God Does Not Exist: Scientific Arguments

science and god

A few years ago I made a lengthy post on the philosophical arguments against the existence of God. I stated that it was the first in a series. This one is the second in that series. Here I will go through the scientific arguments for why I do not believe in the existence of God. Just like with my philosophical arguments, this will end up being a fairly long post and one which I will revise and add to periodically. As such, what you see may not be the final version of this post.

Updated 5/21/2023


Science has not and can not disprove the existence of God. What science is able to do is offer much better mechanisms and explanations for specific phenomena once thought to only be possible by the will of God. Science has not given us a complete picture of our universe, but it leaves less and less for the so-called God of the gaps arguments to occupy. In other words, science offers mechanisms for which the exclusion of God from the mechanism does not lose any explanatory power; keeping God in is an overdetermination. Or in yet another way, once we have concluded that God does not exist for reasons outside of science (i.e. philosophical arguments), then when someone asks “oh yeah? Well then how do you explain this, that, and the other thing?” there are mechanisms that we can point to.

The quintessential example of a phenomenon once thought to be within the sole purview of God comes from William Paley’s watchmaker analogy: when we encounter a watch, with all its irreducible complexity, we immediately infer the existence of a designer. The theory of evolution by natural selection, however, offered an alternative mechanism and explanation for how irreducible complexity is not irreducible but simply irreversible (the so-called Mullerian Two-Step).

This obviously does not disprove the existence of God. It is not a defeater of the God hypothesis. But what, then, is a defeater? What is the nature of a defeater? I will use the definitions found in Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies. There are two types of defeaters, one of which can be further broken down into two subtypes. Plantinga says that the first split is between rationality defeaters and warrant defeaters. Rationality defeaters can then be broken down into rebutting defeaters and undercutting defeaters.

Rationality defeaters are defeaters such that, when a belief has been defeated, you know it has been defeated. Rebutting defeaters are rationality defeaters where you are certain that something is wrong. If you are told that there are no such thing as black swans, you come to believe that there are no such thing as black swans; upon finding a black swan, this belief (that there are no such thing as black swans) has been rebutted and defeated. If you think the person you are looking at is Mary-Kate, but then someone tells you that she has a twin sister Ashley who looks just like her, then your belief (that the person you are looking at is Mary-Kate) has been undercut; you don’t know that you are wrong, but you now know that (until further information is obtained) you have no reason to continue believing that who you are looking at is in fact Mary-Kate.

Warrant defeaters are when you may believe something that also just so happens to be true but you are not warranted in saying that you know it to be true. When you believe something that also just so happens to be true, we wouldn’t call it knowledge unless there is something that warrants you in saying that it is knowledge. Thus, if you look at a clock that shows that it is 6:00 am and it also just so happens to be 6:00 am, then what warrants you in believing this? If the clock is known to function properly, it has been set to the right time, and you can confirm by looking at another clock, these are all things that would warrant you in believing that it is 6:00 am (for instance, we wouldn’t say you are warranted in believing it is 6:00 am just because if it were actually 7:00 am then you would be late for work; we are warranted in a belief just because we want it to be true or because its truth would make for a better outcome for myself). But, if the clock shows that it is 6:00 am, I believe it is 6:00 am, but the clock has stopped and it is just a coincidence that it also just so happens to actually be 6:00 am, then I am not warranted in saying that I have knowledge that it is 6:00 am – my warrant in this belief has been defeated.

Plantinga argues that science does not supply rationality defeaters for a belief in God. There is nothing in science that could make you think that your belief in God must be wrong, like finding a black swan making you think your belief that there are no such thing as black swans must be wrong. On this point I agree with him. But Plantinga also argues that nothing in science supplies an underctutting defeater for God. When confronted with some scientific finding, one could always just say “yeah, but God could have been behind that phenomenon.”

For instance, when it comes to complexity being explained by evolution, one could easily say that God still exists but perhaps in this instance was not required for the emergence of complexity, or that God brought complexity about by means of evolution by natural selection. But this is ad hoc. It would be like seeing Mary-Kate, then being told she has an identical twin Ashley, and saying “yeah, but God specifically made it so that who I’m seeing right now is Mary-Kate, therefore the information that her identical twin Ashley exists does not undercut my belief that who I’m looking at is Mary-Kate.”

