The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 4: Philosophical Objections


Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 5: Design Arguments
Last modified on Tue Sep 22 22:32:23 2020


Introduction

This is the fifth post in a series on Victor Stenger's book God: The failed hypothesis. In this post, I intend to review his second chapter, The illusion of Design.

This chapter is largely a response to the biological argument from design. This is not an argument I use, and it is a topic I prefer to avoid, for the simple reason that to argue for or against irreducible complexity requires a lot of detailed knowledge in biology, and I simply do not know enough to have anything useful to say. So I am just going to briefly summarise the chapter, and point out a few things along the way.

But before I dive into the chapter, there is one thing I need to emphasise. I have written this many times before, but I will write it again. The theory of evolution has absolutely no relevance whatsoever to the question of whether or not theism is true or whether or not living organisms were created by God. Yes, evolution by natural selection provides a scientific explanation of how complex living organisms could arise from the simplest possible living organism. And it is an explanation which does make sense. But to turn that into an argument against God, you need a second premise, namely that scientific law operates independently of God. And it is this second premise that does all the work for atheism. The theist, of course, will reject this premise. Instead, the theist will say something along the lines of that scientific law describes the actions of God in sustaining the universe as a consequence of His general providence. Theists might characterise this in different ways. I tie God's actions closely to the indeterminacy or unpredictability of quantum physics. Knowledge of a physical substance gives us a range of options which could happen, but even with complete knowledge of the physical system there is no way of knowing which of those options will happen. That suggests that if the events are rational (that is to say that conclusions follow from a complete set of premises), and if physical causes are insufficient to determine them, then they must in part have a cause which is non-physical, which (after a bit more work) we can identify with God.

That doesn't mean that God is restricted to just the regularities of general providence. If He has a particular desire to bring about some effect, such as to benefit or harm an individual, then He is free to do so, and we can throw all the amplitudes and probabilities we calculate in quantum physics away in those circumstances.

So if science is a description of God's sustaining of the universe, and evolution by natural selection is a scientific description of the development of life, then the theory of evolution is a description of how God created the living substances we see today. So if evolution is true, then God created life through general providence, and if evolution is false and something like intelligent design is true then God created life through special providence. Either way, we come to the same place. God created life. On the other hand, if science does operate independently of God (and the evolution against independent design debate is then of relevance), then theism is false anyway. At best, we would have to adopt some form of deism, which is inconsistent with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So, as I said, the truth or falsity of evolution by natural selection is irrelevant to the question of whether a theistic God created living organisms.

Now that is not to say that there are not some important questions raised by this. Why would God go through the dinosaurs, and mass extinction events, if His goal was to create humanity? (To which I think the answer is why shouldn't He? And who says that the creation of humanity was God's only goal?) Then there are questions of consistency with the Bible. I personally think that Genesis chapter 1 stands up well against modern science, as long as it is interpreted according to its poetic and structural form (and one takes the "days" to represent unspecified period of time, or merely a literary structure to divide the three sections of the account: light, water and sky, and then land; showing God's complete sovereignty over everything).

Genesis chapter 2 is a bit more interesting and its reconciliation with the scientific account harder. (In fact, it is the whole of chapters 2-10 which would have to be considered). Obviously there are allegorical and metaphorical elements in Genesis 2; but the idea of a singular event of Adam's sin and mankind's fall from innocence is crucial to Christian theology. So you can't interpret the whole account as just a parable. There are elements of the narrative which look like they ought to be interpreted historical or literal sense. It is an interesting question, but not, I think, insoluble. Perhaps I ought to write about it at some time. (If nothing else to get my thoughts in order). But that's not my purpose today.

So let's get back to Stenger's chapter.

Paley and Darwin.

Perhaps no argument is heard more frequently in support of the existence of God than the argument from design. It represents the most common form of the God of the gaps argument: the universe and, in particular, living organisms on Earth are said to be simply too complex to have arisen by any conceivable natural mechanism.

Before the age of science, religious belief was based on faith, cultural tradition, and a confidence in the revealed truth in the scriptures and teachings of holy men and women specially selected by God. As science began to erode those beliefs by showing that many of the traditional teachings, such as that of a flat earth at rest at the centre of a firmament of stars and planets were simply wrong, people began to look to science itself for evidence of a supreme being that did not depend on any assumptions about the literal truth of the Bible or divine revelation.

It is a pity that Professor Stenger begins what is probably the least objectionable chapter in his book with these paragraphs.

The first paragraph is perhaps only slightly misleading. Certainly, among deists (which means the past few centuries), the argument from design is common; probably the second most important behind arguing from revelation. And certainly there are variants of the argument from design which are God of the gaps type arguments which should be rejected. The common objection to such arguments is that they rely on there being no conceivable natural mechanism to explain whatever phenomena is being presented. We don't have a complete knowledge of science, and as such it is a very bold claim to say that no scientist in the future will think of something we are not aware of. It is frequently an equally bold claim to say that no scientist in the present hasn't already come up with a scientific account for the phenomena. Even the best researcher is ignorant of a great many things.

To my mind, however, the weakest part of God of the gaps arguments is that they implicitly concede God's lack of involvement in those things which can be explained through "natural" mechanisms. Once you have done that, you have largely given the game away.

However, are all design arguments God of the gaps arguments? This is a more interesting question. We certainly should exclude from consideration arguments such as Aquinas' fifth way, which certainly isn't a God of the gaps argument, but equally isn't a design argument. Any argument which relies on complexity in physical structure or organisms would qualify as a God of the gaps argument. One can think of arguments saying that maybe there might be a "natural" explanation for some phenomena, but it is more probable that it arose out of special creation. This removes the common objection to design arguments, but instead introduces the problem of how we quantify and then interpret such probabilities. However, if we turn instead to questions concerning the form of scientific law (such as in a fine-tuning argument), then I think that we are on stronger ground. Professor Stenger discusses this type of argument in chapter 6, so I will defer any discussion of the details until then. Clearly there cannot be a scientific explanation for why scientific law takes the form it does, since any scientific explanation assumes scientific law. The question then rests on whether the chances of the physical law taking the form it does by means other than design are low enough that we can neglect them.

