critical.

Philosophers call this process “defeasibility”. Defeasibility basically refers to whether or not a belief is revisable.


Another example: in a debate with William Lane-Craig, Lawrence Krauss outlined the sort of evidence he thinks is necessary:


Evidence is falsifiable; evidence is something I can test.


Krauss goes further, mopping out some misconceptions regarding probability and how it relates to evidence:


First of all, a probability greater than 50% is not evidence of anything. It’s evidence that there’s a possibility that a construct might be right. There’s also a possibility that it might be wrong. For example, in my own field of dark matter detection, one of the things I work in, there was a recent discovery of several events. And the experiment [unintelligible] that may be due to these dark matter particles, two events, where we predict none. You find out the probability of that being due to pure accident, is one part in ten: a 10% probability of that being a mere accident, 90% probability of it being, perhaps due to dark matter. The experiment, however, did not claim evidence for dark matter because we don’t claim 90% evidence is good enough, especially for an extraordinary claim.


In, A Letter to a Christian nation, Sam Harris provides detailed arguments relating to a myriad of Christian beliefs and why their evidence is insufficient. He does not simply refute them by obstinately claiming they are not “scientific” claims.

There are many more examples, but the point is made. Clearly, the ideas of the above named freethinkers are more complex and nuanced than generally supposed. Indeed, they are not so simple!

It’s also worth noting how our society operates on a universal, well understood idea of evidence. Experiential supernatural claims are not universally accepted as knowledge. Sam Harris has pointed out that when a person claims, for instance, to be the incarnation of Elvis Presley they instantly pay a price – in ill-concealed laughter and derision – for admitting to such a belief.

The separate-domains argument, to which Fodor refers (and happily does not endorse), makes a mockery of the concept of evidence. Evidence, is defined as the information which provides warrant for justified belief. An assertion is not evidence by itself – it must be supported by the information which constitutes evidence. If sufficient information exists, then it must be relatable and go towards sufficient warrant for belief. This is true by definition, since evidence contains information, and information must be capable of informing. Alas, those claiming such other forms of evidence are unable to produce the requisite information which would allow them to justifiably use the word “evidence”. Further, if these claims were imbued with another legitimate form of evidence, then we should find greater general acceptance that these are knowledge claims. The (strict or otherwise) evidentialist would have no problem – as it is evidence they seek!

Imagine if our law courts adopted the “other-realms” view of evidence. Barristers could leap to their feet demanding the court consider “other forms” of evidence which magically prove their case. “Objection, your Honour! My client has had a personal experience which proves that a ghost did it!” There are sound reasons why our legal system fails to support such ludicrous claims, and no-one suggests our courts are guilty of crude positivism.

Our current malaise is not caused by the insistence on evidence, it’s the increasing determination of political actors to ignore the evidence. While neither Fodor or Harding, to their credit, endorse such nonsense, rationalists and sceptics should remain unequivocally in favour of science and evidence, rather than pouring more fuel on the magical-thinking bonfire.


Joining the chorus of new age prophets, philosophers, and religious apologists – James Fodor and Tim Harding accuse the defenders of science with “scientism”. This term is carelessly lobbed at freethinkers whenever they suggest an incompatibility between science and faith. The preeminent evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins has earned this epithet on numerous occasions. But, even in his case, it is dubious as to whether he thinks that the “only legitimate form of … knowledge is … science”.

In a debate with philosopher Stephen Law, for example, Dawkins said, “we can all agree that science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic to say the least”.

Not exactly scientism, in my opinion, however, this brings to mind Sam Harris, who actually does think that science can advise us on moral issues!

Charges of scientism arose following his claims in The Moral Landscape that science will one day be able to solve ethical problems. His claims rely on a presupposition that the well-being of sentient creatures is a natural, and incontrovertible, value and measuring stick for morality. I don’t think we can achieve agreement on objective moral values in this way, nor I am convinced that the presupposition of “wellbeing” must be universally accepted. I’m sure Fodor and Harding would agree that the presupposition of wellness is a philosophical claim, not a scientific one. Nonetheless, The Moral Landscape remains an influential and useful contribution to public debate, offering a way of framing morality in a distinctly nonreligious, utilitarian manner.

But the allegation of scientism relies on the common view is that science can have nothing to say about morality or ethics. Nothing? Is this incontrovertibly true, or another example of a conventional-wisdom dogma? Consider recent developments in cognitive psychology noting that primate species including humans have evolved with similar moral inclinations based on filial relationships. Consider also the possibility that future neuroscientific and medical discoveries may establish that humans do indeed possess inherent and universal moral inclinations and ethical instincts. Wouldn’t it be of interest to know what these are? Gaping holes exist in our understanding of consciousness, and how it relates to human decision making. It is difficult to predict how a better understanding of our brain and our own human nature may influence future discussions on morality. Perhaps, the assumption that science should be silent on morality is not as ironclad as some appear to think.

The accusation of scientism is, to some extent, a result of different interpretations of science. For instance, Richard Dawkins has an elastic understanding of science: in his view science includes all philosophic reasoning, history and all empirical knowledge. Sam Harris similarly sees science as commensurate with knowledge:


In the broadest sense, ‘science’ (from the Latin scire, ‘to know’) represents our best efforts to know what is true about our world.                

Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 64


So, when they say the word “science” in the broad sense, they often mean “knowledge”. Yet, many are liable to take them as excluding other genuine forms of knowledge such as history, philosophy and social science.

But evidently, even seasoned rationalists and sceptics are unaware of this problem, and therefore argue that we must be extremely wary of promoting a narrow view of science. And then, distressingly, they seek to support this view, by highlighting the limits of science.

To that end, Tim Harding quotes an oft-mentioned argument proposing Galileo’s explanation of gravity was founded upon reason alone, rather than the scientific method.