Evolution, in this instance, also functions as a warrant defeater. Observing all the evidence for evolution and then saying “it might still have been God” could be true, but none of the available scientific evidence for evolution gives us any warrant to believe this. We could propose a functionally infinite number of things that could be behind it. But the available scientific evidence does not warrant us in believing this.

One can see, in light of this, that through scientific advancement, God’s role in the world and our everyday lives will be reduced and pushed further back. Through this process, although we cannot disprove God’s existence, we could eventually relegate Him to the deistic role, where He remains remote and disinterested.

Plantinga argues that what warrants a Christian, for instance, in believing that God is behind it is because the Christian is working for a larger “evidence base” than the naturalist/atheist. To the Christian (or religious people in general) the evidence base does not include just the physical world in which science is interested, but also things like scripture and religious experience. This, however, is very ad hoc, because anyone could just define the things they want into their evidence base. Or, when faced with a defeater, to just expand or contract the evidence base (i.e. move the goal posts) as it suits you, like what often happens among conspiracy theorists.

An instance that comes to mind is in the Netflix documentary Behind the Curve about flat-earthers. One of the flat-earthers, Bob Knodel, performs an experiment with a gyroscope to test whether the earth is rotating and obtained results that showed not only that earth was rotating, but was rotating at precisely the rate that is measured for our spherical earth. Unwilling to part with the cherished belief, Knodel proposes that heavenly rays might be coming down from the firmament and interfering with his instrument. In other words, he increased his evidence base to include these mysterious heavenly rays.

In this post I am going to show some of the major ways in which God’s role has been reduced and pushed back. While science cannot act as a rebutting defeater, it acts as both an undercutting defeater and a warrant defeater of God as a scientific hypothesis. As a result, we are warranted in dismissing particular claims about God (such as in the Abrahamic religions, and likely others). My focus, due to the popularity of the Abrahamic religions, and my own familiarity with them, will be on the Abrahamic conceptions of God: that God is the creator of our universe, that God takes personal interest in His creation, that God forms a personal relationship with the inhabitants of His creation, that God is who dictated morality, and so on.

God as Creator

Paul Draper has argued that the probability that all current forms of life on earth emerged from evolution given that there is no God (what Alvin Plantinga calls naturalism) is greater than the probability that all current forms of life on earth emerged from evolution given that there is a God (theism). This can be put thus:

P(E|N) > P(E|T)
(read “probability of E given N is true is greater than probability of E given T is true”)
If and only if
P(~S|N) x P(E|~S&N) > P(~S|T) x P(E|~S&T)

Where E = evolution, N = naturalism, T = theism, S = the proposition “some relatively complex living things did not descend from one-celled organisms but rather were independently created by a supernatural person”.

This is true, Draper argues, since

P(~S|N) >> P(~S|T)


P(E|~S&N) ≥ P(E|~S&T)

Plantinga, in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies, says that this is is incorrect because there are other probabilities that favor theism, such as:

P(L|N) < P(L|T)
P(M|N) < P(M|T)
P(I|N) < P(I|T)
P(W|N) < P(W|T)

Where L = that life exists at all, M = that there are moral creatures, I = that there are intelligent beings, and W = that there are creatures who worship God. This sidesteps the issue at hand, however, which is attempting to show that evolution is true, since evolution could explain all of these other things – the existence of life, morality, intelligence, and worshiping deities. What Plantinga should have said instead was:

P(L|E&N) = P(L|E&~T) < P(L|E&T)
P(M|E&N) = P(M|E&~T) < P(M|E&T)
P(I|E&N) = P(I|E&~T) < P(I|E&T)
P(W|E&N) = P(W|E&~T) < P(W|E&T)

Evolution explains these things, whether there is a God or not. What is at hand is whether we ought to accept God as a necessary component of the mechanism (or even the only component), that has given rise to life, morality, intelligence, and religious behavior. God, as is normally understood, would be a sufficient explanation for the emergence of life. But what naturalism argues is that non-theistic explanations are also sufficient and that God is not necessary, which warrants us in dismissing God as a part (or the whole) of the mechanism giving rise to life within our universe.