An alternative approach to a design argument is to rephrase it as an argument from deduction rather than from inference. We would ask if God exists, then what sort of universe might we expect there to be? If it lines up with a similar sort of universe to which we observe, while not by itself an argument for theism (one would also have to repeat this for a Godless universe and show that that ends up with something which contradicts observation), would nonetheless show that theism is at least plausible. Design considerations could then play a role in figuring out what sort of universe we expect if God exists. I attempt such an argument in chapter 15 of What is Physics.

But it is the second of these two paragraphs which is most problematic. Assuming that Professor Stenger dates the start of the age of science to the time of Galileo and Descartes (rather than sometime back in ancient Greece), then almost everything he states in that paragraph is incorrect. Like most atheists, he almost certainly does not understand what is meant when a Christian discusses faith, and Christianity is, I think, the only word religion which states that our justification depends primarily on our trust in God's promises as opposed to fulfilling a law by our own efforts. Whether our justification depends on this alone is, of course, still disputed, and not something I want to discuss here (other than to say that a lot depends on the precise understanding of what is meant by justification). And this is the role that faith plays in Christianity.

But, of course, he ignores the fact that from almost the beginning, Christians have used the best science and philosophy to bolster their case. Neo-Platonic thought, which included Aristotle's physics, was adopted from the second century if not before, and deployed as Christians gained intellectual supremacy over Paganism, Manichaeism, and other schools of Greek philosophy. This philosophical tradition includes arguments for God. Of course, you can't get all the way to Christianity on reason alone, but it does require a basic framework on which to build Christian theology once you also incorporate revealed facts. So the idea that Christians did not use rational or even scientific (albeit Greek science) arguments is false.

The statement that Christians believed in a flat earth is absurd in view of the established historical evidence. That was proved to be false by the ancient Greeks. They did believe that the earth was at the centre of the universe (as Aristotle proposed), and this wasn't really challenged until Medieval times. But this belief was based on the best science of the time. When better science came along, Christians changed their view. This particular issue is of little significance theologically, so it is not clear why Professor Stenger raised it.

That the coming of science didn't pose a problem to Christians is obvious. Almost all scientists and mathematicians up towards the latter part of the nineteenth century were Christians (more or less). The advance of deism and then atheism came not from science, but the various philosophical systems that arose during those centuries. And it is correct that many Churchmen adopted deism at that time. Some of those became the intellectual ancestors of today's liberal Christians (including modernist Catholics); others neo-orthodox Protestants; others perhaps more mainline evangelicals; and, of course, many drifted off into agnosticism and the various strands of atheism. But there were still faithful reformed Protestants and Roman Catholics who were comfortable with the science but rejected the philosophy (not to mention the Eastern Churches). True, the Church was under siege towards the end of the nineteenth century. But that just brings out the best in her.

But there is an element of truth in what Stenger is saying. For the eighteenth or nineteenth century deist at least, the argument from design did seem like the best non-Biblical argument for God. But to get to that point, you already had to surrender far too much to the philosophies that led to atheism. And he is still perfectly correct that many people still use the argument today; particularly street evangelists and the like. It has a certain popular appeal. Plus, of course, you have the Intelligent Design crowd, who put forward a more sophisticated version of the argument. (And note that these modern creationists are not anti-science. They are very much pro- science. They just dispute the views held by the majority of contemporary scientists. That makes them either very bad scientists, or perhaps, if they happen to be right, exceptionally good scientists, but they have no objection to scientific methodology, and use it.) It is certainly true that the argument from design is common. But, aside from the Intelligent Design proponents, it is not an argument that tends to be used at the academic level (except, perhaps, the fine tuning variant). And I would not use the argument myself. There are other, far stronger, arguments for God's existence.

Stenger proceeds to give the usual account of how William Paley gave the definitive account of the argument from design, and how the modern creationists are more sophisticated, but largely arguing along similar lines. Darwin and Wallace then came along, and provided a mechanism by which evolution might proceed, and revolutionised biology. There are many predictions of evolution by natural selection were validated, for example in the fossil record or more recently genetics. Evolution was a theory that could have been falsified by this evidence, but wasn't. It could also have been falsified if the age of the earth was too small to allow the process to occur. This seemed like a distinct possibility until radioactive decay and nuclear energy was discovered. All of this is well known and well established.

Certainly all this is a difficulty for the deists and others who advocate for biological design. It does defeat that particular argument for God. It did, historically, lead already sceptical people towards atheism. But the question is whether evolution by natural selection provides an argument against God. Professor Stenger thinks that this is the case. He argues, that although the biological sciences once seemed to offer clear evidence for God, that has now been turned around and they offer evidence against God.

The discovery of human ancestors, the DNA and anatomical connections between humans and other animals (and even plants), and the use of animals in medical research falsify the hypothesis of a God who created humans as a distinct life-form. The fossil record, the existence of transitional species, and the actual observation of evolution in the laboratory falsify the hypothesis of a God who created separate "kinds" or species of life-forms at one time in history and left them unchanged since.

So how should we evaluate these claims? How much of Professor Stenger's argument depends on his underlying mechanistic presumptions? And in particular, is he challenging Gods which classical Christianity actually believes in?

In his first example (aside from the strange reference to medical research), he is suggesting that the idea that you have man and then an impassable chasm and then animals has been shown to be false. Fine, we can accept that. The problem is that most theists would agree that it is false. In classical philosophy, mankind is defined as a rational animal. The animal part of that definition implies a biological continuity with the rest of nature. Christians have always maintained that as far as our flesh is concerned, we are of the same sort of material as the beasts. For example, the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes wrote,

I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?

Clearly, even in the days of Solomon, people recognised that there was a biological similarity between men and at least the larger mammals. Yet evolution is all about explaining the biological connection between these species. So far, there is no contradiction with the standard Christian view.