Considering the question of whether heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, Galileo imagined two objects, one heavier than the other, connected by string, which are dropped from a tower. Assuming heavier objects fall faster Galileo imagined the string would soon become taut. But, the linked objects would together be heavier than the two objects individually, thus, creating a perceived contradiction, which allowed Galileo to hypothesise that in a vacuum the two objects would fall at the same rate.

In an article in Sceptic Magazine, Gary Bakker answers this argument in devastating fashion by pointing out that Galileo’s discoveries would not be considered knowledge unless they were verified by subsequent testing.

Interestingly, the example of a scientist like Galileo seems strange recalling his treatment at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. Standing accused of trespassing onto the sacred ground of theology, Galileo’s discoveries directly challenged Scripture. What was he accused of, if not Scientism?

The historical trespass of science into the rival domains of theology and philosophy provides a useful perspective on present-day accusations of “scientism”. The concrete is not yet dry on the demarcations between science and the humanities. Who can say precisely where they are, and where future discoveries will take them?

Philosopher Stephen Law sums up the use of scientism well:


“ In the hands of some – including many theologians – the charge of ‘scientism!’ has become a lazy, knee-jerk form of dismissal, much like the charge of ‘communism!’ used to be. It constitutes a form of rubbishing, allowing – in the minds of those making the charge – for criticism to be casually brushed aside. No doubt some things really are beyond the ability of science, and perhaps even reason, to decide. But there’s plenty that does lie within the remit of the scientific method, including many religious, supernatural, New Age, and other claims that are supposedly ‘off-limits’. However, because the mantra ‘But this is beyond the ability of science to decide’ has been repeated so often with respect to that sort of subject matter, it is now heavily woven into our cultural zeitgeist. People just assume it’s true for all sorts of claims for which it is not, in fact, true. The mantra has become a convenient, immunising factoid that can be wheeled out whenever a scientific threat to belief rears its head. When a believer is momentarily stung into doubt, many will attempt to lull them back to sleep by repeating the mantra over and over. The faithful murmur back: ‘Ah yes, we forgot – this is beyond the ability of science to decide…. zzzz.’“



Fodor and Harding then argue against pragmatism – the belief in the utility of science to produce practical results – because is insufficient to recommend it as a complete picture of reality.

Fodor and Harding appear to suffering under the misapprehension that popular science advocates think they have reality completely figured out. Fodor argues that because scientific theories have historically sometimes worked relatively well in practice, only to have been found to be incorrect as an accurate model of reality, that (his view of) science cannot “alone always provide us with accurate descriptions of reality”. I’m not sure which crude positivist is supposed to hold this view.

He mentions Ptolemy’s incorrect geocentric model of the cosmos. But even against those who might insist that science does have all the answers, this is a comically fallacious counter argument. Reprising the logic of Gary Bakker, what fields of endeavour updated these incorrect models of reality? It certainly wasn’t philosophy. Was it French poetry? Or, was it Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas after an afternoon of levitating around St Peter’s Cathedral?

Despite allegations to the contrary, scientists are well known for exercising caution in claiming new discoveries. Virtually no-one argues that science represents an absolute or complete description of reality. What’s more, this triviality doesn’t discredit science at all. If science “alone” falls short, it is not as if we witness to other fields of inquiry riding in to the rescue. And yet, Harding proffers “philosophies of mind and metaphysics” as ways of filling in the missing pieces. Does anyone really imagine metaphysics is going to solve the fundamental questions of existence? How will we test the answers? Dare I say…science?

The popular trope that scientists have become over confident and intellectual bullies, results in the desire to take them down a peg or two. Pejorative terms arise out of this idea. It’s true that occasionally scientists do make questionable claims about the superiority of science over other disciplines, but these deserve sensible and measured debate, rather than name-calling. Leading free thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Peter Boghossian have made questionable claims over social media. My argument is not that eminent figures in freethought should be immune from criticism. But rather, when we do criticise freethinkers we should use carefully constructed arguments combining reason and evidence.

After all, there is a conga line of well-funded advocates who oppose the Enlightenment values of science, reason and evidence. They promote worldviews which are antithetical to scepticism, rationalism, or humanism. They might propose, for instance, that evidence and science are secondary considerations subject only to a divine will. Or, that the world is only intelligible because of supernatural forces. Or, that we need to focus our efforts on returning society to a prior golden age. And that western democracies will collapse without continued subsidising of supernatural and religious beliefs. Such advocates, do not need or deserve our support.

Stigmatising the promotion of science by labelling it “scientism”; and, erroneously denouncing leading rationalist by making up pejorative labels; are actions antithetical to the ideals of the free thought community. Labelling people such as Stephen Hawking and Sam Harris in pejorative terms has the unfortunate side-effect of discrediting everything they’ve said or written, and diminishing the freethought community as a whole. We are damaging our own brand. The spectacular contribution of science, and the scientific method, is something we should be championing. What we need to focus on is developing the most persuasive arguments to champion the use of evidence and reason in forming beliefs, and in governing societies. That’s our mission. Let’s not lose sight of it.

POST 9: Undermining Reason: More on the Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism by Gary Robertson


Here is Gary Robertson’s RESPONSE TO MY POST 5: Naturalism remains undefeated: an answer to Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism



“Our highly developed brains, after all, were not evolved under the pressure of discovering scientific truths but only to enable us to be clever enough to survive and leave descendants.”

Francis Crick (The Astonishing Hypothesis, 1994)1


“Our sense organs, like all our bits, have been shaped by Darwinian natural selection over countless generations. You might think that our sense organs would be shaped to give us a ‘true’ picture of the world as it ‘really’ is. It is safer to assume that they have been shaped to give us a useful picture of the world, to help us to survive.” – Richard Dawkins (A Devil’s Chaplain, 2003)2


by Gary Robertson.