Essentially what this is saying is that (where C = the complexity of our world, E = Evolution (unguided), and T = Theism):

P(C|E) > P(C|T)
Because when we apply Occam’s Razor we get
P(C|E) = P(C|E&T)

When God is invoked as the creator of existence and of the complexity within existence, this is usually defended with three arguments: 1) the fine-tuning argument; 2) the watchmaker analogy; and 3) the cosmological argument. I will go through these three arguments and show A) why God is not necessary to explain the fine-tuning, the complexity, and the existence of our universe and B) why there are plausible mechanisms that do not require God in order to be sufficient explanations for the fine-tuning, complexity, and existence of our universe. Given that God is not necessary and that other non-theistic mechanisms are sufficient, we are not guaranteed that God was not involved, but we are warranted in dismissing God as a mechanism or explanation for these phenomena.

Fine-Tuning Argument

The fine-tuning argument is, to my mind, probably the best argument in favor of theism. I don’t think it is successful, but as far as I know it is the only one that does not have a definitive defeater, only better  reasons to doubt it than to accept it.

The fine-tuning argument usually goes like this: all the physical constants (masses and charges of fundamental particles; fine structure constant; gravitational constant; speed of light; Planck constant; strengths of the fundamental forces, and so on) in our universe fall into exceedingly narrow ranges necessary for life, like humans, to emerge and sustain. These exceedingly narrow ranges that all of the constants fall into are in fact so narrow that if any one of them was off by just a small amount (e.g. the fine structure constant being off by just ±4%), then all the phenomena we observe, including life itself, would be impossible. Therefore, there must have been an intelligence with enough cleverness to know what combination of values all these constants must take to be able to do this fine-tuning in such a way that it allows for the emergence and sustaining of life.

This argument makes the assumption that all the physical constants are independent degrees of freedom. That each physical constant has its own knob that can be turned without affecting any of the other constants. We don’t know that this is true, yet we also don’t know that it’s false, but it is an assumption within this argument. It could plausibly be the case that there is a basis set of physical constants that determine all the other ones, perhaps one whose values are determined by logical possibility. This basis set might even be only one of the constants. It’s also plausible that each of the constants acts as an attractor to all the other ones, causing them to necessarily settle on some set of values (think of the temperature dependence of the fine structure constant). But, for the sake of argument, I will accept the assumption that every physical constant is an independent degree of freedom for which changes in value are logically possible and every value is equally probable (assuming that this is even makes sense).

The main response to the fine-tuning argument are the strong and the weak anthropic principles, both of which essentially say that out universe has an observer selection bias: only in universes that can support life will lifeforms find themselves, therefore only in universes capable of sustaining observers will any observers find themselves. The anthropic principles don’t say that universe(s) capable of sustaining life must exist, only that such universe(s) are where we must find ourselves.

The strong anthropic principle, most generally, says that there is some mechanism that makes observers possible. This is often formulated in terms of a multiverse. Thus, the strong anthropic principle can be stated in many possible ways, but two such formulations are:

A) there is a multiverse in which an extremely large (possibly infinite) number of universes with varying physical constants come into being. Given this extremely large number (possibly infinity), it is (at least functionally) inevitable that a subset of them will have combinations of physical constants that allow for lifeforms capable of comprehending their own universe.

B) within our own universe, given a sufficient (possibly infinite) amount of time and therefore a sufficient (possibly infinite) number of (inflationary) big bangs, lifeforms would (have a very high probability to) emerge.

This strong version of the anthropic principle is called strong because it makes a strong claim: that multiverses and/or sufficiently large (possibly infinite) numbers of big bangs occurring are real (or more generally that there is some mechanism that makes a universe such as ours more probable or even inevitable). The weak anthropic principle does not assert such strong claims. It merely says that any universe in which lifeforms like us humans find ourselves is necessarily a universe that can give rise to lifeforms like humans. If the universe were not so, then we would not be here to wonder why our universe has those potential physical constants rather than the ones that actually obtain. Thus, the universe appears fine-tuned because it just so happened that the universe had the right combination of physical constants that allowed lifeforms like humans to emerge.