But obviously, theists also claim that there is something different about mankind. This comes in our rational nature and (to the Christian) our being in the image of God and able to enter a relationship with God. It is not a difference in our bodies, detectable from the fossil evidence, but in our minds, detectable only from artefacts such as cave paintings or carved figurines. Whether this comes from the direct breath of God (the words breath and spirit are represented by the same Hebrew word), as a literal interpretation of Genesis 2 would imply, or a gradual development, as consistent with a more allegorical interpretation of that chapter, is of less importance. Maybe there is a sharp difference between us and the animals; maybe there are degrees of rationality, but the development of rationality (which includes the ability to make abstract representations) is not something we can deduce from the fossil record. Not until we see the first cave paintings or carved likenesses. If there was a drastic change, where God breathed his spirit into at least one of our ancestors giving no bodily change but awakening the mind, then there would be no fossil evidence for it. If, on the other hand, it was achieved by God through general providence and a series of gradual changes over the course of tens of thousands of generations; then again one could not see any evidence against God's involvement in the fossil record.

But that we are different from the animals in our rationality is clear and obvious. There are many intelligent animals out there, capable of learning, remembering, communicating, basic problem solving, and using tools. But no animal that can understand calculus or perform scientific research. No animal artist or musician. No animal that can read or write.

So orthodox Christianity's claims are that we are biologically similar to the animals but different in our rational nature. There is nothing in the evidence that Professor Stenger cites that refutes this.

What of his second hypothesis? Does Christianity teach that God created separate "kinds" or species of life-forms at one time in history? Does it teach that there is no change since then? This obviously depends on one's interpretation of the Bible. The early Bible passages do teach that there was a change when Adam rebelled against God (whether we are to take that passage literally or allegorically). But, of course, the changes that Professor Stenger refers to were before and different from this. And a straight-forward reading of Genesis 1 reveals that creation was a gradual process, with different animals created on different "days". If one interprets these days as periods of time, or the passage as being more symbolic or allegorical, designed to concisely convey important theological truths, then one can easily accommodate a long period of creation of species, driven by general rather than special providence (and thus according to scientific law), with some going extinct along the way.

Professor Stenger acknowledges that there a many believers who see no conflict between evolution and their faith. However, he seems to side with the creationists in believing that evolution threatens the belief in a divine purposeful creation of human life. That evolution makes God redundant. But, as I have repeatedly stated, this is not where the difficulties lie. If you accept the tenets of theism, then that evolution provides an explanation for the emergence of life in terms of scientific causes is proof that God's hand is behind it. Of course, if, like Professor Stenger, you don't accept or understand the tenets of theism, then you might come to the opposite conclusion. So the question of divine purpose in creation is not a scientific one, but a philosophical one.

One objection that I have seen given to the idea that evolution is inconsistent with divine purpose is that it is a random process. There are two responses that could be made to this. The first is that evolution by natural selection is not wholly a random process. True, modern theory relies on "random" mutations, which drive evolution. But natural selection picks out which of those mutations are passed on to the next generations, and this is not random. If you have a large enough statistical sample, then all possible mutations will be sampled. So at the level of the individual, yes, things can appear random. But at the level of the population, you know what the distribution of mutations is going to be. And natural selection operates at the level of populations rather than individuals. Thus, in this sense, any randomness in the the process of mutation is beaten back by the large numbers involved. So, the response runs, one cannot let the randomness of evolution by natural selection encourage us to abandon theism because evolution by natural selection is not random when the populations are large enough. It is just like when you consider the air in the room. Each individual particle is impossible to track; but when you consider the large scale properties of the gas they are stable and very predictable.

The second response is, I think, more pertinent. What do we mean by "random"? Usually it means either we are unaware of the cause, or that the effects are unpredictable. Neither of those are the case for God. Ultimately any scientific unpredictability would come down to quantum events, wavefunction collapses. I have argued that such events appear unpredictable to us because they depend not only on the states of natural substances (which we can in principle measure and put into our equations) but also freely chosen divine choice, which we cannot predict even in principle and can only parameterizes the uncertainty by using amplitudes through which we compute probabilities. Given that God is thus the proximate cause of every event, and given God's timelessness and thus His knowledge through His acts of causation with every event in space and time, nothing is random to God. It might seem random to us, because we don't know all the details; but God's knowledge is of a different kind entirely to ours. Thus any seeming randomness of the mutation process and environmental conditions as they relate to evolution is not contradictory to God's divine purposes in creation, but is instead a consequence of the evolution of life being guided by God's divine hand rather than solely natural substances.

At least, that is the case for a theistic God. There might well be problems along these lines for a deistic God, but since I am not interested in defending deism I don't really care about that.

The Creationists

So Professor Stenger agrees with the creationists that there is a conflict between the theory of evolution and the Christian faith, and the bulk of his chapter is taken to attacking this position. I should, of course, clarify the language first of all. There is a sense in which every Christian is a creationist, in that every Christian believes that everything in the universe, including all species of life (both on this planet and anywhere else in the universe) was directly created by God. That is part of core Christian belief, for example contained within the creeds, and can't be abandoned without rejecting Christianity. But there is the question about whether that creation was performed using general providence (i.e. through scientific law); or through special providence (i.e. through direct miraculous intervention); or perhaps a mixture of these (for example, with special providence to grant mankind its rational rather than just animal soul, but general providence the rest of the way). When Professor Stenger discusses creationists, he means those people who advocate for creation largely through special creation.

As I have said before, I am not interested in publicly discussing whether the intelligent design crowd are correct or not. Firstly because I am not knowledgeable enough in the topic to evaluate the arguments; and secondly because I don't consider the question particularly important. I do have the problem that much of the work of the Intelligent Design crowd seems to be deistic in nature, i.e. dependent on the dichotomy between scientific processes independent of God and special intervention, rather than having us choose between scientific processes dependent on God and special intervention. I usually assume for the sake of argument that evolution by natural selection is correct. The broad conception of the theory seems sound to me; many of the scientific objections I have seen raised against it look weak; much of the evidence given in favour of it looks strong; and there is the pragmatic issue that for scientific questions I don't know much about I ought to assume the position that gives my opponents their strongest case, especially if it is the mainstream view. Beyond that, I know too few of the details for my private opinions to be worth anything.