In Post 3 I discussed how the ‘evolutionary argument against naturalism’ (EAAN) of philosopher Alvin Plantinga shows that the naturalistic conception of humans incorporating evolutionary theory (evolutionary naturalism) is incompatible with reliable cognition and is therefore self-defeating. The conception holds that the origin and development of the human mind is the result of natural selection (evolutionary epistemology). The thrust of the EAAN is that since natural selection preserves adaptive behaviour whether or not it stems from true or rational beliefs, Darwinian evolution cannot by itself account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties and thus beliefs formed from them, including belief in naturalism.

A more structured formulation of the argument, as I understand it, is as follows:

(1) The existence of human cognition is explained by naturalism.

(2) Naturalism holds that our cognitive faculties are primarily the product of natural selection.

(3) Natural selection preserves random genetic mutations based solely on their survival value.

(4) The survival value of our beliefs rests on their contribution (via behaviour) to evolutionary success, whether they are rational or irrational, true or false.

(5) Therefore, many of our adapted beliefs (which for the naturalist may include the preceding premises) are likely to be irrational or false.

(6) Since we perceive adapted beliefs as accurate depictions of reality, we would never be able to identify which ones are false or irrational.

(7) Therefore:

  1. a) The probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable is low or, at best, inscrutable.
  2. b) We are unable to determine whether naturalism accounts for our cognitive faculties.
  3. c) We cannot know if naturalism is true, and hence
  4. d) Naturalism cannot be rationally affirmed.

(8) Therefore, naturalism is self-defeating.

Assuming the initial point

Hugh’s response to the EAAN essentially amounts to countering that human cognition, and thus knowledge attained through our cognitive faculties, is reliable so therefore naturalism is not defeated by the EAAN. I’m not sure if Hugh is simply ignoring the ramifications of the EAAN for naturalism or has misconstrued them, but either way he is merely begging the question, not refuting the argument. If the development of our cognitive faculties is based on their ability to form beliefs which lead to survival-enhancing behaviour then humans do not “have good reason to rely on their cognition.” After all, some irrational or false beliefs may provide survival advantages – we just wouldn’t know which ones. Nor would we know what approximate proportion of our total beliefs they comprise at any one time.

Hugh completely disregards (or misunderstands) this predicament, concluding that Plantinga’s argument is “problematic” because “there is no reason to discount both our cognitive capacities and the science of evolution.” Note the circularity of the logic here: Hugh doesn’t question this self-defeating aspect of naturalism because he presupposes there is “no reason to distrust the accepted science of evolution” or our cognitive faculties. Yet Hugh is left with a situation wherein he is unable to rationally explain the general reliability of human cognition within a naturalistic framework. Thus, it is the incompatibility between naturalism and the reliability of human cognition that is “problematic”, not the EAAN.

American analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga


Missing the point

Hugh appears at times to misrepresent the EAAN somewhat. For example, despite accurately outlining it at the beginning of his post he later restates Plantinga’s argument as “we should distrust our knowledge of evolution based on our knowledge of evolution.” Hugh labels such an argument “nonsense” but the restatement reflects Hugh’s misinterpretation of it, which is indeed nonsensical and not remotely close to being an accurate representation of the EAAN. A more precise summation would be: ‘Naturalists should distrust their beliefs because, according to their account of how human cognition developed, our minds were formed by a process that favours survival over truth and rationality.’ Further, Plantinga subscribes to a version of theistic evolution, which posits that God set biological evolution in motion and possibly guides the process by causing suitable mutations and fostering their survival. Therefore, it is not the ‘evolution’ component of evolutionary naturalism per se that is the conundrum here, but specifically the naturalistic notion of unguided Darwinian evolution.3 As theologian James Beilby notes:


“Plantinga’s argument should not be mistaken for an argument against evolutionary theory in general or, more specifically, against the claim that humans might have evolved from more primitive life forms. Rather, the purpose of his argument is to show that the denial of the existence of a creative deity is problematic. It is the conjunction of naturalism and evolution that suffers from the crippling deficiency of self-defeat, a deficiency not shared by the conjunction of theism and current evolutionary doctrine.” (Beilby, 2002:vii)


Hugh continues: “Secondly, 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.” That is correct. Plantinga’s argument does not aspire to prove naturalism false; it is intended to show that evolutionary naturalism cannot be rationally affirmed – that is, it might be true but it cannot be rational to assert it as such. As Plantinga himself states, “the argument is not for the falsehood of naturalism, but for the irrationality of accepting it.” (Plantinga, 1993:235)

The quagmire deepens

Hugh follows with: “But, nor could we rely on our cognition that [naturalism] 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.” Of course, evolutionary naturalism certainly does get its adherents “precisely nowhere” because if it were true no beliefs could be deemed reliable, including theistic beliefs4. Hugh realises here that the unreliability of human cognitive processes would present a significant problem for all human beliefs, but unfortunately he fails to link this problem to his naturalistic worldview. Instead, he muddles things up by pulling theism into the predicament. However, the defeater exposed by the EAAN concerns naturalism’s account of how human cognition formed, not theism’s account. According to the theistic view, humans were formed in God’s image with the capacity to reason effectively and form true beliefs. Thus, on the theistic explanation “humans have good reason to rely on their cognition”. Actually, Plantinga is explicit in this regard:


“[T]his is not an argument for the falsehood of naturalism and thus (given that naturalism and theism are the live options) for the truth of theism; for all this argument shows, naturalism might still be true. It is instead an argument for the conclusion that (for one who is aware of the present argument) accepting naturalism is irrational. It is like the self-referential argument against classical foundationalism: classical foundationalism is either false or such that I would be unjustified in accepting it; so (given that I am aware of this fact) I can’t justifiably accept it. …The traditional theist, on the other hand, isn’t forced into this appalling loop. On this point his set of beliefs is stable. He has no corresponding reason for doubting that it is a purpose of our cognitive systems to produce true beliefs…” (Plantinga, 1993:235-6)


Straw men to the rescue

Hugh then states, “…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.” This is clearly a straw man argument since God’s existence or non-existence is not part of the EAAN. Indeed, Plantinga does not claim that the EAAN establishes the existence of a deity, or that it demonstrates the truth of theism or some other non-naturalistic worldview. Rather, he posits that the EAAN shows that naturalism conjoined with evolution is self-defeating, and simply notes as an aside that the defeater does not apply to the conjunction of theism with evolution (i.e., theistic evolution).

