science versus religion

Is naturalism more probable than supernaturalism? – Post 3

Post 3 Gary Robertson

Gary Robertson replies to Hugh Harris based on the essay : Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy

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by Gary Robertson

Gary works in the media monitoring industry.

 

Hugh Harris defends a version of philosophical naturalism that contends it is likely nothing exists outside of the natural world. Hugh primarily bases his defence on “the observance of the natural world along with its laws”, which essentially consists of him appealing to the fact that nature exists rather than providing any positive evidence showing why it’s probable nothing transcends nature. Yet the question being addressed in this debate is not ‘Does the natural world exist?’, but ‘Is there a reality beyond the natural world?’

Hugh’s defence of weak naturalism is also based on what he perceives as “the absence of any evidence of the supernatural” and here his case largely consists of negative arguments in which rebuttals are presented against arguments for the existence of a supernatural reality. Before I respond to Hugh’s comments and counterarguments relating to my first post, “Is Naturalism more probable than Supernaturalism?”, I would like to discuss some serious shortcomings of the metaphysical position he defends.

Various forms of the ‘evolutionary argument against naturalism’ by philosophers Alvin Plantinga, Thomas Nagel, CS Lewis and others show philosophical naturalism (both reductive and nonreductive) to be incompatible with reason and that, therefore, believing in philosophical naturalism is self-defeating. Philosopher of science Bruce Gordon explains the argument as follows:

“The prospect of human knowledge depends upon the veridicality of our perceptions and the validity of our reasoning processes. If the certainty resulting from cognitive perception and valid inference provides a genuine grasp of how reality must be independent of our minds, then knowledge is possible, but if the certainty so obtained is a mere feeling and not a genuinely reliable insight into reality, then we do not have knowledge. Now, if naturalism is true, human beings came about as the result of undirected processes of evolution that had no goal in mind. In such case, our cognitive faculties are the end result of mindless causes and historical accidents that take no account of truth or logic, just the exigencies of survival. Under such conditions, any complex of beliefs and desires that conduces to survival would suffice. What we believe to be true under such conditions is therefore an accidental historical byproduct of purely natural events that bear no intrinsic relation to the actual truth of the beliefs we hold; it is an expression of how our brains just happen to work. That our beliefs should actually be true under such conditions seems quite unlikely; at the very least, whether our beliefs are true or false cannot be ascertained. If naturalism is true, therefore, our reasoning processes are so discredited that they cannot support the truth of any of the beliefs we happen to hold, especially those rather distant from immediate experience, such as the belief in naturalism itself. Belief in naturalism is therefore epistemically self-defeating, and since there is for the naturalist no remedy to this situation, it is irrational to be a philosophical naturalist because it destroys the possibility of rationality altogether.” (Gordon, 2011)

Charles Darwin himself inadvertently acknowledged that the unreliability of human cognition was intrinsic to his theory of natural selection. For instance, in a private letter written in 1881 he stated:

“Nevertheless you have expressed my inward conviction, though far more vividly and clearly than I could have done, that the Universe is not the result of chance. But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”(Darwin, 1881)

In an earlier letter Darwin wrote:

“Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason and not with the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to man; and I deserve to be called a Theist. This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the ‘Origin of Species;’ and it is since that time that it has very gradually, with many fluctuations, become weaker. But then arises the doubt, can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animals, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?” (Barlow, 1958)

Unfortunately Darwin acknowledged this inherent aspect of his theory of evolution very selectively. As the above quotes indicate he only deemed his beliefs untrustworthy when they were inconsistent with natural selection, such as his conviction of the necessity of an intelligent First Cause and his “extreme difficulty” in conceiving the universe as the result of blind chance or necessity. However his theory was itself “a conviction of man’s mind” and therefore, following the same logic, was also untrustworthy. Darwin failed to recognize that to be logically consistent he needed to apply his doubts about the reliability of human reasoning to his beliefs about natural selection. If he had done so he would have been confronted with an internal contradiction that renders believing in natural selection self-defeating.

Hugh states that my first post “seems to exclude science from the debate, only to later revive it to provide the foundation for the kalām cosmological argument.” I find this comment rather odd for three reasons. Firstly, I mention the terms ‘science’, ‘scientific’, ‘empirical’, ‘empirically’ and ‘methodological naturalism’ a total of nine times before I even get to the kalām cosmological argument (KCA). Indeed, prior to advancing the KCA I address science in relation to metaphysical propositions, such as the proposition that a transcendent realm exists. Secondly, since Hugh perceives there to be an “absence of any evidence supporting supernaturalism” I would have thought he would be expecting little to no scientific evidence in my posts. Lastly, as I explain below, the point is trivial as scientific knowledge represents just one type of evidence relevant to the topic being debated.

Hugh then wonders why I state that “’Methodological naturalism restricts scientific enquiry to the study of natural causes and processes’, thus, ‘methods of enquiry into the existence of a supernatural reality are beyond the scope of empirical science’, and thus, ‘all propositions about ultimate reality will necessarily be philosophical’”. He suspects it is so I “can trade off the equality between the definitions of naturalism and supernaturalism”. However his suspicion is wide of the mark. I made these points to clarify the nature of the debate as Hugh appears to harbour the misconception that the epistemic status of philosophical naturalism is close to that of an empirically verifiable position, or that, at minimum, it has a higher epistemic status than supernaturalism has. Each of my points on the relationship between science and the investigation of ultimate reality can be readily confirmed as the establishment position on the topic. For instance, the US National Academy of Sciences in its official booklet Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science states:

“Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance.” (National Academy of Sciences, 1998)

Or in the words of Eugenie Scott, former executive director of the US National Center for Science Education:

“Science is a way of knowing that attempts to explain the natural world using natural causes. It is agnostic toward the supernatural – it neither confirms nor rejects it.” (Scott, 1999)

The restriction of scientific inquiry to natural causes mentioned in the foregoing quotes is known as methodological naturalism (MN), which is an epistemology and a procedural process that also acts as a set of demarcation criteria for differentiating science from non-science. As Wikipedia states:

“Methodological naturalism does not concern itself with claims about what exists, but with methods of learning what nature is. It attempts to explain and test scientific endeavors, hypotheses, and events with reference to natural causes and events.” (Wikipedia, ‘Naturalism (philosophy’)

Since MN a priori excludes claims about ultimately reality, the fact that Hugh broadly aligns his inherently metaphysical position on ultimately reality with MN is puzzling. I assume this is because he adheres to scientism – the belief that empirical science possesses a unique claim to knowledge, or all that can be known about the external world are things which can be determined through the methods of the natural sciences. Indeed, in a glossary of terms used on this blog Hugh defines naturalism as “the belief that the universe can be explained exclusively by natural laws and forces. There are no supernatural, or non-natural entities or causes, or if there are, they will be understandable in scientific, natural terms.”

My statement that “all propositions about ultimate reality will necessarily be philosophical” refers to the fact that naturalism and supernaturalism are properly the domain of metaphysics. This is cogently explained in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (1st Ed), which defines metaphysics as:

“Most generally, the philosophical investigation of the nature, constitution, and structure of reality. It is broader in scope than science, e.g., physics and even cosmology (the science of the nature, structure, and origin of the universe as a whole), since one of its traditional concerns is the existence of non-physical entities, e.g., God. It is also more fundamental, since it investigates questions science does not address but the answers to which it presupposes.” (Robert Audi (Ed), 1995)

However, Hugh appears to misconstrue my statement as meaning philosophical arguments “sideline science altogether”. Clearly this is not the case as empirical evidence is crucial to many philosophical arguments, including the KCA. To restate a point I’ve made in previous replies, scientific evidence can support premises for a conclusion that has metaphysical significance, but a metaphysical position cannot ultimately be confirmed by scientific evidence alone (which would make it a scientific position). In other words, although one or more premises in individual arguments for supernaturalism and naturalism may be supported by empirical evidence, neither position as a whole is empirically verifiable.