Professor Stenger's discussion of creationism is standard, discussing its rise in early twentieth century Christian Protestant fundamentalism; the Scopes trail; the rise of creation science and intelligent design, and various U.S. court cases and political debates which aren't particularly relevant to the question of which view is correct. (Scientific questions should never be determined by lawyers or politicians, but only by experiment.) He casts scorn on the funding of the creationists (as if that was relevant to whether their position was true, or indeed questioning whether the funding of the mainstream biologists is also value-neutral). As far as scientific questions are concerned, there is a brief discussion of the idea of irreducible complexity, and a mention of the main arguments against Behe and Dembski's work. The alternative view of self-organisation is put forward and defended.

The section of Professor Stenger's book all looks reasonable to me; at least as far as a chapter length discussion of the issues from the perspective of atheism. Its main flaw is being too brief, with too few details, and concentrating as much on the political and legal issues (which aren't particularly relevant or interesting to an non-US based reader such as myself) as the scientific ones. I doubt that his work would convince anyone knowledgeable and committed to Intelligent Design, who would already be aware of everything that Professor Stenger writes. However, given the scope of Professor Stenger's book, such brevity is unavoidable. But, within those limitations, to my untrained eye Professor Stenger did a decent job of setting out his case.

Bad design

Towards the end of his chapter, Professor Stenger raises the question of what we mean by design, or an argument from design. Indeed, it would be better to call the sort of arguments used by Behe and Dembeski arguments to design, in that they attempt to demonstrate that there is design in the universe. He rejects the notion that design is a reference to any structure of atoms or molecules that exhibit some pattern or purpose. What he means by that is that he is excluding any scholastic teleological arguments from his discussion (such as Aquinas' fifth way), which start from from the existence of observed inherent tendencies, or natural purposes as I like to call them, in nature. And I agree: he hasn't addressed these arguments for God at all.

He states that it is the design that is the issue at stake; not the process of how things were assembled. Again, there is a confusion here in his thinking that God only works through the miraculous. For the classical theist, it is the processes of "manufacture" which show the hand of God (whether or not that process is explained scientifically).

The problem, of course, comes in identifying pre-existent processes that are features of the design, and those things which they can do, but only incidentally. He cites the example that rocks have the capacity to smash windows, but it is unlikely that this could be seen as being a fundamental purpose of rocks. The question is then applied to living organisms. Are the various functions of various parts of the living organisms indicative of genuine purposes? For example, does the heart genuinely have the purpose of pumping blood, or does it, like the rock, merely satisfy that role incidentally?

Before discussing the heart, it is worth discussing the rock in more detail, and in particular what we mean by its "purpose." There are, at least in classical thought, two different meanings to the word "purpose." The first is an intellectual purpose, which is the sense that Professor Stenger uses the term. This is imposed on a substance or artefact by an outside intelligence. In this sense, we can say that a watch has the purpose of telling the time, since that is why it was built, and why it was purchased. It can serve the function of a paper-weight, if it is heavy enough, but that is not why it was made. But the other meaning of purpose is the natural purpose, which indicates a tendency towards an end. For example, the rock has the tendency to fall down if you release it from a height. The natural purposes of the rock are related to its form, and in particular relate to how the energy bands of the rock and locations of its atoms are affected under various different external stimuli. As such, the tendency of the rock to break a window after being thrown at it is described by the natural tendencies of rock and glass. It is a pre-existent natural purpose. The same thing can be said for the heart in the context of the body. So there is a sense of purpose which is shared by both the heart pumping blood and the rock breaking the window. Aquinas' fifth way is based on this sort of natural purpose, and argues that even this sort of purpose implies an intelligence to guide the substances. After all, a rock doesn't by itself explain why it has the tendency to fall down. It is, after all (albeit things are considerably more subtle than this in reality) just a bunch of atoms. Today we attribute the rock's falling to the law of gravity. But what is the law of gravity? Something external to the rock that describes how its behaviour is directed. If it is not the rock that makes the rock fall down rather than up, nor the planet (another inanimate object), nor the law which merely describes, so it must be something else, not a material substance, which leaves an immaterial will.

If that is the case, then natural selection cannot be mindless. Things are directed according to their natural purposes. So Stenger is raising a false dichotomy between "mindless" adaptation towards survival and divinely designed purpose. This is partly because he fails to make the distinction between intellectual and natural purpose, and partly because he fails to see the divine hand in natural purposes.

Professor Stenger offers various examples of what he terms as bad design. The idea is that we could improve on the design of human beings if we wanted to, relying on a work by Olshansky, Carnes and Butler. For example, our bones become weaker as we age. The rib cage only extends so far. Our muscles weaken with age. Enlarged prostrates obstruct urine flow.

The problem with this sort of analysis is two-fold. Firstly, it is one thing highlighting problems; quite another in suggesting a feasible improvement that would not cause other problems elsewhere. Like all things in this fallen world, our bodies suffer wear and tear and eventually break down. That is unavoidable due to the second law of thermodynamics. While they do a good job of sustaining and repairing themselves, there is inevitably going to be a limit. Secondly, this is also what we expect from Christianity. There is the presence of the tree of life in both Biblical paradises, that of Genesis and revelation, and the implication that access to it is the key to not decaying. It is when Adam and Eve rebel against God and are driven away from the tree of life that they are denied living forever. Whether one interprets the picture of the tree of life literally or as an allegory for God's direct sustaining action, the message is clear. It is only in the restored relationship with God that we expect our bodies to last. But equally, God's justice and judgement demands that we should expect problems if we are in rebellion from Him. That is to say, that without special divine healing, we should expect our bodies to be designed to not work perfectly, so the curse of Adam can be realised through general providence. The intention is that we are meant to recognise our dependence on God; and to try to live against that purpose -- to set ourselves up as beings who can exist apart from God -- will have consequences. While the redesign that Olshansky, Carnes and Butler suggest might help us, it would not be necessary if our bodies were continually restored through the tree of life.