Hugh again attacks a straw man when he asserts, “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,” as Plantinga has never claimed that human perception is perfect. Instead, Plantinga suggests that humans are cognitively imperfect, stating: “From a theistic point of view, we’d expect that our cognitive faculties would be (for the most part, and given certain qualifications and caveats) reliable.” (Plantinga, 2012). Plantinga affirms this imperfection in an explanation of human cognition in terms of the Judeo-Christian concept of imago Dei:


“Now according to traditional Christian (and Jewish and perhaps Muslim) thought, we human beings have been created in the image of God. This means, among other things, that he created us with the capacity for achieving knowledge—knowledge of our environment by way of perception, of other people by way of something like what Thomas Reid calls sympathy, of the past by memory and testimony, of mathematics and logic by reason, of morality, our own mental life, God himself, and much more. And of course most of us are inclined to think that our cognitive faculties, our belief-producing processes, are for the most part reliable. True, they may not be reliable at the upper limits of our powers, as in some of the more speculative areas of physics; and the proper function of our faculties can be skewed by envy, hate, lust, mother love, greed, and so on. But over a broad area of their operation, we think the purpose of our cognitive faculties is to furnish us with true beliefs, and that when they function properly, they do exactly that.” (Plantinga, 2010:138)


In fact, I’m going to call Hugh out here and challenge him to provide at least one direct quote from Plantinga unambiguously suggesting that humans perfectly perceive truth and reality, or are infallible in ascertaining factual certainty.

Invoking the fossil record

Hugh posits that Darwinian evolution explains why we can have “a moderate level of trust in our cognitive faculties”. He states that increases in “brain size of the various human species…from 400cc to 1350cc over several millions of years,” along with a corresponding increase in “thinking ability” justifies this trust. However, the 400cc figure he cites refers to the average adult cranial capacity of a hominin species in the genus Australopithecus5 (Wikipedia: ‘Australopithecus afarensis’) and does not represent the cranial capacity of any species of human (genus Homo).6

Furthermore, Hugh’s explanation strongly implies he assumes that the “[i]ncreases in brain size and thinking ability” of each temporally successive hominin species indicate progressive transitional stages in human evolution. But this assumption is highly improbable because: 1) it is most likely other factors in addition to brain size account for intelligence (e.g., Homo sapiens have a smaller brain than the earlier and purportedly less intelligent Homo neanderthalensis7), 2) not enough time elapsed for neo-Darwinian mechanisms to produce the many complex adaptations that distinguish the Homo genus from the supposedly ancestral Australopithecus genus (Sanford et al, 2015),and 3) the hominin fossil record is fragmented and does not document the evolution of humans from ape-like precursors. Indeed, fossils of hominine (a hominid subfamily to which humans belong) generally fall into one of two groups — ape-like species or human-like species. Famed evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr described the distinction between the two groups as follows:


“The earliest fossils of Homo, Homo rudolfensis and Homo erectus,8 are separated from Australopithecus by a large, unbridged gap. How can we explain this seeming saltation? Not having any fossils that can serve as missing links, we have to fall back on the time-honored method of historical science, the construction of a historical narrative.” (Mayr, 2004:198)


Many other evolutionary biologists and paleoanthropologists also contend that every species within the genus Australopithecus – the genus that directly preceded the Homo group – resembles apes, not humans. Paleoanthropologist Leslie Aiello noted that in terms of locomotion: “Australopithecines are like apes, and the Homo group are like humans. Something major occurred when Homo evolved, and it wasn’t just in the brain.” (Leakey & Lewin, 1993:196) Intelligent design theorist Casey Luskin notes that the large gap in the hominin fossil record between the ape-like Australopithecines and the human-like Homo strongly suggests that this “‘something major’ was the abrupt appearance of the human-like body plan – without direct evolutionary predecessors in the fossil record.” (Luskin, 2017) The “unbridged gap” is not unexpected given the fossil record on the whole consistently exhibits a pattern of fully formed, novel body plans coming into existence abruptly, without clear evidence of intermediary stages of development. As Paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood writes in Nature, “Even with all the fossil evidence and analytical techniques from the past 50 years, a convincing hypothesis for the origin of Homo remains elusive.” (Wood, 2013:31)

In short, since the paleoanthropological evidence doesn’t support the argument that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors, Hugh’s attempt to reconcile the development of human mental faculties with evolutionary processes is conjectural and highly dubious. On top of that, until Hugh can refute the EAAN his explanation is ultimately meaningless within a framework of evolutionary naturalism since, as the EAAN shows, the naturalistic explanation of the development of human cognition casts doubt on the reliability of any claim he makes (Hugh has a defeater for every belief that is a product of his cognitive faculties).