There is more nuance, primarily in the debate between the self-sampling assumption and the self-indication assumption, which can be stated thus:

Self Selection Assumption (SSA): All other things equal, an observer should reason as if they are randomly selected from the set of all actually existent observers (past, present and future) in their reference class.
Self Indication Assumption (SIA): All other things equal, an observer should reason as if they are randomly selected from the set of all possible observers.

For our purposes, we can take the anthropic principles at face value without going down the rabbit hole of which of these two formulations are correct.

But what does science say about all this? The weak anthropic principle is not a testable hypothesis and so is more of a philosophical rather than scientific argument. Thus, I will not cover it in great detail here. I talk about it more in my post on philosophical arguments against God.

The strong anthropic principle is a scientific claim. It is, perhaps, infeasible to test, given our limitations, but it is not, in principle, impossible to test. All we know is that the multiverse is consistent with what we know about our own universe. The multiverse, or something like it, offers a plausible mechanism for how the fine-tuned universe came to be the way that it is: a sort of cosmological natural selection.

God, as a scientific hypothesis, is also a strong claim (or rather a conjunction of claims): that God exists, that God has at least enough power and freedom to create the universe, and that God is intelligent enough to know which values the physical constants need to take in order for human life as we know it to exist. Thus, we can think of God and the multiverse as two competing strong claims as explanations for why our universe appears fine-tuned.

The question then naturally arises: what warrants us to accept the strong claim offered by the multiverse or cosmological evolution over the strong claims offered by a fine-tuning creator deity?

Richard Swinburne lays out in his 2010 paper “God as the Simplest Explanation of the Universe” what is needed to assess which one is a more probable hypothesis:

I suggest that an explanatory hypothesis (or theory) is rendered probably true (or likely to be true) by data (evidence) insofar as (1) the occurrence of the evidence is probable if the hypothesis is true and improbable if the hypothesis is false, (2)the hypothesis ‘fits in’ with any ‘background evidence’(that is, it meshes with other hypotheses outside its range which are rendered probable by their evidence in virtue of the other criteria) , (3) the hypothesis is simple, and (4) the hypothesis has small scope.6 The scope (or content) of a theory, as I shall understand it, is a matter of how much it purports to tell us about the world, in the extent (the range) and precision (its detailed claims about phenomena within that range) of its claims. (3) and (4) are features internal to a hypothesis, independent of its relation to evidence and so determine its prior probability (probability prior to considering the evidence). While the more the hypothesis claims, the more likely it is to be false (which is what the criterion of scope says), simplicity carries more weight than scope; scientists consider some theory of enormous scope (concerned with the whole universe, and making detailed claims about it) probable if has a relatively simple set of laws. There may be no relevant background evidence, and then criterion (2) drops out. One case of this is when a hypothesis has very large range (purports to explain a vast amount) and so there is little if any evidence about fields beyond its range. Among large scale theories of equal scope (equal range and making equally detailed claims), such as theism and rival accounts of why there is a universe of our kind, relative probability depends on criteria (1) and (3) alone; and so in the case of theories leading us to expect the evidence with the same probability (that is, satisfying criterion (1) equally well), on criterion (3) alone. Let me give you two examples – one of each kind of explanation – illustrating how, among theories satisfying the other criteria equally well, the simplest theory (simplest in an intuitive sense yet to be analysed more precisely) is the one most probably true.

In his 2012 paper “Bayes, God, and the Multiverse” he puts it a little differently:

A hypothesis h purporting to provide a causal explanation of evidence e is, I suggest, for background evidence k, probable insofar as:

1. If h, then given k, probably e;
2. If ~h, then given k, probably ~e
3. h is a simple hypothesis
4. h ‘fits with’ with k.
5. h has small scope