Looking at it from the flipside may better illustrate this general distinction between scientific and philosophical propositions. There are many scientific theories – Einstein’s theory of general relativity and Newton’s theory of universal gravitation to cite just two – that are, arguably, based upon deeper philosophical premises, presuppositions and concepts which can be justified by philosophical lines of argument. However, we would not refer to these theories as philosophical propositions as they are derived from empirical observation and are amenable to direct or indirect experimental testing.

This convergence of philosophical and scientific evidence within the theories of general relativity and universal gravitation, and also within many propositions about ultimate reality, nicely illustrates Hugh’s point that “philosophy cannot exist in a bubble”. Far from been sidelined then, science plays a crucial role in many important philosophical propositions (and vice versa), including in many prominent arguments for and against the existence of a transcendent reality. And since the inclusion of both scientific and philosophical evidence often allows for a more complete and informative metaphysical argument, I wholeheartedly encourage Hugh to incorporate scientific evidence in his case for weak naturalism.

Hugh, however, goes too far when he implies that non-empirical propositions have “no regard for the real world”. While many arguments contain premises that are justified to varying degrees by empirical data, many others with ‘real world’ implications are justified purely on philosophical grounds. For example deductive arguments for God’s existence, including the Ontological Argument, the Moral Argument and Leibniz’ Contingency Argument, are purely philosophical arguments which provide evidence for the reality of a transcendent Creator. Moreover, Aquinas’ Five Ways are logical proofs that depend only minimally on inferences drawn from nature and are therefore not impacted by revisions to empirical knowledge. Further, while a posteriori knowledge is dependent on experience or empirical evidence, a priori knowledge is not and many non-empirical propositions based on a priori knowledge have practical real-world applications.

To quote from Wikipedia again:

“A priori knowledge or justification is independent of experience, as with mathematics (3,000 + 2,000 = 5,000), tautologies (“All bachelors are unmarried”), and deduction from pure reason (eg, ontological proofs).” (Wikipedia: ‘A priori and a posteriori’)

Hugh asserts “Virtually all scientists operate under the assumption of philosophical naturalism – all causes are empirical and naturalistic ones which can be measured, quantified and studied methodically.” I suspect, albeit without any supporting data, it would be more accurate to say that most scientists, including those who are theists, adopt methodological naturalism while conducting scientific research into physical phenomena, but not necessarily when investigating immaterial realities not associated with physical causality or not reducible to the actions of neurons, subatomic particles, physical forces, etc. Such realities are beyond reductionist science and include human appreciation of beauty, art, music, poetry, literature, and other creative activities involving abstract thought, as well as conceptions of aesthetics, justice, morality, honour, mercy and love.

But even when addressing the physical world science has its limitations, thereby requiring us to go beyond the senses and natural sciences to attain a more complete understanding of the universe. The reason why science cannot give us a complete description of reality is that it is, by its nature, quantitative. Although the quantitative methods of modern science have resulted in many spectacular predictive and technological successes, they can only capture those aspects of reality amenable to mathematical modeling, prediction and control. It certainly does not follow that there are no other aspects of reality.

It should also be noted that although many scientists adhere to methodological naturalism while studying the causes or properties of physical phenomena, that does not necessarily mean they are philosophical naturalists or believe the natural sciences alone reveal all they can know about the world. After all, 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. But irrespective of one’s worldview, science is about following the evidence wherever it leads and evaluating evidence entirely on its merits – not filtering it through the lens of a particular philosophical position or judging its validity on its congruence with specific metaphysical preconceptions.

Hugh contends the kalām cosmological argument commits the fallacy of composition by “moving from the contingency of the components of the universe, to the contingency of the universe”. However, the KCA does not argue compositionally – that because everything within the universe has a cause, therefore the universe as a whole has a cause. Rather, it is based on the Causal Principle – everything that comes into existence at some point must have a cause which brings it into existence, and the scientific consensus that the universe began to exist. Additionally, the Causal Principle, which is constantly confirmed in our experience, is an inductive generalisation – not a statement about one thing, and therefore cannot be the result of an inference from the parts of a thing to the whole. In other words, it is drawing an inference about all the members of a class of things based on a sample of the class. Inductive reasoning undergirds empirical science and is not to be confused with reasoning by composition.

Further, not every inference from part to whole commits a fallacy of composition; whether an inference does so depends on the subject matter. If each brick in a wall of Lego bricks is red, it does follow that the wall as a whole is red. Even if one were to infer from the contingency of the parts of the universe to that of the whole universe, I contend that would be more like the inference to the colour of the Lego wall (or the Great Wall of China) than the inference to its size.

Philosopher Edward Feser explains it this way:

If A and B are of the same length, putting them side by side is going to give us a whole with a length different from those of A and B themselves. That just follows from the nature of length. If A and B are of the same color, putting them side by side is not going to give us a whole with a color different from those of A and B themselves. That just follows from the nature of color. If A and B are both contingent, does putting them together give us something that is necessary? It is hard to see how; indeed, anyone willing to concede that Lego bricks, tables, chairs, rocks, trees, and the like are individually contingent is surely going to concede that any arbitrary group of these things is no less contingent. And why should the inference to the contingency of such collections stop when we get to the universe as a whole? It seems a natural extension of the reasoning, and the burden of proof is surely on the critic of such an argument to show that the universe as a whole is somehow non-contingent, given that the parts, and collections of parts smaller than the universe as a whole, are contingent. (Feser, 2010)

Ultimately though, since the KCA is not justified by an argument from composition Hugh is simply arguing against a straw man here.

Hugh claims the KCA’s conclusion that the universe began to exist is invalid because “given that space and time are inextricably linked, the contention that the universe began suggests a moment preceding its existence. But, as Stephen Hawking has pointed out, this is like seeking a point more northerly than the North Pole – the universe can be both finite and without a prior moment or beginning.”

Firstly, the view that the universe had an absolute beginning and there was no space, time, matter, energy and, hence, physical laws, before the universe began is the consensus view of physicists and cosmologists for good reason. The standard Big Bang model, which posits space, time, matter and energy came into existence at a single point simultaneously, is well supported by a confluence of independent lines of inquiry. Prominent US sceptic Michael Shermer briefly explains why the theory is so well supported in the April 2017 issue of Scientific American:

“There are many propositions for which we have adequate grounds for certainty as to their truth: There are 84 pages in this issue of Scientific American. True by observation. Dinosaurs went extinct around 65 million years ago. True by verification and replication of radiometric dating techniques for volcanic eruptions above and below dinosaur fossils. The universe began with a big bang. True by a convergence of evidence from a wide range of phenomena, such as the cosmic microwave background, the abundance of light elements (such as hydrogen and helium), the distribution of galaxies, the large-scale structure of the cosmos, the redshift of most galaxies and the expansion of space. These propositions are “true” in the sense that the evidence is so substantial that it would be unreasonable to withhold one’s provisional assent.” (Shermer, 2017)

Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin, along with Arvin Borde and Alan Guth, was able to prove that any universe that has on average been expanding throughout its history cannot be infinite in the past but must have a past space-time boundary. The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin singularity theorem shows that classical space-time, under a single, very general condition, cannot be extended to past infinity but must reach a boundary at some time in the finite past. Vilenkin states:

“It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.” (Vilenkin, 2006)

Or, as a New Scientist editorial plainly states, “It now seems certain that the universe did have a beginning.” (Editorial, 2012)