The problem is that "good design" and "bad design" can only be measured against some pre-defined standard. To the theist, that standard has to arise from the intentions of God. Those intentions might not line up with the expectations of the authors of a scientific or philosophical paper. It is thus very difficult to successfully argue from "bad design" against theism. One has to know with certainty what the mind and intentions of God were, and none of us have that knowledge. Maybe the apparent defect you spot is in reality a crucial part of God's plan.

Stenger approvingly quotes Dawkins that the universe has just the properties that we would expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference. Earth and life look, Stenger claims, just as they would if there were no God. Having argued the opposite conclusion, that there are aspects of the universe which are inconsistent with materialism, I would obviously dispute that claim. Although perhaps the clues are more subtle than Professor Stenger realises. But in any case, the statement is irrelevant to Professor Stenger's project. He needs to show that evolution by natural selection is inconsistent with theism. That the world is not what we would expect were at least one form of theism and one vision of God to be true. He has failed to achieve that.

Conclusion

It is perhaps not surprising that Professor Stenger choose to open with the argument from design. The religion he understands is deism, and this is the "best" argument the deists have against atheism. It is certainly common in a lot of popular religious literature, especially (unfortunately) among the Protestants. I would agree with Professor Stenger that evolution by natural selection is a serious blow against the argument from design and thus deism. Even the possibility that it is true, and it is certainly far stronger than most religious advocates for the argument from design realise, is enough to undermine the case for deism.

But what Professor Stenger fails to realise is that evolution and natural selection are no threat at all to classical theism. They are perfectly compatible with it. Scientific law in theism does not operate independently of God. If we were created through "natural" processes of evolution, then that is just as much God's work as a special intervention would have been. In orthodox Christainity, the primary special intervention by God is when he breathed His Spirit into our ancestor (Genesis 2:7), awakening our rational soul and capacity to be in relation to Him. (In this interpretation, the story of Genesis 2 ought to be interpreted allegorically.) That is not a biological change, and so would not be easily observed scientifically.

But, of course, Professor Stenger disputes that we have a rational soul. That's the topic of the next chapter and the next post.

Reader Comments:

1.
Posted at 00:23:53 Sunday September 27 2020



2. Carlos Vasquez
Posted at 22:17:02 Sunday October 4 2020

General Inquiry

irst of all thank you Dr. Cundy for your excellent works covering this topic. It takes a while for me to digest it to properly grasp what you're saying.

This is somewhat of a personal question, so I hope you're not offended if I ask. I know you're a Christian but I was wondering why you are Anglican rather than Catholic. I pray you come home one day. (I don't mean to sound condescending because that's not my intent). I was also wondering if you've read the works of the late great, St John Henry Newman.

Once again thank you so much for putting your sharp intellect and wealth of experience to use and confronting the unfounded assertions of the secular world.

Kind Regards,

Carlos

Kind Regards,

Carlos

3. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 22:25:50 Monday October 5 2020

Anglicanism and Catholicism

Dear Carlos,

It is not my intention to dwell on interdenominational divisions in this blog. That's not because I regard the theological issues at the heart of those divides as unimportant, but because I view addressing the external opposition that affects our culture (scientism or modernism; postmodernism or critical theory; Islam) as far more important. We need to win those battles together before restarting the wars of the reformation (unless Christ returns first). The differences between orthodox Christians of whatever stripe are miniscule compared to our differences with those world-views.

But since you ask, I am an Anglican because I believe that, out of all the movements that came out of the reformation, both evangelical and Roman, the 39 articles, homilies and Book of Common Prayer most closely reflect the apostolic and Catholic faith of the early Church. [The one place where I perhaps differ from the Anglican reformers is with regards to the Sacraments; I read the 39 articles as being neutral between the Lutheran and Calvinistic views, while the BCP tends towards Calvin, while I myself tend towards the slightly higher theology of Luther, on this particular issue.] In particular, based on my reading of scripture and the earliest Church Fathers (not just my own private reading, of course, but taking into account the secondary sources which which appear to be most faithful to the raw data), I regard the Roman Church as having departed from the Catholic faith in various ways (the usual areas of disagreement; I don't intend to go into details and stir up debate and division here). At the same time, I would regard the more extreme protestants, Baptists and so on, to have departed from the apostolic faith in other ways, most importantly with regards to their symbolic Zwinglian view of the sacraments.

Of course, given the current state of the Church of England, and in particular its feeble House of Bishops, I am not a particularly content member of it. But that's also a discussion for another time.

I haven't read any of Cardinal Newman's works, but I am obviously aware of him and has basic position.

5. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 00:17:28 Sunday October 11 2020

Criticism of Feser - Ask Philosophy.

Thanks for posting those links. I can't respond in depth since I have little time, but I will mention a few things. I should add first of all that while I respect Professor Feser, and agree with him on most things, I don't have perfect agreement with him on everything. So I can only answer for myself rather than for him.

The Ask Philosophy discussion was considerably better than the reddit one, so I will start there (although there was some overlap). I will list a few of the objections that struck me as I read it, but not everything.

  1. Professor Feser is too Polemical and argumentative. Professor Feser has defended himself from this charge in a few places (such as http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/01/walters-on-tls.html), and his defence is basically is that he is only responding in kind. To those people who are rude to him (or Roman Catholics in general), he is rude back. To those who are more respectful, he adopts a more respectful tone. And certainly his major works such as Scholastic Metaphysics and Aristotle's Revenge are respectful to his opponents. I'm not fully convinced of Feser's defence though. As Christians we ought to hold ourselves to a better standard than our opponents. "For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. ... Yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame." Feser's tone has put some people off and obscured his message, such as the originator of that thread.
  2. "I think a lot of philosophers, though they might not admit this publicly, basically think that the doctrines of Thomism are really only appealing to theists." Yes; since the doctrines of Thomism imply theism. Thus most people who generally find them appealing would convert to theism. Those who don't may or may not be theists, though for the most part aren't. This isn't an argument against the ideas, but an explanation of why they aren't engaged with them. If Professor Feser's views are correct, then that lack of engagement is a mistake, even if a well-intentioned one.