By ‘background evidence’ I mean evidence about how things behave in areas outside the range that h purports to explain. I claim that these criteria apply whether h is an explanation of an inanimate (or scientific) kind in terms of initial conditions and laws of nature, or one of a personal kind in terms of persons, their powers, beliefs, and purposes. I assume that it is irrelevant to the evidential force of e whether e is known before or after the formulation of h; and so I shall use ‘predict’ in the sense that insofar as h makes e (for given k) probably true, h ‘predicts’ e with that degree of probability. So understood, (1) is simply the criterion that a hypothesis is more probable, the more probable it makes its observed predictions (the more probable, the more of them and the more accurate they are). (2) is simply the criterion that h is more probable if rival hypotheses of any significant probability (on criteria other than (2)) predict not-e. If k is itself a causal hypothesis about other fields, then h ‘fits with’ k insofar as (h & k) is simpler than any (h* & k), where h* is a rival to h in explaining e. In such a case, I shall say that h ‘meshes with’ k. If k are pieces of evidence of the same level of generality as e, then h ‘fits with’ k insofar as k makes a theory t more probable than any other theory of its field and (h & t) is simpler than any (h* & t) where h* is a rival of the above kind. So (4) claims that a hypothesis purporting to explain evidence in a named field (e.g. about whether John committed a particular crime) is more probably true insofar as it fits (in either of these ways) with other things we know – e.g. whether John has committed other such crimes in the past. But the larger the field covered by the hypothesis, the less is the role for (4). A large-scale theory of physics purports to explain so much that there is little else for it to fit ‘with’. The ‘scope’ of h is greater, as I shall understand this notion, the more and the more precise are its predictions (true or false, observed or unobserved). The more predictions a hypothesis makes and the more precise they are, the greater the probability that the hypothesis contains some error. I suggest that the practice of science shows that scientists give (5) less weight than the other criteria, since they regard large-scale theories which make predictions about a large field and which satisfy the other criteria well as very probably true.

Essentially what is needed is simplicity. The hypotheses – the multiverse or God – since they cover a large range of phenomena (indeed all the phenomena) means we can’t really make precise predictions and therefore must judge the hypotheses based on their relative simplicity.

Sean Carroll, in a 2013 lecture, describes the issue in a Bayesian framework. Essentially we have:

P(M|D) = P(D|M)P(M)/P(D)
P(G|D) = P(D|G)P(G)/P(D)

Where M = multiverse, G = fine-turning creator God, and D = data (our observations about how the universe actually is). So what we want to know is the probability that we would obtain the data that we do given that the multiverse is the case P(D|M) and the probability that the multiverse is the case P(M); or the probability that we would obtain the data that we do given that the existence of a fine-tuning creator God is the case P(D|G) and the probability that the existence of a fine-tuning creator God is the case P(M). From this we can find the probability that the multiverse is the case given the data we obtain P(M|D) or the probability that a fine-turning creator God existing is the case given the data we obtain P(G|D).

Since a larger conjunction of things is less probable than a smaller conjunction, we can judge the likelihood of the multiverse relative to the likelihood of God as an explanation for how our universe actually is based on the simplicity of these hypotheses. What do I mean by simplicity?

As an analogy, consider the probability of a person both attending a demonstration for women’s rights given that they are a woman and a bank teller P(demonstration|woman&teller) compared to the probability of a person attending a demonstration for women’s rights given that they are a bank teller P(demonstration|teller). The latter is more likely than the former. This is because there are fewer people who are both women and bank tellers than people who are bank tellers (women bank tellers is a subset of bank tellers). The latter case P(demonstration|teller) means that the person could be either male or female, and since we can assume that there would be at least some men at the demonstration, the pool of people is larger when we are considering all of the people who are bank tellers rather than just the women bank tellers (this is known as the base rate).

It is simpler to think of someone you know who is a bank teller than it is to think of someone you know who is both a bank teller and a woman because we only have to account for one variable. Analogously, it is ontologically simpler that gravity be caused by the geometry of spacetime than that gravity be caused by the geometry of spacetime and by magical elves living in the fifth dimension.

In a similar fashion, we want our M and our G to contain as few and‘s as possible (e.g. the & in our conditionals above). Thus, what we ultimately want to determine is whether P(D|M) and P(M) or P(D|G) and P(G) is a simpler hypothesis.

Richard Swinburne argues in both his 2010 paper “God as the Simplest Explanation of the Universe” and his 2012 paper “Bayes, God, and the Multiverse” that God is a simpler hypothesis than the multiverse hypothesis, thus increasing the probability that God exists P(G). He argues this from essentially two different directions: first, that God is a simple substance (e.g. does not have spatial extension; that something being infinitely powerful, knowledgeable, and free is simpler than something being merely extremely powerful, knowledgeable, and free); second, that God is a better explanation for the tendency toward good over evil (e.g. there is finite suffering and no absolutely unnecessary of suffering: it is possible for some kind of good to come out of any suffering) or any suffering of an unnecessarily long duration. I’m not going to focus on the theodicy argued in the latter point since that requires a lot more philosophical background, suffice to say that the specific claims appear highly dubious.