Growing doubts about neo-Darwinism

Hugh claims, “There is no longer any doubt about the fact of our unguided evolution from prior species, and our connection to other forms of life.” Adequately addressing this fanciful remark would require at least one lengthy blog post to detail all the objections one could reasonably raise against it. In the meantime, I refer Hugh to the aforementioned lack of evidence in the fossil record for human evolution from any preceding hominin species, and leave the topic here with the below quotes on the increasing scientific dissatisfaction with standard evolutionary theory. American Philosopher of Science Stephen Meyer observes that:


“The technical literature in biology is now replete with world-class biologists routinely expressing doubts about various aspects of neo-Darwinian theory, and especially about its central tenet, namely the alleged creative power of the natural selection and mutation mechanism. Nevertheless, popular defenses of the theory continue apace, rarely if ever acknowledging the growing body of critical scientific opinion about the standing of the theory. Rarely has there been such a great disparity between the popular perception of a theory and its actual standing in the relevant peer-reviewed science literature.” (Meyer, 2013:x)


The Royal Society and British Academy held a joint meeting in November 2016 (‘New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives’) to present developments in evolutionary biology and adjacent fields that call for a revision of the standard theory of evolution. Biologist Gerd B. Müller echoes Meyer’s comments in the 6 October 2017 issue of the Royal Society’s journal Interface Focus, which featured articles based on presentations at that meeting:


“A rising number of publications argue for a major revision or even a replacement of the standard theory of evolution, indicating that this cannot be dismissed as a minority view but rather is a widespread feeling among scientists and philosophers alike.

… Indeed, a growing number of challenges to the classical model of evolution have emerged over the past few years, such as from evolutionary developmental biology, epigenetics, physiology, genomics, ecology, plasticity research, population genetics, regulatory evolution, network approaches, novelty research, behavioural biology, microbiology and systems biology, further supported by arguments from the cultural and social sciences, as well as by philosophical treatments. None of these contentions are unscientific, all rest firmly on evolutionary principles and all are backed by substantial empirical evidence.

… The real issue is that genetic evolution alone has been found insufficient for an adequate causal explanation of all forms of phenotypic complexity, not only of something vaguely termed ‘macroevolution’.” (Müller, 2017)


Adding guesswork to the mix

Hugh’s dismissal of Darwin’s selective scepticism9 about the trustworthiness of mans’ beliefs, given the supposed undirected development of human cognition, seems desperate. Hugh wonders “whether Darwin would have revised his doubts [about the reliability of human thought] 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.” However, speculating about inferences or conclusions someone from the past may have derived from certain contemporary scientific findings involves a multitude of unknowns and, therefore, amounts to pointless conjecture.  

As an illustration, we could just as plausibly (and just as fruitlessly) wonder whether Darwin’s expressed doubts about “the mind of man” being “the result of blind chance or necessity” (Barlow, 1958:92-3) would have increased if he had been familiar with scientific discoveries from the future revealing the fine-tuning of the fundamental constants of the universe, digital code stored in DNA, intricate nanotechnology within cells, and the irreducible complexity of various biological systems (not to mention many of their individual components). We could also wonder what Darwin would make of the continual inability of scientists to resolve one of evolutionary theory’s most troublesome dilemmas – the prominent gap in the fossil record separating phyla and other taxonomic groups in the Cambrian strata from those of the pre-Cambrian period – particularly since Darwin expressed his hope around 150 years ago that future research would resolve the “difficulty,” and the fact that he stated in The Origin of Species that he considered it “a valid argument against the views here entertained.” (Darwin, 1872:287)

What internal contradiction?

Although many prominent naturalists and materialists have explicitly stated that, in terms of human cognition, natural selection ‘selects’ not for rationality or accurate perception, but for survival and propagation, the majority of them fail to see the obvious self-referential incoherence of such statements. A consequence of this oversight is that many of these advocates of evolutionary epistemology are unaware of its adverse implications for their naturalistic or materialistic worldviews10. Nancy Pearcey, professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University, concisely explains the internal contradiction of evolutionary epistemology as follows:

“An example of self-referential absurdity is a theory called evolutionary epistemology, a naturalistic approach that applies evolution to the process of knowing. The theory proposes that the human mind is a product of natural selection. The implication is that the ideas in our minds were selected for their survival value, not for their truth-value.

But what if we apply that theory to itself? Then it, too, was selected for survival, not truth — which discredits its own claim to truth. Evolutionary epistemology commits suicide.

Astonishingly, many prominent thinkers have embraced the theory without detecting the logical contradiction. Philosopher John Gray writes, ‘If Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true,…the human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth.’ What is the contradiction in that statement?

Gray has essentially said, if Darwin’s theory is true, then it ‘serves evolutionary success, not truth.’ In other words, if Darwin’s theory is true, then it is not true.” (Pearcey, 2015)


Many similar examples exist. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker writes, “[O]ur brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth. Sometimes the truth is adaptive, but sometimes it is not.” (Pinker, 1997:305) So is Pinker’s statement an adaptive truth? If it isn’t adaptive it still may be true, but even if it is true we would never be able to know, so the statement is self-defeating. The two quotes at the beginning of this post are also examples of self-referentially incoherent claims, as are the two quotes by Charles Darwin about his ‘horrid doubt’ in my second post in this debate. Furthermore, as Pearcey notes, the problem for evolutionary epistemology doesn’t end there:


“To make the dilemma even more puzzling, evolutionists tell us that natural selection has produced all sorts of false concepts in the human mind. Many evolutionary materialists maintain that free will is an illusion, consciousness is an illusion, even our sense of self is an illusion — and that all these false ideas were selected for their survival value.