  3. There is then a discussion of whether Aquinas faithfully represented Aristotle, or mixed in aspects of Plato and Christianity. I don't think this can be used as a criticism of Professor Feser. I think it is generally acknowledged that Aquinas' views were a synthesis between Aristotle and the (neo-Platonist Christian) Augustine. This doesn't invalidate or validate whether Aquinas (or Professor Feser's interpretation of Aquinas) is correct.

  4. Why is Thomism and the Scholastics generally ignored today?

    1. Anglo-American philosophers aren't interested in history.
    2. Atheist philosophers regard him as too theological.
    3. The medieval world is very different from our own, since modern science didn't exist.
    4. "Only a theist would believe that"
    5. There isn't enough time to study everything. Understanding Aquinas takes a lot of study and effort, and he is not very intuitive to the one well versed in modern philosophy. Most people would rather devote what time they have to something which they think would be more productive for them.

    Points 1,2 and 4 are somewhat irrelevant to the question of whether Thomism is correct or not.

    Point 5 I sympathise with, greatly. I don't have time to study everything, especially since I am not a professional philosopher. For example, I have never studied Wittgenstein beyond what is written in introductory books to philosophy, even though he is regarded as one of the major figures of twentieth century philosophy. That's not because I don't want to, but because based on what little I know of his work, I rank it as a low priority. My own interest in philosophy was a spin-off of my reading of the Church Fathers, which naturally led me first to Plato, Aristotle, and the Medieval tradition. When I (later) came to early modern and contemporary philosophy, it seemed to me to be alien and have poor argumentation. So I can quite understand why someone trained in contemporary philosophy might view things in the opposite way. But there is also the view that you shouldn't criticize an author or world-view that you haven't properly read or understood. What this amounts to is just prejudice. An understandable prejudice, but still prejudice.

    Point 3 is, of course, the focus of my own work. My argument is that Aristotle's general approach (with some modification) provides a good basis for a philosophy of contemporary physics. The difficulties mentioned by the poster arose when early modern physics clashed with classical philosophy; there have been several revolutions in physics since then and there is no reason to think that those objections still stand (and, I think, they weren't as good as their advocates think they were in the first place).

  5. Now, it is conceivable that there is an argument in Aquinas that has never filtered out into the common discourse on religion. But I am under no epistemological burden to search out such arguments. The problem is not that Aquinas' arguments are unknown, but that they are not understood. Most philosophers are given a rough overview of the five ways, standard arguments against them, and left it at that. But there is a lot of context and details that are missing. Edward Feser was the same. He stated in one post (http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2012/07/road-from-atheism.html) that it was only when he had to teach it that he started to appreciate the strength of the Aristotelian position, and the weakness of the standard arguments against it. For someone who has never had that experience, they might not realise how the opposition arguments miss the point of Aristotle's philosophy.

  6. He hasn't responded adequately against Kant's objections to the Cosmological argument. I'm not sure how Professor Feser would reply to this one (albeit probably better than I can). I see that there are a few paragraphs on Kant's objection in his Aquinas, where he discusses Kant's questioning of whether the principle of causality applies beyond the world available to the senses. Professor Feser's response is basically that this objection relies too much on Kant's problematic epistemology. I am not sure whether he has presented a longer defence against Kant's objection elsewhere. If this is the only response he makes to it, then I can see why he might be thought to have given it less attention than it deserves, given how influential Kant's work has been. There is also more to Kant's response than just this single objection. But my own feeling has always been, since I first tried to understand Kant's argument, that the German philosopher doesn't really address the Aristotelian version of the Cosmological argument. Professor Feser is quite correct in saying that Kant's objection is too dependent on his own philosophy, which an Aristotelian would reject on numerous grounds,to be of much use as a response to Aquinas' arguments, which are based on a very different philosophy. I expanded this point in more detail in my book. So while the point that Professor Feser should have written more in response to Kant might be valid, that doesn't mean that Kant's objections defeat Feser's restatement of the medieval cosmological argument. But it would be interesting to see Professor Feser take up this challenge somewhere (or maybe he already has) since I am sure that he would do a much better job of responding to Kant's objections than I can.

  7. There is also an interesting historical discussion about how faithful Aquinas was to Aristotle, how well received he was in his own time, and so on. The most relevant objection to Professor Feser's work that I can see here is the discussion about whether the denial of formal and final causality was the key mistake made by Descartes and his followers. The discussion seems to focus on saying that historically there was sharp cal division between the scholastics who accepted formal and final causality and the early moderns who denied it. Instead there was a more gradual shift through people such as Ockham. The objection seems to be that Professor Feser in pitting the scholastics against the early Moderns offers to simplistic a view of the history of philosophy. And this would probably be valid, if Professor Feser was discussing the history of philosophy. But he is not. He is interested in asking which world-view is true: some variant of Thomism, or some more contemporary philosophy based on the early moderns. And there is this clear division between them based on causality. Even if the historical division wasn't sharp, and there were intermediate steps in the late Medieval and Renaissance philosophers, nobody today really follows those schools. They either collapsed back into a more classic Aristotelian philosophy, or progressed onwards to Mechanism, Empiricism, Idealism, and the philosophies descended from them. I don't see any great schools today advocating for a revival of Renaissance philosophy. That suggests to me that the intermediate steps in the historical process weren't coherent, and ultimately would collapse one way or the other. So even if Professor Feser is guilty of oversimplifying, that doesn't mean that his overall point that the abandonment of formal and final causality was the great philosophical mistake that lead to the errors of Descartes, Hume, Kant, and their successors is wrong. Equally, I don't think that Professor Feser has ever denied that Aquinas wasn't controversial in his own day. The question is not whether or not he was controversial, but whether or not his ideas are useful in pointing us to the truth. (I don't think that either Feser or myself would say that Aquinas was right about everything. But we would say that his underlying principles were correct, even if some of the details, particularly in his science, need to be updated.)