Secondly, nearly all space-time theorems derived from general relativity establish a singular simultaneous beginning for all the matter, energy, space and time in the universe rather than suggest a moment of time preceding the universe’s existence. Indeed, there is no justification for the assumption that causal priority implies temporal priority. As philosopher William Lane Craig comments:

“The standard Big Bang model thus describes a universe which is not eternal in the past, but which came into being a finite time ago. Moreover—and this deserves underscoring—the origin it posits is an absolute origin ex nihilo. For not only all matter and energy, but space and time themselves come into being at the initial cosmological singularity. As Barrow and Tipler emphasize, “At this singularity, space and time came into existence; literally nothing existed before the singularity, so, if the Universe originated at such a singularity, we would truly have a creation ex nihilo. (Craig, 1999)

And lastly, Stephen Hawking’s model for a finite universe “without a prior moment or beginning” is a speculative proposal that employs a statistical technique (imaginary numbers) for time variables in order to preserve a purely spatial representation of the beginning of the universe. The problem with the use of imaginary numbers in the Hartle-Hawking no-boundary quantum cosmology model is aptly explained by William Lane Craig:

“The question which arises for this construal of the model is whether such an interpretation is meant to be taken realistically or instrumentally. On this score, there can be little doubt that the use of imaginary quantities for time is a mere mathematical device without ontological significance. [English cosmologist, theoretical physicist and mathematician David] Barrow observes, ‘physicists have often carried out this “change time into space” procedure as a useful trick for doing certain problems in ordinary quantum mechanics, although they did not imagine that time was really like space. At the end of the calculation, they just swap back into the usual interpretation of there being one dimension of time and three . . . dimensions of . . . space.’ In his model, Hawking simply declines to re-convert to real numbers. If we do, then the singularity re-appears. Hawking admits, ‘Only if we could picture the universe in terms of imaginary time would there be no singularities… When one goes back to the real time in which we live, however, there will still appear to be singularities.’ Hawking’s model is thus a way of re-describing a universe with a singular beginning point in such a way that that singularity is transformed away; but such a re-description is not realist in character.

Hawking has recently stated explicitly that he interprets the Hartle-Hawking model non-realistically. He confesses, ‘I’m a positivist … I don’t demand that a theory correspond to reality because I don’t know what it is.’ Still more extreme, ‘I take the positivist viewpoint that a physical theory is just a mathematical model and that it is meaningless to ask whether it corresponds to reality.’ In assessing the worth of a theory, ‘All I’m concerned with is that the theory should predict the results of measurements.’ ’ (Craig, 1999)

Given the foregoing, Hawking’s logical impossibility of multiple most-northerly points fails as a defeater for the claim that the universe had a beginning. It would be more accurate to employ Hawking’s logical impossibility as an analogy in the following way: Before the Big Bang time did not exist, therefore one cannot go further back in time than the Big Bang in much the same way one cannot go any further north than the North Pole.

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

Grünbaum’s comments are from his critique of the Philosophia Naturalis article “Creation and Big Bang Cosmology” by philosopher William Lane Craig (Craig, 1994a). Craig subsequently responded to Grünbaum’s objections (Craig, 1994b) and in response to Grünbaum’s claim that the Big Bang singularity was not a physical event, Craig notes:
“Grünbaum’s lengthy critique is actually directed at only two paragraphs of my original article (the fourth and the fifth). In the first of these I charge that Grünbaum’s objection that the Big Bang singularity cannot have been caused (because it could have had neither a subsequent cause nor an antecedent cause) is a pseudo-dilemma because the cause of the initial cosmological singularity could be simultaneous (or coincident1) with that singularity. In response, Grünbaum presents the following argument:

1. Only events can qualify as the momentary effects of other events or of the action of an agency.
2. The Big Bang singularity is technically a non-event.
3. Therefore, the singularity cannot be the effect of any cause in the case of event causation or agent causation.

If this argument is sound, then it is simply irrelevant whether the putative cause of the Big Bang singularity is antecedent to, simultaneous with, or subsequent to the singularity, since any sort of cause of the singularity is excluded.

It seems to me, however, that this argument is invalid, since it equivocates on the meaning of the term “event.” The sense in which the initial cosmological singularity is not an event is, as Grünbaum notes, a technical sense employed in GTR [General Theory of Relativity]. Since that singular point is not Hausdorff isolated, that is to say, since its coordinates cannot be specified independently of all other space-time points, it cannot be classed as an event as that term is technically used in GTR. But the word “event” as it is used in (1) cannot be this terminus technicus if (1) is to be plausibly regarded as true. For we can easily envision happenings which are not “events” in the technical sense in which that word is used in GTR, but which do qualify as the momentary effects of other events or agent causes: (i) The initial cosmological singularity is causally linked to later space-time points and events, so that in this case we have events which are the momentary effects of a non-event. Now consider the final cosmological singularity in a universe caught in gravitational self-collapse: here we have a case in which a non-event is the momentary effect of other events, which contradicts (1), if that premiss uses “event” in the technical sense at issue. (ii) In the quantum realm, occurrences take place (such as the collision of two elementary particles) which cannot be termed “events” in GTR’s technical sense. Classical conceptions of space and time finally break down within the quantum regime. Yet these quantum occurrences are doubtlessly causally conditioned by macroscopic physical states which are classifiable as (series of) events (such as a quantum experiment’s being carried out by a researcher). (iii) The technical sense of “event” in GTR is inapplicable to mental events such as the perception of an object or the experience of being surprised. Yet such occurrences in consciousness are clearly in part the momentary effects of events in the physical world and also, plausibly, of the action of agents, as, say, when I force myself to concentrate on some subject or to get my mind off something else. (iv) If God exists, why could He not cause momentary effects which are not events in the GTR sense of the word? Could He not create a universe not governed by GTR in which there are momentary effects of His action which are not “events” in the technical sense of the term? Since GTR is not metaphysically necessary, why is this impossible? And why could not mental processes, quantum occurrences, and singularities be causally produced by God? In short, (1) is plausibly true only if “event” is understood in a broader, non-technical sense (for example, “that which happens”) than the sense which that term carries in GTR. But in that case (3) does not follow from (1) and (2), since the notion of “event” in these two premisses is not univocal.” (Craig, 1994b)

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

Hugh’s position requires that there is at least one natural entity that was either uncaused or self-caused. However, there are a number of problems with this position. If the proposed entity had no antecedent cause it would be self-existing and past-eternal. Yet it would not be part of nature because the natural world (which of course includes the laws of conservation) had a beginning point in the finite past (a singularity) and, therefore, a past-eternal entity would transcend nature. Nor could the entity be self-caused as the notion of self-causation is a logical impossibility – no entity can cause its own existence because no entity can cause anything unless it already exists. This effectively rules out Hugh’s proposition of “a timeless natural force which governs all of existence”, but certainly allows for a timeless supernatural force which governs everything.

Hugh claims, “the cosmological argument assumes the universe itself cannot be a brute fact (or eternal) because everything that begins must have a cause; and then goes on to suggest that therefore there must be a brute fact (such as God) to explain it. This is begging the question. One cannot logically deny the existence of brute facts as a premise (whatever begins to exist has a cause) and then insert a brute fact as the conclusion (a necessary, uncaused being).”