So how can we know whether the theory of evolution itself is one of those false ideas? The theory undercuts itself.” (Pearcey, 2015)


Indeed, some naturalists, like cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman and several of his colleagues from the University of California, not only maintain that “perceptual information is shaped by natural selection to reflect utility, not to depict reality,” (Mark et al, 2010:513) but that “an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never.” (Gefter, 2016)

The widespread acceptance of evolutionary epistemology prompts the question: Why do so many of those who subscribe to naturalism fail to accept or even acknowledge the internal contradiction of this component of their worldview? The answer appears to be cognitive dissonance. Philosopher Whitley Kaufman explains the cognitive dissonance that arises from evolutionary naturalism thusly:


“There is no subject on which naturalism is so deeply conflicted as the notion of reason and truth. On the one hand, the naturalist can hardly resist celebrating the powers of human reason to uncover the most fundamental truths about the world… On the other hand, the naturalist is vaguely uncomfortable with such concepts as truth and reason, for they suggest a human ability to transcend nature and causal determination, and furthermore they suggest that there are certain philosophical concepts – truth and reason – that are in principle outside of the capacity of science and evolution to explain, as they are presuppositions of science itself. Thus we see the naturalist’s dilemma: It consists of the urge to explain literally everything within the Darwinian framework – reason and truth included – while at the same time realizing the potential self-defeating nature of such an explanation, since the very edifice of Darwinism and science itself threatens to crumble if there is no stable notion of reason or truth.” (Kaufman, 2016:67)


Commenting on Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos, The Weekly Standard senior editor Andrew Ferguson notes Nagel’s explanation of what motivates evolutionary naturalists and materialists to retain their respective worldviews despite the internal contradiction of evolutionary epistemology and the resulting cognitive dissonance:


“Materialism can only be taken seriously as a philosophy through a heroic feat of cognitive dissonance; pretending, in our abstract, intellectual life, that values like truth and goodness have no objective content even as, in our private life, we try to learn what’s really true and behave in a way we know to be good. Nagel has sealed his ostracism from the intelligentsia by idly speculating why his fellow intellectuals would undertake such a feat.

‘The priority given to evolutionary naturalism in the face of its implausible conclusions,’ he writes, ‘is due, I think, to the secular consensus that this is the only form of external understanding of ourselves that provides an alternative to theism.’” (Ferguson, 2013)


Loosely tying it all together

Hugh devotes the latter portion of his response to very briefly explaining, as he sees it, the biological basis of our “yearning to understand our world”, and how the two conflicting worldviews of naturalism and theism relate to this intrinsic human quality. Although Hugh’s account is an oversimplification, this part of his argument is particularly valuable for providing insight into where he is coming from, which strongly points to a mindset steeped in scientism and anti-religion. For instance, Hugh creates a false dichotomy between science and religion (in which he justly includes supernaturalism, theism and theology) by portraying them as two incompatible views of the world. He attempts this by conflating religion with intuition and superstition to distance it from scientific methodology and empirical evidence. When it comes to philosophical naturalism however, Hugh does the opposite. He conflates philosophical naturalism with science – even dispensing with the term ‘naturalism’ altogether, and instead comparing religion with ‘science’. Yet according to Ronald Numbers, a leading historian of science, “the greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict.” (Numbers, 2009:1)

No mention is made in Hugh’s discussion of religion and science of the worldview that lay at the foundations of the scientific revolution. As I noted in Post 3, “modern science was largely founded by theists like Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Leibniz, Copernicus, Boyle and others who believed that order and precision exhibited by the physical universe, and the overall intelligibility of the natural world, revealed evidence of God’s existence.” Their views of nature “benefitted from earlier intellectual traditions inherited from the Greeks, as well as from scientific knowledge and experimentation carried out by Muslim and Jewish investigators, and [they] typically made mention of this in their own writings, citing their sources.” (Burke, 2014:90). Renowned theoretical physicist Paul Davies notes that:


“It was from the intellectual ferment brought about by the merging of Greek philosophy and Judeo-Islamic-Christian thought that modern science emerged, with its unidirectional linear time, its insistence on nature’s rationality, and its emphasis on mathematical principles. All the early scientists, like Newton, were religious in one way or another. They saw their science as a means of uncovering traces of God’s handiwork in the universe. What we now call the laws of physics they regarded as God’s abstract creation: thoughts, so to speak, in the mind of God.” (Davies, 1995:31-5)


The development of modern science was clearly not due to Christianity alone, particularly given the important influence classical Greek philosophy, as well as Muslim and Jewish philosophy, had on Christian thought at the time of the ‘scientific revolution’ of the Renaissance. But, as science and religion historian Noah Efron points out, “historians have observed that Christian churches were for a crucial millennium leading patrons of natural philosophy and science, in that they supported theorizing, experimentation, observation, exploration, documentation, and publication.” For this and other reasons, Efron writes, “one cannot recount the history of modern science without acknowledging the crucial importance of Christianity.” (Efron, 2009:81-2)


Hugh’s assertion that “science and religion offer competing views of how to understand the world” is misleading. Broadly speaking, science may be defined as the attempt to explain phenomena in terms of natural causes and processes, and as a body of empirical, theoretical, and practical knowledge about the natural world, while theology is the study of the divine and how the natural world, especially humanity, relates to it. The two systems of thought necessarily interact, particularly science and natural theology, which is a program of inquiry into the existence and attributes of God based on the observation of nature and the use of human reason. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states:


“In general, natural religion or theology…aims to adhere to the same standards of rational investigation as other philosophical and scientific enterprises, and is subject to the same methods of evaluation and critique.” (‘Natural Theology and Natural Religion’)


Hugh’s depictions of supernaturalism rest on stereotypical characterisations of theologians (e.g., “Theologians will always seek to explain mysteries by inserting supernatural elements such as ghosts and deities,”) and glaring omissions of the substantive historical, informational, and other ties between science and theism. Further, he presents philosophical naturalism as being virtually synonymous with scientific knowledge and scientific methodology even though science deals only with natural cause and takes no position on the existence of God or a supernatural reality, and the fundamental tenets of philosophical naturalism can neither be scientifically verified nor refuted. Given these gross mischaracterisations and omissions, Hugh’s brief attempt to explain how naturalism and supernaturalism relate to man’s thirst for knowledge and drive to make sense of the world carries scientistic and anti-religious undertones.