So, that's all I can write for now. I'll have to leave the reddit threat to another day and another comment. As I said, I did appreciate this discussion. I thought it was respectful, and generally well informed. It raised some interesting points, particular in the discussion of the history of philosophy. I just don't think that it offered any real objections to Professor Feser's writings. It just didn't really discuss the details of his arguments, nor his premises, and thus can't really be thought of as a strong criticism.

6. Gabriel
Posted at 01:13:21 Wednesday October 14 2020

Thanks

Hi doctor! Before I knew Quantum Thomism I was already adopting some concepts of it, while studying science and philosophy. But then I've met your blog, and... you know! It's just an amazing work you've been doing (can't wait to buy your book), and I'm very proud to say that I can try to spread some concepts of Quantum Thomism here I'm my country (Brazil). Thanks for the articles and for the analysis. Not only because of the Theological parts, but also Quantum concepts, which I'm a self-taught student.

7. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 23:10:12 Thursday October 15 2020

Criticism of Feser - True Atheism

So now I've got a bit of time, so I will take a look at the second of those two links, the true Atheism post. One again, I can't speak for Professor Feser, who I am sure will be able to defend himself far more eloquently than I can, and might not agree with everything I write.

I found the discussion in this post far less informed than on the ask Philosophy site. I'm not going to be able to answer everything, but I will select a few points to highlight. There is a discussion, and also a few links, to videos and articles.

  1. I think Mr. Feser is dangerous because he is mainly targeting young secular people who are not even half-familiar with popular atheists like Dawkins or Harris. Not a good start, if the author thinks that the likes of Dawkins and Harris are good rivals to Professor Feser. He later mentions Graham Oppy, who certainly is someone to respect. But the "New Atheists" such as Dawkins and Harris are renowned for not understanding the position they are attacking, and are not good examples to follow. For example, Dawkins is over-reliant on the "Who Created God?" question, which entirely misses the point of the Cosmological argument, where God is defined as that being which could not, by His nature, be created (and from that definition one deduces the usual divine attributes).

  2. Even William Lane Craig or Alvin Plantinga or Richard Swinburne are regarded by Feser as second-rate philosophers when it comes to discussing the existence of God. I'm not sure (though I could be mistaken) that Professor Feser has ever regarded those three as being second rate. He disagrees with them, certainly. Feser is a classical theist. Craig, Plantinga and Swinburne are what is sometimes called divine personalists. That means that they have different conceptions of God, and obviously different arguments leading to them. Feser believes that Aquinas' arguments (and the others that he uses) are stronger than the Kalaam argument that Craig prefers. I personally agree with Professor Feser here (not that the Kalaam argument is a bad argument as such, but the simple form that Craig most often presents needs more fleshing out -- Premise 1) Everything that begins to exist needs a cause. Premise 2) The universe began to exist. The issue I have is that the "universe" is in a different category to the things described in premise 1. Thus you need to do a bit more work before you can draw the conclusion.) Feser's arguments, on the other hand, have the disadvantage that they are reliant on his Metaphysics. I don't think that is a problem with his arguments, as I believe that his Metaphysics is broadly correct, but it does make it harder to present them, as you have to spend a few hours explaining the metaphysics before you can get onto the proofs for God. I don't think that Professor Feser has ever denied this. I certainly don't think that Craig, Plantinga or Swinburne are second rate apologists or philosophers. I have learnt a lot from them. I just think that Feser's presentation is a bit more rigorous. I'm sure that those three would disagree.

  3. Coupled with this, and also elsewhere in the post, is the implication that Professor Feser comes across as a bit too arrogant and a bit too certain of his ideas. I can sympathise a bit with this criticism. However, his tone does depend on who he is responding to. Against the New Atheists and the like, Feser's apparent arrogance is, I think, a reflection of that he does know far more about philosophical theology than his opponents do. However, in his more academic writing, Professor Feser does look at criticisms of his position, and address them, and acknowledge potential weaknesses. So it depends on which Feser you are talking about. The popular Feser can seem arrogant and too dismissive of his opponents -- and that is a weakness in his presentation (especially since you can't address every apparent weakness of an argument in a single blog post). The academic Feser is more measured. Of course, any appearance of arrogance is in part because Professor Feser is confident in his conclusions, which is good (if he is right).

  4. There is a discussion of Ben Schapiro, which isn't really relevant to Professor Feser.

  5. Thomists' words no longer belong to our language stock, and Feser wants to impose his language on us. I agree that there is a language issue between Thomism and Mechanists and other modern schools of philosophy, although perhaps disagree what the problem is. The issue is that the meaning of words have changed. When a Thomist says something like "Motion" or "cause" they mean something different or less general than when a modern philosopher uses those words. So when (for example), someone today reads the words "motion", "mover" or "God" in Aquinas' first way, they come away with a different impression than what was originally meant. So they misunderstand the argument. Then there are words like "act" and "potency" and "essence" which are unfamiliar to modern discourse. The problem then comes that there are no good modern English words that describe those concepts. Everything in Thomism is tightly defined. So a large part of Professor Feser's arguments are taken up in explaining what precisely he means by those terms. And this can, to those used to ascribing different meanings to those words, seem like he is imposing his language upon them.

    But this isn't a flaw in Professor Feser's work. A philosopher ought to be allowed to define his terms as he sees fit. There are then only two questions: 1) is he consistent in his usage, and 2) are those definitions useful, in that do they apply to the real world? After that, you can judge the philosopher's arguments in his own terms.

    Of course, having different philosophers using different definitions of key terms makes communication between different schools of thought difficult. But that isn't the fault of any one of those schools -- it's just something we have to put up with. After all, some people might think that Professor Feser is trying to impose his definition of cause on them, but Professor Feser might respond to his critics by saying that they shouldn't try to impose their own language on him. After all, the scholastics were here first, and it is the modern world that has deviated from the original definitions. In practice, we need to adopt a philosopher's own definitions when discussing their work. So when discussion Professor Feser's work, we should (as much as possible) use his language. In this sense, Professor Feser is right to "impose" his own language on the discussion.