However, the KCA makes no such assumption. As I’ve stated above, the argument simply draws a logical conclusion from premises based on (1) the Causal Principle that everything that comes into existence has a cause which brings it into existence, and (2) the scientific consensus that the universe began to exist. (Why assume the existence of something is a brute fact when the available evidence explains aspects of its existence?) Besides, while the KCA appeals to philosophical and scientific evidence to argue that the universe had a cause of its existence, it neither concludes that this cause is God or a brute fact, nor denies the existence of brute facts. Arguments that expand on the KCA, such as arguments B and C in my first post, may deduce certain properties of the universe’s cause, such as that it is supernatural, however, they do so based on valid deductive arguments. Even if one concludes that the supernatural cause of the universe is God (as I do), one is not appealing to a brute fact. As philosopher Karlo Broussard explains:

“The theist is not saying God is a brute fact, i.e., he has no reason or explanation for His existence. It is essential to classical theism that God’s existence, though not caused by another, is explained by his essence. His essence is existence itself—ipsum esse subsistens. This is not something theists arbitrarily assert but is the conclusion of deductive reasoning that starts with certain features of the world—motion (change), efficient causality, contingency, degrees of being, and final causality.” (Broussard, 2016)

Hugh says, “One can simply ask why can’t the universe, or an element within it, be the brute fact?” To borrow again from William Lane Craig,

“Although the brute fact claim for the universe’s existence would have some credibility if the universe is past-eternal, it loses all credibility once we discover that the universe began to exist, for then we are forced to say that for no reason whatsoever the universe popped into being out of absolutely nothing, which is worse than magic.” (Craig, 2017)

Please note: Given the breadth of topics covered in this response, I’ll discuss teleological arguments in a future post.

 

SOURCES

Audi, R (1995) [Ed] The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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

Broussard, K (2016) ‘5 reasons why the universe can’t be merely a brute fact’, StrangeNotions.com.

Craig, WL (1994a) ‘Creation and Big Bang Cosmology’ Philosophia Naturalis 31(2): 217-224.

Craig, WL (1994b) ‘A Response to Grünbaum on Creation and Big Bang Cosmology’, Philosophia Naturalis 31(2): 237-249.

Craig, WL (1999) ‘The ultimate question of origins: God and the beginning of the universe’, Astrophysics and Space Science 269-270: p.237-249.

Craig, WL (2017) ‘Royally Bad Objections to the Kalām Cosmological ArgumentReasonableFaith.org. 29 Jan 2017.

Editorial (2012) ‘The Genesis problem’ New Scientist (2847) 14 Jan 2012.

Feser, E (2010) ‘Hume, cosmological arguments, and the fallacy of compositionEdwardFeser.blogspot.com 28 Dec 2010.

Gordon, BL (2011) ‘The rise of naturalism and its problematic role in science and culture’, in Gordon, BL and Dembski, WA (Eds) The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science. Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Delaware.

Grossman, L (2012) ‘Why physicists can’t avoid a creation event’, New Scientist (2487) 14 Jan 2012.

Grünbaum, A (1994) ‘Some Comments on William Craig’s “Creation and Big Bang Cosmology”’, Philosophia Naturalis 31(2): 225-236.

Mastin, L (Undated) ‘Time and the Big Bang’ ExactlyWhatIsTime.com

National Academy of Sciences (1998) Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science. National Academy Press, Washington DC: p.124

Scott, EC (1999) “The ‘Science and Religion’ Movement. An Opportunity for Improved Public Understanding of Science?Skeptical Inquirer 23(4): 29-31

Shermer, M (2017) “What would it take to prove the resurrection?Scientific American 316(4).

Vilenkin, A (2006) Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes. Hill and Wang, New York. p.176.

EarthfromSpace

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

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

by Hugh Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

The Universe began to exist.

Therefore, the Universe had a cause

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

naturlaism1

Is Naturalism more probable than Supernaturalism? – Written Debate

Post 1 Gary Robertson

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

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by Gary Robertson

Gary works in the media monitoring industry.

 

My worldview is a theistic one (non-denominational, non-fundamentalist Christian) informed primarily by natural theology, philosophy and science.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A. The kalām cosmological argument:

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

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

(3) Therefore, the universe has a cause

 

B. It is logically impossible to provide a natural explanation for how nature came into existence as such an explanation must assume the existence of nature in its opening premises, thus committing the circular fallacy. Necessarily then, the origin of nature (ie, the entirety of physical reality) must be supernatural.

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

(2) The cause of nature cannot be natural

(3) Therefore, the cause of nature is supernatural

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

santareal

In Defence of Santa: Why he’s just as likely to exist as Jesus

In Defence of Santa – The AIM Network 24/12/2016

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By now, the elves are wrapping the toys. The reindeers are running test flights. Santa is busy double-checking Xmas lists, and plotting the logistics of the world’s greatest overnight delivery.

But a new UK board game, Santa vs Jesus, has blighted the festive season with unwelcome sectarian dissension, presenting Xmas as a pitched battle between Jesus and Santa. Cries of “insult, blasphemy” ensue: the satirical board game is accused of falsely equating belief in Jesus with belief in Santa Claus.

My blood boils at this sacrilege. Yet another example of politically correctness gone mad, and elitist intellectuals tainting our most cherished institutions. How dare they demean the good name of Santa Claus? On behalf of children everywhere, let us rise up and defend Santa’s honour. If not for own sake, for the sake of our culture, of our civilization, and by God, for the real meaning of Christmas.

That is, what Christmas really is: an end-of-year celebration, retail bonanza, and family reunion. A shop-til-you-drop procession of tinselled shopping malls, parking rage, office parties, Kris Kringles, twinkling streetscapes, Die-Hard and Love Actually re-runs, culminating in the once-a-year family get-together with the usual disputes and rows – all of the above made tolerable, joyous even, by stupefying quantities of sugar and alcohol.

Arrogantly, anti-Christmas-carol activists poke fun at the Santa story. How could anyone believe a jolly fat man at risk of early-onset-diabetes has the stamina and wherewithal to deliver gifts to every child in the world? Claiming that Santa is only Coca-Cola’s amalgamation of the yuletide characters of various traditions, these immoral, believe-in-nothings only demonstrate their blindness to the value of culture and tradition. Can they prove Santa isn’t real? No.

Frankly, I’m agnostic about the existence of Santa. But just because infrared technology fails to find any trace of an enormous toy shop at the North Pole, doesn’t mean I should rule him out altogether. Sure, I’m sceptical about Santa even fitting into most chimneys and I’ve never seen a flying reindeer. But “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, as they say.

And, since when must omniscient beings lower themselves to mere terrestrial standards of empirical proof? Why should the lowly and common measures of evidence be applied to Santa alone? Indeed, using the arguments applied to other contemporary deities, belief in Santa is more than reasonable.

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”

As St Anselm argued: given we can conceive of the greatest possible being – and, we accept that a being which exists, is greater than one purely imagined – then, that greatest being must exist. Thus, if we accept the premise that Santa is the greatest gift-giver, then, by irrefutable logic he must exist. Never mind that this also applies to the greatest sophist, the greatest idiot and the greatest obscurantist. They exist also, and often employ St Anselm’s argument in favour of their own articles of faith.

And, as we know, faith is an element of proof in itself. Have faith and ye shall be rewarded. Where a deficit of proof exists one can legitimately insert “faith” to bridge the gap. Then – Poof! – the object of faith reliably appears!

Behold, every year, millions of children put their faith in Santa and the Christmas team dutifully delivers. After days and days of breathless anticipation the big day comes… Then, hurrah! Squeals of delight, and yelps of excitement attend the feverish unwrapping of real, actual gifts. Ask any child how convincing this is.

Further, Santa is ubiquitous during the festive season, appearing on television screens constantly. News services track his progress from the North Pole. Parents everywhere use the supervising presence of Santa to wring some good behaviour out of their otherwise insolent offspring. Either Santa exists, or most of the adults in the world are complicit in a global Santa hoax conspiracy.