Unverifiable explanations of invisible reality

In his final paragraph, Hugh states, “The invisible forces have been discovered and thus, we no longer need supernaturalism.” While I wouldn’t go as far as Hugh in implying that science has discovered all invisible forces, I partially agree with the latter part of his statement. That is, I would argue that there is no justifiable psychological or ideological need to invoke supernatural entities or forces as causal explanations of invisible or otherwise mysterious phenomena. Nor, I would also maintain, is there any justification for arguments from ignorance or ‘God of the gaps’ explanations. However, I do contend that there is an evidential need to infer supernatural causation if such inferences are plausible explanations of causality derived from empirical data, metaphysical truths, mathematical proofs, predictive modelling, or logical theoretical conceptions and the like.

Hugh continues with, “We have no need to postulate other undefined and unverifiable forces.” I agree that such postulations are not required (except for the aforementioned justification of evidential need), but would add that there is also no need to arbitrarily postulate brute facts whenever something cannot be explained within a naturalistic framework, which is essentially gaps-based reasoning (‘naturalism of the gaps’). Furthermore, based on this statement Hugh appears unfamiliar with the nature of theoretical physics and of the more speculative areas of cosmology, within which ill-defined and unverifiable forces and entities are sometimes postulated. As Copi and Cohen note in their prominent textbook on logic: “Science is supposed to be concerned with facts, and yet in its further reaches we find it apparently committed to highly speculative notions far removed from the possibility of direct experience.” (Copi and Cohen, 1990:422)

Let’s look at a couple of high-profile examples: The leading theory in cosmology for reconciling the seemingly incompatible theories that describe gravity and the quantum world is string theory, however its status as a scientific theory has been keenly debated for over a decade as it is currently beyond the reach of experimental testing and falsification. (Castelvecchi, 2016) Additionally, the theory relies on dimensions of reality we can never observe, and “[o]ne of the challenges … is that the full theory does not have a satisfactory definition in all circumstances,” (Wikipedia, ‘String theory’),

Another leading theory in cosmology is the multiverse theory of infinite, but unseen and undefinable universes. This hypothetical multiverse cannot be detected, observed, measured, proved or disproved, but although he has mentioned it in our debate, Hugh is yet to say anything critical of it. Moreover, quantum cosmology is not an observational science and its theories are untestable, but so far Hugh has not called into question its explanatory value or its legitimacy in theoretical physics. The same goes for unverifiable propositions within the field of theoretical biology. Thus, Hugh’s criticism here seems very narrow and highly selective, particularly when claims for the existence of a supernatural reality often draw from intelligent design theory, which has an empirical, observational basis and makes testable predictions.

Unsupported conclusions

Hugh’s claim that Plantinga’s EAAN is “but a rationalization allowing theists to question evolution and naturalism” is simply not supported in his post. Additionally, his final sentence, which states that the EAAN “relies on doubting accepted science, and inserting a supernatural element, and thus is itself, self-defeating,” is not only false but, even if it were true, does not logically follow. Moreover, the claim appears to be a tactic to sidestep the argument altogether, and to deflect the obligation to justify one’s position onto one’s opponent. Not only does Hugh fail to show how or where in the EAAN Plantinga supposedly inserts a supernatural element (he doesn’t), he also fails to grasp the ramifications of the EAAN for naturalism, and to understand that it is his account of human cognition that instils doubt about scientific knowledge – not Plantinga’s. Indeed, the “superficial concord but deep conflict between science and naturalism” (Plantinga, 2011: ix) demonstrated by the EAAN is somewhat ironic given Hugh’s scientistic leanings.

Hugh’s concluding claims are essentially bare assertions tacked onto the end of his argument, possibly because he thinks they sound like a convincing and forceful way to finish off the post. But unsupported claims have no merit in a serious debate, no matter how confidently they are asserted.

Undermining naturalism, science and reason all at once

We’ve seen that the EAAN argues that believing in both evolutionary theory and naturalism simultaneously is epistemically self-defeating because, as renowned philosopher Thomas Nagel succinctly put it, “Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermines their reliability, and in doing so undermines itself.” (Nagel, 2012:27). And while being self-defeating is bad enough for any worldview things are even worse for naturalism for, as we have also seen, far from being the logical outcome of a rational investigation of the world, naturalism undermines the very possibility of rational inquiry. But then what would one expect of a worldview in which cognitive functions like thinking and perceiving are chiefly the result of adaptations preserved via a blind process that increases reproductive success and survival prospects as incidental outcomes?

Hugh’s rejoinder to my discussion of the self-defeating nature of evolutionary naturalism appears to be in essence: ‘Naturalism is true because our cognitive faculties are reliable, and we know our cognitive faculties are reliable because we can confirm the truth of biological evolution and other perceived discoveries through methods of inquiry developed via our cognitive faculties,’ which is a circular response that basically appeals to naturalistic assumptions to defend naturalism. The EAAN shows that on the naturalistic worldview human cognition and beliefs produced by our cognitive faculties cannot be rationally deemed reliable, and that naturalism is therefore self-defeating. Hugh’s response clearly does not answer the challenge to naturalism the EAAN poses.