  6. I like that Professor Feser is viewed as "dangerous." That doesn't mean that he is on the wrong side.

  7. Classical theism is all about confusing both the reader and writer with drawn out arguments and convoluted logic, so the errors of the arguments are harder to spot and untangle. So now presenting logical arguments which are difficult to critique is a bad thing?

  8. He doesn't respond well to criticism, and takes it too personally. Yes, I get this vibe as well sometimes. It doesn't, of course, mean that Professor Feser's views are wrong, but it can be off-putting to the reader.

  9. I don't think you'll be able to find a single response of his to critics where he doesn't accuse the critic of knowing nothing about classical theism. I think that is an exaggeration, but there is an element of truth about it. Because much of the time the critics don't know anything about classical theism. And the writer of this comment makes this point. It is something which needs to be learnt. But this is what the atheist has to do, if they are to be true to their creed. The atheist ought to be convinced that there is no reliable evidence for God. That means understanding the different presentations of God (including the responses to the standard counter-arguments), and refuting them. To refute them, you need to first understand them. You ought not just say "I haven't seen any reliable evidence that Boris Johnson is Prime Minister, so therefore he isn't Prime Minister," when you have ignored or dismissed all the most compelling evidence.

  10. Classical theist arguments can be disproved very simply, without much expertise. OK, let's see you try. Indeed, Richard Dawkins summed up the refutation of Aquinas' arguments in less than a page in The God Delusion. Not a good start; Professor Dawkins discussion of the five ways is usually cited as the chief evidence that (on these matters) he doesn't have a clue what he is talking about. If God doesn't require a cause/explanation/something to depend on, then neither does the universe. The cosmological argument links one individual being with another. Every member of the chain of causes is an individual being, including the first cause. The universe is not an individual being. Therefore the universe cannot be the first cause. Of course, I'm all too aware that the classical theist would have responses to that, usually about how the universe isn't pure act, or non-contingent. To which I would ask the classical theist how the only way something can exist uncaused/without explanation/independent is to be pure act or non-contingent. The lack of substantial answers will reveal who really doesn't understand classical theist arguments. This is the whole point of the "What caused God" argument. Unless the first cause is by nature fully self-reliant, not being possible for it to have a cause, then stopping the chain there is entirely arbitrary. If something can be caused, then, taking that to infinity, it would be caused. If it is fully self-reliant, then nothing can act upon it, not be ontologically prior to it. Since the parts are ontologically prior to the whole, it cannot be composed of parts, and must be simple. Since for it to change implies whatever state it changes to would have a cause, it must be immutable. That implies that it is eternal and timeless, and a similar argument also shows that it is not in space. Since everything material is in time and space, or capable of change or coming into or out of existence, then it must be immaterial. And so on. I don't need to go further, since I have already done enough to show that the first cause can't be the universe. Obviously this is only a sketch of the argument. I have defended the full response in depth elsewhere, and Professor Feser has put it more eloquently than I himself. And whenever a classical theist has presented the cosmological argument (except, perhaps, in debates where they don't have time to go into all the details), they have gone on to prove the divine attributes as a consequence of it. I have no objection to an atheist who takes one of those works and responds to the arguments. But someone who claims that those arguments don't exist is just showing their ignorance.

  11. He has based his whole career on using philosophy to prove the existence of God. When you're that far in, admitting you're wrong is simply not an option. Professor Feser did admit that he was wrong. The early part of his career was spent persuading his students that the Cosmological argument was rubbish. It was only his honesty -- in trying to present the argument fairly -- that he realised that the objections he was raising against it (based on the standard objections) weren't good enough, and when he ran out of objections he converted. I'm sure that if somebody presented a fool-proof objection to his arguments, he would be happy to convert back, if not to atheism then to agnosticism. But, like me, he hasn't seen that objection. There are plenty of atheistic arguments which superficially look powerful, but collapse under detailed scrutiny; and the weakness of the atheist case only confirms us theists in our faith.

  12. I discussed Professor Feser's tone above.

  13. While a proof in mathematics might originally be long, terse and barely comprehensible, if a simple and concise proof is later found it is considered elegant or beautiful. The opposite seems to happen in theist arguments: take a simple idea and inject it with as much convoluted jargon as possible so that only those highly trained in the field can adequately understand the argument.

    This is actually an interesting comparison. But I would question the analogy. Most mathematical proofs are unintelligible to the uninitiated. I know several proofs of Pythagoras' theorem; the simplest takes about 3 lines of algebra. But it is built on a bunch of prior mathematical knowledge. School level mathematics, but still around 8 or 9 years of study in school (albeit only an hour or so each week, and if I were in charge of the curricula you would encounter vector algebra somewhat sooner). But if you had no training in mathematics whatsoever, then it would be a complete mystery. I would have to spend several pages just outlining the concepts, and even then the mathematical novice probably wouldn't understand it. But this is just the situation we have when we come to classical philosophy. People generally receive no education at all in classical philosophy. Presenting the cosmological argument is thus like trying to explain the scalar product to someone who barely knows how to count up to three. You don't need 4 PhDs to appreciate the classical cosmological argument. But you do need some education in the relevant field to do so, and in that classical theism is no different from anything else. Once you have that understanding, then Aquinas' first way is as beautiful and simple as the proof of Pythagoras' theorem.

So that is a rough overview of the comments on the threads. There were also numerous article's posted. I won't be able to respond to them all, and I can't discuss any now because I have spent long enough on this comment. The ones I have read are generally much better than the discussion. But I will try to say something on them when I get time.

8. Karl
Posted at 00:44:56 Tuesday October 20 2020

Discussion of Natural Law and Ethics/Moral Realism

Thank you for all your work Dr. Cundy.

I was wondering if you've considered writing on the topic of Natural Law or more generally Moral Realism; and the accessibility of moral truths through reason.

Many Thanks

9. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 18:21:56 Tuesday October 20 2020

Moral Realism

I have a chapter on the Natural Law in my book. I will probably discuss it again (a bit) in this series when I get to Professor Stenger's discussion of the problem of evil.



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