If this still fails to satisfy, allow me to borrow one of the planks of Biblical scholarship. The “criterion of embarrassment” states that if historical accounts are embarrassing to their author they can be assumed to be true. Now, consider the story of a ridiculously attired and morbidly obese man who supposedly travels all around the world on flying reindeers delivering presents to children he somehow divines as good. Embarrassment galore! Increasingly, scholars dispute the validity of this criterion – justifiably so, considering debate in the Australian Senate.

Austere scientific thinkers may have trouble accepting the Santa narrative. But remember, this is a moral tale not a scientific one, not meant to be taken literally. It’s about favouring “nice” over “naughty”, “good” over “bad”, by rewarding the good children with presents and lumbering the rest with smelly coal.

But, as all parents of young children know, this begs the question as to how children actually behave. The problem of evil. Given Santa’s omniscience and superpowers, how do we explain the continued reign of terror by these frightening midgets? Free will hardly suffices to explain temper tantrums, impudence and addiction to video games, rivalling that of present-day Australian tennis stars. Seeing as the incentive of gifts has conspicuously failed, and since global warming has curtailed Santa’s access to coal, a more interventionist policy is warranted. It’s unsurprising that the world’s major religions moved to slightly harsher penalties such as an eternity of roasting and re-roasting in the flame-pits of hell. Likewise, it’s easy to see how the religions of Abraham condemned the whole of humanity as corrupt and fallen, requisite of salvation.

And so, a radical new plan emerges. A new prophet will arise – Santa Junior – an elfin messiah of the children. He will be seized by secular powers and gruesomely tortured to death, signifying Santa’s gift of redemption to horrid little monsters everywhere. And then, showcasing Santa’s full repertoire of magical powers, Santa Junior will be sensationally brought back to life. Although this somewhat negates the supposed sacrifice, it caps off the story nicely. And, if this doesn’t work, Santa will equip his sleigh with intercontinental ballistic missiles and commence laying waste to play centres and schools. So please, give Santa some respect. And kids, if you don’t like the sound of apocalyptic Santa, you had better actually be good from now on.

mozaart

Music Points to God, Kiss My A***

Barney Zwartz, senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity, makes a strange and circular argument that the music of Mozart and others, “points us to God”.  According to Zwartz every music lover is “aware of its link to the spiritual”, and that music points to the “divine rationality and beauty of the Creator”.

But alas, Zwartz is troubled by the fact that many people love music and still manage to be unmoved to faith in God. How could this be? But, the apparent challenge to his unsupported claim is dismissed on the basis of some nice anecdotes of composers who claimed divine inspiration.

Quoting the great Jewish Hungarian conductor Sir Georg Solti:

“Mozart makes you believe in God – much more than going to church – because it cannot be by chance that such a phenomenon arrives into this world and then passes after 35 years, leaving behind such an unbounded number of unparalleled masterpieces.”

I wonder what Solti and Zwartz thought of Mozart’s dirty music. A perennial favourite the 1782 canon in B-flat major “Leck mich im Arsch” (literally Lick me in the arse).

Leck mich im A… g’schwindi, g’schwindi!
Leck im A… mich g’schwindi.
Leck mich, leck mich,
g’schwindi

(‘g’schwindi’ means ‘quickly’)

20140528_diary130_mozart_leck_mich_am_arsch

The phrase, which roughly translates to “kiss my arse”, was changed by a later publisher to “Let us be glad”.

Another Mozart composition “Bona Nox” concludes triumphantly, “Shit in your bed and make it burst, Good night, sleep tight, And stick your ass to your mouth”.

Rounding out the rear-end inspired trilogy is “Leck mir den Arsch fein recht schön sauber” (“Lick my arse nice and clean”) – (although there is some doubt about whether he composed this later work).

Do these point to God?

Maybe not.

Mozart was famously and often at odds with his own Catholicism. In one of his letters he describes a sojourn his cousin and he had with a priest Father Emilian in Augsburg:

“[Father Emilian] was an arrogant ass and a simple-minded little wit of his profession… when he was a little drunk which happened soon, he started on about music. He sang a canon… I took the third voice, but I slipped in an entirely different text: ‘P[ater] E: o du schwanz, leck mich im arsch’ [“Father Emilian, oh you prick, lick me in the ass”]

But we can thank Mozart for providing the best answer to Zwartz. You think music points to God? Well, I’ll point you to this – “Leck mich im Arsch!”

 

mozartamadaeus

blog-defog

Defogging the Enchanted Glass

enchanted glass

 

 

For the mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced.

 

            Sir Francis Bacon, 1640

 

In the murky depths of the human mind, faith and reason both participate in forming beliefs. But they don’t necessarily overlap or share the same epistemic value in forming knowledge. I’m inspired by Nick Trakakis thoughtful account of his struggle to reconcile his faith with philosophic inquiry in Why I Am Not Orthodox, ABC’s Religion & Ethics, 7 December 2015. Trakakis concludes that faith commitment to the main forms of organised religion is “incompatible with the pursuit of truth and wisdom”. The idea that faith contains epistemic value is the mirage of organised religion.

I want to challenge the understanding of faith presented in the responses to Trakakis article: Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning: A Response to Nick Trakakis, by Benjamin Myers, 9 December 2015, and Intellectual Assent and the Value of Disagreement: A Response to Nick Trakakis, by Richard College, 22 December 2015: both from ABC’s Religion & Ethics.

Blaise Pascal paradoxically described faith as providing the “heart” with “reasons” which elude “reason”:

 

The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.

 

By definition, faith and reason are mutually exclusive. Faith is defined various ways, but always entails a lack of evidence. Faith always walks hand in hand with doubt. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines faith generally as “trust”, and notes religious faith has several models: “affective”, “cognitive” or “volitional”.

Affective faith is a state of confidence and trust.

Cognitive faith refers to certain knowledge of God provided directly through revelation. Cognitive faith arms itself with Reformed Epistemology, an alternative epistemology where claiming direct knowledge of God is a legitimate form of evidence. The cognitive faith of reformed epistemology is excluded from this discussion because it attempts to fundamentally alter the generally accepted rules of evidence and verification. It even endows humans with a cognitive faculty for detecting God, the sensus divinitatis, of which no evidence exists. Unless there’s some reason or evidence to regard reformed epistemology as a legitimate arm of knowledge, then it remains an article of faith itself.

Volitional Faith is the choice to believe sometimes characterised as intellectual assent.  Faith can be either a type of act or a type of assent. So both affective faith and volitional faith involve trust and confidence in a proposition.

Philosopher Matt McCormick defines faith as:

 

 Faith: Belief without sufficient evidential justification.

 

Faith is offered in defence of believing in what we have insufficient legitimate reasons to believe. Faith should not be used as a substitute for evidence. To use it as justification for belief is a category mistake which assumes the existence of a faith-based category of knowledge which is unavailable.

The Oxford Dictionary defines evidence as:

 

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

 

If faith could actually contribute something tangible towards accepting a belief, it would constitute evidence. Since faith, by definition, is belief in the absence of sufficient evidence, the concept that it’s an actual reason for belief is self-negating and self-referential. It’s breaking the rules of epistemology to insert faith on the evidential scale as if somehow bridges the gap between incomplete evidence and knowledge.

Faith is an attitude towards evidence, rather than a form of evidence in itself. Faith does not provide “fullness to reasoning”, it simply pumps up the tyres of belief beyond what is epistemically justifiable. Faith has no epistemic content to apply to the proposition.

Failure to understand this leaves us imprisoned in an epistemology where the unknown and the unverifiable share the same status as verified knowledge. We lament the results of this failure over and over in debates about evolution, climate science and other areas where pre-existing beliefs and mythology clash with science.