  1. Crick F (1994) The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. p.262
  2. Dawkins R (2003) A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. Houghton Mifflin, Boston. p.46
  3. For the record, I subscribe to neither version of macroevolution, i.e., theistic or Darwinian.
  4. The point of including theism here is to illustrate the unreliability of all beliefs on evolutionary naturalism’s account of the development of human cognition. Apart from a small minority of people who adhere to both naturalism and theism within a type of hybrid worldview, the vast majority of people who advocate evolutionary epistemology would not hold theistic views.
  5. The approximate range in cranial capacity of the species Australopithecus afarensis is 380–430 cubic centimetres. (Wikipedia: ‘Australopithecus afarensis’). The famous A. afarensis fossil specimen known as ‘Lucy’ had a cranial capacity of 400cc.
  6. The earliest known species within the Homo genus (H. habilis) had a brain-size range of 550 cm3 to 687 cm3 (Wikipedia: ‘Homo habilis’) However, like H. rudolfensis, placement of this species in the genus Homo is widely disputed among paleoanthropologists (Wikipedia: ‘Homo rudolfensis’), with many contending it belongs in the ape-like genus Australopithecus (per Mayr in note 8 below). Its reclassification, along with that of H. rudolfensis, within the Australopithecus genus would mean the smallest known average cranial capacities of adult human species were around 950cc (average H. erectus) (Rightmire, 2013:223).
  7. The species Homo neanderthalensis is used here to illustrate that brain size is not the only determinant of intelligence. I am not implying that H. sapiens descended from H. neanderthalensis, and am fully aware that evolutionary theory posits that H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis are sister species, both of which may have descended from H. heidelbergensis. or H. antecessor (Wikipedia: ‘Human evolution’).
  8. Mayr included a footnote here stating: “I follow those who place Homo habilis in the genus Australopithecus.”
  9. See the two quotes by Darwin concerning his selective scepticism in Post 3.
  10. Among the rare exceptions amid atheists are geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, and philosophers John Gray and Thomas Nagel.




Barlow N [Ed] (1958) The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882. Collins, London.

Bateson P, et al. (2016) ‘New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives’ Interface Focus. 7(5) 6 October.

Beilby J [Ed] (2002) Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism. Cornell University Press, New York.

Burke J (2014) Living on the Edge: Challenges to Faith. Lively Stones Publishing, United Kingdom.

Castelvecchi D (2016) ‘Feuding physicists turn to philosophy for help’ Nature. 23 December. pp.446–447

Copi IM & Cohen C (1990) Introduction to Logic (8th Ed) Macmillan Publishing Company, New York. p.422.

Crick F (1994) The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.

Davies, P (1995) ‘Physics and the mind of God: The Templeton Prize address,” First Things. August. pp.31-35.

Darwin C (1872) The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (6th edition) John Murray, London.

Dawkins R (2003) A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Efron EJ (2009) ‘That Christianity gave birth to modern science,’ in Numbers, RL (Ed). Galileo Goes to Jail: and Other Myths about Science and Religion, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2009.

Ferguson A (2013) ‘The Heretic’ The Weekly Standard. 25 March.

Gefter A (2016) ‘The case against reality’ The Atlantic. 25 April.

Kaufman WRP, (2016) Human Nature and the Limits of Darwinism, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Leakey R & Lewin R (1993) Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes Us Human. Anchor Books, New York

Luskin C (2017) ‘Missing transitions: Human origins and the fossil record’ in Moreland JP, et al (Eds). Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois.

Mark JT, Marion BB & Hoffman DD (2010) ‘Natural selection and veridical perceptions’ J. Theoretical Biology. (266) 24 July. pp.504-515

Mayr E (2004) What Makes Biology Unique?: Considerations on the Autonomy of a Scientific Discipline. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Meyer S (2013) Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. HarperOne, New York.

Müller GB (2012) ‘Why an extended evolutionary synthesis is necessary’ Interface Focus. 7(5) 6 October.

Nagel T (2012) ‘A Philosopher Defends Religion’ The New York Review of Books. 27 Sept 2012.

Nagel T (2012) Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Oxford University Press, New York.

Numbers R (2009) ‘Introduction,’ in Numbers, RL (Ed). Galileo Goes to Jail: and Other Myths about Science and Religion, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Pearcey N (2015) ‘Why evolutionary theory cannot survive itself’ Evolution News. 8 March 2015.

Pinker S (1997) How the mind works. WW Norton, New York.

Plantinga A (1993) Warrant and Proper Function. Oxford University Press, New York.

Plantinga A (2010) “Evolution versus Naturalism” in Gordon, BL, Dembski, WA [Eds] The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science. Intercollegiate Studies Institute; Wilmington, Delaware.

Plantinga A (2011) Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford University Press, NY, 2011)

Plantinga A (2012) “Science or naturalism? The contradictions of Richard Dawkins” (Religion & Ethics, 12 April.

Richards JW (2013) “C. S. Lewis and the Argument from Reason” Evolution News. 25 Nov 2013.

Rightmire GP (2013) “Homo erectus and Middle Pleistocene hominins: Brain size, skull form, and species recognition” Journal of Human Evolution. 65 (3), Sept. pp. 223-253.

Sanford J, et al. (2015) ‘The waiting time problem in a model hominin population’, Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling. 12(18).

Schwartz JH & Tattersall I (2015) ‘Defining the genus Homo’, Science. Vol. 349 (6251). 28 August. pp.931-2.

Wood B (2014) ‘Human evolution: Fifty years after Homo habilis, Nature, Vol 508 (7494). 2 April. p.31-3.

RSA Submission to the Religious Freedom Review


Click here to view the RSA Submission: RSA Submission To The Religious Freedom Review

Click here to view a recent Fairfax op-ed by our Executive Officer, Tosca Lloyd, calling for an end to religious privilege, power and prejudice: 2018: a year that draws a line against prejudice, privilege and power

Click here to read Barrister Dean Stretton’s excellent submission: A barrister’s submission to the Ruddock Inquiry


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.