Once we liberate knowledge from its foggy prison we can consider the merit of applying the same discipline to religion. What happens to religion without the supernatural? Can we reconsider religion without its myths? Is there a non-theistic future for religion?

The “Faith” of the Gaps

The God of the Gaps argument uses gaps in scientific knowledge as evidence for God’s existence. A parallel can be drawn in the use of faith to plug the gaps in theories of knowledge. To Benjamin Myers, faith and reason are indelibly connected. Further, Myers claims faith is foundational to reason. But his claim that we “cannot get started without faith” is flawed. The reality is that we cannot get started without evidence.

Myers offers Clement of Alexandria’s argument that we should accept Christianity on faith alone. (I note Clements self-defeating claim to have dozens of cogent arguments in reserve). But we simply cannot consider Christianity without processing a substantial sum of information describing the beliefs and doctrines of the religion. These make certain claims about the creation of the world, the life of Jesus, human nature, and our purpose in the world. One cannot fail to consider how credible these claims are. One cannot switch off inbuilt mechanisms for applying our critical faculties to the story, and contrasting it to knowledge of history, cosmology, anthropology and so on. It’s true that we might choose to adopt belief in the absence of sufficient evidence. But that’s not the same as starting with faith alone. The proposition contains basic information which constitutes evidence. So we’re not starting with faith, but evidence. It’s more accurate to say that we’d be starting with insufficient evidence and heaping faith on top of it, like coals onto a fire.

To start with faith Myers argues we need to adopt a change of disposition to one of “basic trust”. Myers offers Clement of Alexandria’s comparison of faith to getting drunk at a party.

 

You might have some doubt about whether it’s right for a person to get drunk. But it’s your practice to get drunk before considering the question….Only when divine things are in question do you first inquire…

 

Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that most people don’t just get drunk without thinking about it anymore. Drink driving laws have put paid to that. And even prior to modern sensibilities about alcohol consumption, it’s quite silly and untrue to say we only apply reason to questions of the divine. But the insistence on applying a “disposition” of trust helps us acknowledge that this is what “faith” is: an attitude, a belief – not a form of evidence.

Nonetheless, it’s worth exploring the problem of propositional knowledge Myer’s outlines. The assertion that there are things which first must be accepted without proof is based on the philosophical problem of defining knowledge. But alas, it doesn’t provide a compelling argument in favour of faith. Myer’s point is valid only to the extent that philosophical theories of knowledge are inadequate. Theories of knowledge fail to provide an agreed evidential foundation for what we regard as knowledge.

If I take my knowledge of a thing A, based on the evidence for it B, I should also logically require evidence for B. But now I am stuck in an infinite regress unless I can prove some item of knowledge which is foundational. A foundational type of knowledge might be considered our first direct perception, or an article of faith. Thus, so the argument goes, we must start by assuming something is true.

But equally, we acknowledge the substantial progress made in science, technology and other areas of knowledge without an apparent foundation. Our expectation that knowledge must have a foundation may be unrealistic, especially considering the traditional definition knowledge – as justified, true, belief. Gettier problems demonstrate the expectation of perfect knowledge is unrealistic given they rely on our own imperfect perception. Things that seemed justified and true have long turned out to be false on closer inquiry. Virtually nothing is known with absolute certainty.

When, for instance, we view a red car, our perception and knowledge is often incomplete. We recognise the image and the attributes of a motor vehicle, but we don’t appreciate the object in its totality. We don’t know what brand of oil is used. We mightn’t know all of the parts of the car. Many things inside are hidden from view. We wouldn’t perceive all of the molecules and atoms which make it up. In addition, we may be deceived by an illusion, or by mental illness, or a failure of eyesight.

But, in practical terms, we can use the red car to go to and from work, to pick up our kids from school, and to go shopping. It’s not an article of faith that our red car will reliably assist our lives – it’s based on reasonable evidence. Yet our knowledge of it is far from perfect. But even so, there’s no reason whatsoever to place “faith” as the foundation of our red-car knowledge. And though we’re satisfied by our practical knowledge, we cannot justify how our knowledge of the red car is founded.

The “Faith” of the Gaps is the unjustified insertion of faith as the foundation of knowledge. This theory not only suffers from a lack of any substantive argument, but must overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacle that faith is not an article of evidence but an attitude towards it.

The weakness of my position does not imply a strengthening of yours

sunlightstainedglass

Crucially, the limits of knowledge don’t dictate that we must take things on faith. The nominated candidates for faith are almost always an extremely narrow set of metaphysical, religious beliefs for which no verifiable proof or disproof exists. It’s hardly coincidental that the advocates for elevating faith are the same people who advocate the unverifiable beliefs.

Myers quotes Augustine from The Advantage of Believing:

 

If it’s wrong to believe something we do not know, I’d like to know how children can obey their parents and return their love and respect without believing they are their parents. There’s no way this could be known by reason. We have a belief about our father based on the word of our mother…

 

It’s not the case that children rely on faith to determine who their parents are. Children have many good reasons to conclude that their parents are their real parents. Their mother has cared for them ever since they can remember. Their parents might share physical similarities. Their parents claim to be their parents. And their siblings, uncles, aunts, and grandparents all agree. The foundation is not trust, but reasonable evidence. They could even get a paternity test if necessary!

Augustine continued:

 

… But we do believe, without any hesitation, things that we admit we can’t really know … We could give lots of examples to show that nothing in human society would be stable if we decided not to believe anything except the things that can be held with absolute certainty.

 

From the premise that we believe many things which cannot be known with “absolute certainty” it does not follow that we must therefore rely on faith. As Sigmund Freud said in The Future of an Illusion, “The weakness of my position does not imply a strengthening of yours.” The human cognitive bias towards absolutism tricks the mind into imagining the problem as a false dichotomy: Faith or reason. But that’s a false choice. We base our beliefs and knowledge on a varying scale of reason: a scale varying between no evidence, some evidence and an irrefutable amount of evidence.

Do we, for instance, know anything with absolute certainty based solely on faith? And tellingly, how would we test any claim that we do? By using evidence? How do we choose which beliefs to have faith in without evidence? Why not choose Poseidon, Mithras, Apollo or any other God to place our faith in?

Faith is not a category of evidence

awillioam jameswill to believeIn William James famous lecture given in 1896, The Will to Believe, he argues in “defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, despite our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.”

James is influenced by the human need for necessary knowledge:

 

…the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessing of real knowledge.

 

He argues absolutism is a requirement of knowledge because humans need it.

But simply because humans want or need it, does not make it so.

The underlying a priori assumption that because humans need certain things, the world and its objective reality must necessarily comply, is clearly a product of religious belief itself. One only assumes such a thing if we consider humans pivotal to creation itself.

His most persuasive point is that evidence regarding a beliefs truth or falsity is sometimes only accessible to believers. Pointing to St Augustine’s oft quoted “Unless you believe, you will not understand” James contends that we must first use faith to welcome in the object of our faith, and only then can we achieve further knowledge.

If this is true then it stands to reason that it applies beyond religious belief. But the testing of a hypothesis or holding a provisional belief in one, isn’t the same as intellectual assent. Do the scientists investigating “string theory” actually believe in it? From reading about them recently it seems they do make an investment in belief to some extent. To be precise, they hold a provisional belief. Provisional means subject to testing and verification, sitting somewhat short of accepted knowledge. Scientific history is full of surprising discoveries made whilst trying to prove something else. By no means is it demonstrated that any particular knowledge relies on holding a belief in it prior to discovery or verification. And wondering if something is true is hardly the same as believing it.

And how can we ignore the internal contradiction of arguments made for faith on the basis of evidence and reason? We’re asked us to accept an attitude of “basic trust” to propositions such as the existence of God or Christianity, without sufficient reason and evidence, by accepting the offered reason and evidence. On what epistemic basis do we consider such arguments? If they are lacking in evidence do we just insert an attitude of faith? And if so, how can we ignore the obvious circularity in using faith to justify faith, and the internal contradiction of using evidence to justify faith?

Distinguishing Faith and Reason

faith-and-reason

Richard College, Intellectual Assent and the Value of Disagreement: A Response to Nik Trakakis, ABC Religion & Ethics, 22 December 2015, provides an interesting discussion of the “the epistemology of disagreement”.

The founding premises of our beliefs are informed by “gut intuitions”. These intuitions are influenced by such things as our genes, early life experiences and traumatic events, socio-cultural influences, the structure of one’s language, geographic and political context, and religious instruction. Experimental psychologists have scientifically identified these tribal influences as producing cognitive biases.

Referencing William James The Will to Believe, College contends that “underlying pre-rational passions and volitions” inform which “truth-claims are more or less on the table”.

College’s “gut intuitions” are the human fogginess in the enchanted glass. There’s no doubt that human beliefs are informed by reasoning which is unduly influenced by non-evidential factors. But it doesn’t follow that abstract concepts such as reason and faith are artificially conjoined by human folly.

College contends:

 

Faith and reason are not hermetically sealed rival domains – the so-called disjunction of Athens and Jerusalem – requiring us to either suppress one and champion the other (hence the alternatives of hyper-rationalism or fideism), or try to find a way of breaching the abyss between them through some kind of uneasy balance.

 

College’s argument mirrors James argument that because humans use faith to form beliefs, then faith must be indelibly bound to reason. ie. because humans practise it, it must be so. But acknowledging the human propensity to prematurely form beliefs by using cognitive biases, such as wishful thinking, does nothing to suggest that those biases contribute to the epistemological status of the hypothesis. What humans believe has no bearing on reality. The scientist’s test is not made more likely of success because he has a hunch it might be true. Just because humans are prone to make these mistakes, doesn’t imbue them with virtue. Humans are inclined to apply faith to hypotheses with insufficient evidence. Acknowledging this unremarkable fact should not compel us to enjoin the magisterium of faith and reason. To the contrary, it should stiffen our resolve not to conflate them.

Since the world exists independently and objectively, then reason ought to be the most efficient and effective way of ascertaining knowledge of the world. Perhaps reflecting centuries of near universal religiosity, philosophers attempting to define “reason” often presume it only applies to humans. Despite this, we see other animals in nature displaying the use of reason, albeit at a more primitive level. Reason is a variable faculty in humans, as it is in nature. We easily envisage the possibility of alien life forms using reason much better than we do. We expect man-made technology to assume and even outperform the human capacity for reason some time in the future. Reason is an abstract concept which needn’t be limited by humans.

We ought to use the concept of reason to find the best path to knowledge. We must distinguish reason and human reason. To accept reason as subject to the passions of humans is to limit the human project. And to succumb to the rationalisation that evidence plus a dash of faith constitutes reason, is gaming the system to achieve a preordained result.

The faith claims of religion aren’t susceptible to reason’s weighing of evidence because they contain none. Artificially moving the concentric circles of the two domains over one another may provide hope for holders of unverifiable beliefs, but that hope is a mirage.

As Trakakis argues, the problem with religious faith is assuming we know the truth to start with. We’re not open to honest enquiry if we assume to know the truth on faith, as if faith constitutes an article of evidence in itself.

Can we imagine religion without God?

skylanterns

Having separated faith and reason let’s now attempt to reunite them again. There’s nothing wrong with faith per se: my argument merely notes faith is an attitude of trust not an article of evidence. If we cannot have faith in God, what then do we put our trust in?

In western societies the supernatural claims of Christianity are waning. In the post information-explosion world, faith is no longer enough to perpetuate extraordinary claims which continue to elude proof. The question becomes whether religion can survive and in what form. The diverse and changeable history of Christianity suggests that it may live on.

The beliefs of Christianity have changed continuously from the 1st and 2nd century until now. The original belief in a heaven on earth was reinvented to a supernatural one when the “imminent” second coming failed to arrive. From Judaism to Gentile Christianity to Medieval Christendom, from Protestantism to Enlightenment secularism, to the myriad modern Christian sects – the doctrines of Christianity have been debated, revised and reinterpreted. Christianity is nothing if not resilient.

That’s why it’s possible to envisage the religion which will replace Christianity is Christianity itself: a new form which reimagines theology by placing faith entirely within the realm of reason. Consider how much stronger faith would be when unshackled from fancies and clamped-on-hard to the real world.

Rather than providing “fullness to reasoning”, faith can become an attitude of trust to reason. Not, mind you, the elevation of human reason to exalted status, or the reification of reason to the point where it’s harmful, but simply a trust in using evidence to form knowledge whilst acknowledging the limits of knowledge. In a religious sense, trust can extend to using reason to seek wisdom – the wisdom necessary to properly define and fulfil the mortal human project.

By following reason rather than faith, the metaphysical claims of a deconstructed Christianity would become natural rather than supernatural. The Sermon on the Mount loses none of its force if we accept a non-divine view of Jesus. The tale of the Good Samaritan may or may not be based on a real event. In terms of its use as a parable in the modern age, it’s truth is neither here nor there. Also, regarding Jesus as a mortal teacher and a moral compass allows the sort of mutability envisioned by Sigmund Freud. The existing teachings and values of Christianity can change according to their utility and relevance.

The power of mythology is not its perceived truth, but the power to unify. Myths have defined societies from prehistory to the present day. Today, we witness the myths of religion replaced with conspiracy theories and a fragmented set of social networks. Modern humans participate in a wide array of disparate preoccupations including social networking, meditation, reality television, online gaming, personal development, political causes, literary pursuits, sporting and social clubs, weight loss schemes, personal fitness and so on. Replacing the sense of community of religion with their own narrow values and aspiration these are pseudo-religions. No doubt modern society would benefit from the rituals and healing of organised religion under an umbrella of shared values. But in modern pluralist society, unity cannot be achieved by exclusionary religious groups practising a narrow set of beliefs. Whereas once unity was achieved by universal conformity and punishment of dissent, nowadays, it could only be achieved by a broad and inclusive philosophy.

Reprising the earlier discussion of provisional beliefs, there might be a way for Christians to maintain some theistic beliefs without offending reason. It’s not unreasonable to admit the mystery of existence whilst entertaining a notion of a creator-God. Provisional beliefs in cherished aspects of Christianity could survive, whilst acknowledging alternative theories and competing views occupy equal status. Embracing uncertainty, and admitting the limits of knowledge, will become tools to regulate beliefs.

The dogma will go. Consider how few of the 613 Mosaic Commandments of the Old Testament – including edicts such as “Break the neck of a calf by the river valley following an unsolved murder” – remain relevant today. Add to this the disproven stories, such as Genesis, Noah’s Ark, and the Exodus, and it’s not hard to imagine postmodern Christians taking a more agnostic attitude to the metaphysical and doctrinal claims derived from The Book.

A new Christianity may become a melting pot of Christian humanism, secular humanism and a philosophy. Christian humanism has a long tradition dating back to Justin the Martyr and other 2nd century writers. Using the teachings of Jesus and selectively using other parables from the Bible, might form the basis of a non-theistic Christian ethics.

This is not to say that Christianity will simply become secular humanism. Humanism is a broad and loosely defined movement derived from both Christian and secular influences. As an ethical philosophy focussed on humans eschewing the supernatural or transcendent, humanism isn’t as broad in scope or ambition as Christianity. But the rituals and institutions of Christianity could transform humanism into a theological project. One can readily imagine the commingling of the rituals, philosophies and ideas of both resulting in a new type of religion.

Rather than a set of fixed beliefs and creeds, the “religion” becomes a collection of ideas aimed at remodelling and convalescing humankind. The religion would more realistically produce ideas on how to improve the human condition – ethically, spiritually and philosophically. The consensus of human knowledge would form a basis for human betterment.

Capturing the essence of what is human and how to describe human nature would inaugurate such a project. An unsentimental, naturalistic picture of humans and our natures is by no means a finished project. Since our scientific understanding of human nature is incomplete, our philosophic meditations on human nature will necessarily be provisional. The study of human nature cuts across many fields. Any progress made in solving the “hard problem of consciousness”, in understanding the origins of life, and describing the elements within the universe, will all contribute to a deeper understanding of the human condition and our place within the universe.

Our knowledge is still in its infancy. We are no wiser on the best of way to live than were our ancestors in Aristotle’s time. We aren’t even much wiser than the humans who blew their handprints in red ochre on cave walls 25 thousand years ago. We’ve had thousands of years of erroneously assuming we are the centre and pinnacle of creation, the lone species for whom a divine purpose has been set out: preparing ourselves for a mythical life after death. We need to unlearn all that.

Lloyd Geerings Christianity Without God describes a pathway for Christians to reconcile and combine the cultural heritage of their religion with humanism. Geering argues humanism is a product of Christian thought, and describes the continually changing nature of Christianity. Daniel McGuire’s 2014 book of the same name argues for a “moratorium on god-talk so that together we could explore alternatives to earth’s current social, political, economic, and ecological distress”.

We’ve seen emergent Christian movements such as Peter Rollins, Ikon assemblies, offering a religion without religion using transformative art. One of the most admired Christians of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a series of letters from prison speaking of a “Religionless Christianity”. Though Bonhoeffer demurs from religion, not from faith, his focus on the provisional nature of belief has been taken up later post-modern Christian offshoots such as Jesuism, Christian atheism, and Paul van Buren’s Death of God movement.

 

We cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur (as if God is not given). And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it… The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross.

 

In the Netherlands, 42% of Protestants don’t believe in God, and 1 in 6 pastors are agnostic or atheist. One of its ministers, Klaas Hendrikse describes God not as a deity but as an expression of human experience. In his book, Believing in a God who does not exist: manifesto of an atheist pastor, Hendrikse argues that God is a word for what connects people: “Someone says to you, for example, ‘I will not abandon you’, and then makes those words come true. It would be perfectly alright to call that God”.

The existential mystery is central to the religious urge. To echo the Tasos Leivaditis poem, Violets for a Season (quoted by Trakakis), we stretch out our hands toward the infinite like lost children. The handshake with the infinite never happens. But the hope of finally grasping hold of the keys to our existence is nevertheless exhilarating. Many modern non-theists foresee a day when religion will no longer exist. Personally, I doubt it.

I recently watched a moving documentary about the devastation caused by the Chinese Sichuan school collapse. Many parents lost their children in the disaster.

In one moving scene we see a mother at dusk, on the 5th anniversary of her daughter’s death. She lights a sky lantern. Rising slowly, its red glow gradually animates an expression of inconsolable despair on the mother’s face. She clasps her hands in prayer. Family members cling to each other all looking upwards.

 

My beautiful daughter. I have to believe that you are happy in your life in heaven. When I look to the sky you are the brightest star.

 

Other than with religion, how else could the mother reconcile the immensity of her loss? The mother cannot cease being a mother. If there are better ways of soothing human despair than this, and there must be, then we have so far failed to find them. Acknowledging the obvious self-delusion does nothing to invalidate the urge to ancestor worship and false consolation embedded within our psyche. If we intuitively practise religion in certain situations, then we must at least acknowledge the deep human need for worship.

In his influential Kenyon college commencement speech, What is Water, David Foster Wallace asserts that “there’s no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship”. A good reason for religious or spiritual worship is that anything else will “eat you alive”. Worship money and you’ll always be poor. Worship appearances and you’ll always be ugly. Worship power, and you’ll be weak. Worship the intellect and you’ll never be smart enough. Wallace’s message acknowledges the human need for meaning, communion with others, and to exercise control over our mind. His overall message is that the most obvious and important realities are often the most difficult to see.

Humans have long tried to exercise dominion over the Earth. But the organ we need to subdue is the one inside our own craniums. The mind of man remains an enchanted glass. We can only attempt to tame its lavish appetites by continually refilling it with evidence. And once the glass is clear and the beams of light travel straight and true, what we see might seem so obvious we’ll wonder how we never noticed it before. The deus ex machina of religion, the phoenix arising from the ashes of dogma, is doubt and uncertainty. Reason and evidence are the best hope of revitalising the religious project.

 

 

 

 

Professor who said Christians and Muslims Worship the Same Imaginary Being resigns from Wheaton

Charges of firing politics Professor Dr Larycia Hawkins have been withdrawn. So says Wheaton College provost Stan Jones, although the “place of resolution and reconciliation” they’ve come to, has resulted in Dr Hawkins moving on.

This follows her controversial suspension for her posting on Facebook where, whilst wearing the Hijab, she claimed Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

I stand in solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.

Wheaton College suspended the professor because her comment doesn’t conform to their Statement of Faith. Wheaton’s response was described as “religious bigotry” by the Chicago Tribune, and as “anti-Muslim bigotry” by Theology professor at Yale, Miroslav Volf, whose book Allah: A Christian Response, makes the argument that Jews, Christian and Muslims all worship the same God.

Consider for a moment how facile this debate is. Grown men and women attempting to decipher whether their religion’s unseen thing is actually the same unseen thing worshipped by others.

This provides an interesting parallel to the religious project in general, in which competing sects insist with utter certainty their own version of the unknowable is true and that all others are certainly false. So much certainty aimed at what is always erstwhile admitted as unknowable.

Determined theologians make the Kierkegaardian leap into the unknowable, returning inexplicably with ultimate knowledge. The problem is that they proceed to inflict this dogma on everyone else, just as Wheaton and other evangelical colleges do.

As he was about to burned at the stake, Protestant reformer, Jan Hus exclaimed “Sanctus Simplicitus!” referring to an elderly woman who threw a comically small amount of brushwood onto his pyre.

Meaning “Holy simplicity”, this phrase has become synonymous with naivety, but in this context reminds us of how disputes over dogma have perennially stoked the fires of division and hatred.

We’re reminded of the aftermath of his execution when the Hussite Bohemians began to reject to teachings of the Papacy resulting in Pope Martin V’s Crusade against them.

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

Let’s consider some equally pointless questions.

Imagine hillbillies arguing about whether the correct name of the mythological hairy monster is Sasquatch or Bigfoot.

They are soon to be joined by a Himalayan who insists what they are really talking about is the Yeti. But his friend violently disagrees. It’s actually the abominable snowman on vacation.

Is the invisible fire-breathing dragon in my garage the same as Carl Sagan’s one?

Which brand of invisible new clothes does the Emperor wear?

Such questions are plainly absurd as they speak of undiscovered, abstract concepts.

Worship Gods of various names. They are defined by the various characteristics assigned by the religion and the mythology.

The claim that both religions worship the same one is nonsensical. An entity is defined by its nature, and simply cannot be regarded as the same entity as another entity which has different qualities.

Unless one wants to argue that God is protean and relativistic, and can simultaneously exist as whatever everyone wants him to be.

No-one knows if they’re worshiping the same God as another religion because there’s nothing to know. It’s a vapid, meaningless question.

Stan Jones apologized to Dr Hawkins for his “lack of wisdom and collegiality”. But even that’s a bit rich, considering that before wisdom one must first acquire common sense.