What does it mean that God is a simple substance? And is there any merit to this claim? This will take some philosophical explanation. It’s important, but somewhat technical and outside the scientific realm this post is attempting to take, so if you want to skip it, I have put in bold down below where this philosophical rabbit hole ends.

Richard Swinburne argues in “God as the Simplest Explanation of the Universe” that simplicity means having fewer entities/substances and fewer properties. The former says that, to use Swinburne’s example, if we found three ancient parchments, each with similar handwriting and writing style, all three making the same philosophical argument, you would not posit three separate authors. It’s a simpler explanation to posit a single author of all three (this point is arguable, but I will let it stand). The latter, to use Swinburne’s example, is the explanation of why emeralds have the color they do: we could posit that emeralds are green, or that emeralds are ‘grue’, which means that emeralds are green prior to the year 2050 A.D. after which they are blue. The second explanation is more complex because “…‘grue’ is defined in terms of an accessible property (green) and another property (the date, whose definition in terms of what is accessible clearly has a certain complexity).”

In this 2010 paper he also makes the highly dubious claim that “In summary hypotheses of personal and scientific explanation … are simpler if they postulate fewer substances, fewer (accessible) properties (including powers and liabilities), and mathematically simpler relations between them (including mathematically simpler numbers in the statement of these)” [emphasis added]. What does he mean by mathematically simpler relations? He says (page 7):

Such a relation or entity A is simpler than another one B, if A is defined and so can be understood without reference to B but not vice versa. For this reason multiplication is a more complicated relation than addition, numerical powers more complicated than multiplication, and vectors more complicated than scalars; and large finite integers are more complicated entities than small ones (you can’t understand ‘5′ except as ‘4+1’, but you can understand ‘4’, ‘+’, and ‘1’ without understanding the notion of ‘5′); and (as their name implies) complex numbers are more complicated than real numbers, real than rational numbers, rational numbers than integers. So an explanation which explains the pressure exerted by a gas on the walls of a container is simpler if it makes this depend on only three other quantities (the volume of the container, the temperature of the gas, and a constant varying with the kind of gas) rather than on four. It is simpler if the relation between the variables involves just multiplication as in the Boyle-Charles law pv=KT, rather than on exponentials, logarithms and square roots, for example p= logevk-1/2T2. If laws of both kinds satisfied the first two criteria equally well, a law of the first kind would be more probably true than a law of the latter kind. For exponentials, logarithms and powers are defined (and so can be understood) in terms of multiplication but not vice versa. So too a law of gravity – F = mm/r2 to be preferred to a law F= mm/r2.00 (ten zeroes) 1 if both are equally well explain the data (of measurements accurate only to a certain degree).

In other words, because it requires more background knowledge for a person to understand multiplication than it does addition (multiplication is grounded in addition, at least in our typical pedagogy), a relation that requires multiplication to describe it is a more complex relation than one that requires only addition to describe it. Why this is the case is not explained but seems to be posited as being self-evident. This mistakes a metaphysical principle – the simplicity of a relation – for an epistemological principle – the ease of understanding a relation. Would gravity really be simpler if it depended on the sum of two masses rather than the product of two masses? Or on the inverse of distance rather than the inverse distance squared? I don’t see how this would be simpler in any physical sense just because it’s easier to do the arithmetic.

Swinburne also seems to believe that zero and infinity are both (ontologically) simpler than other values – God having zero spatial extension (and perhaps zero mass) and infinite (zero limitations on) power, knowledge, and freedom. This is grounded in a sort of notion of symmetry: that taking on some other value than zero or infinity, such as having 3 spatial dimensions, or being 1 quadrillion times more powerful than a typical average human being, is arbitrary: why not 4 or 5 or 117 spatial dimensions? Why not 1 quadrillion and eleven times more powerful than a human being? Given these seemingly arbitrary values, there is yet another sort of fine-tuning that needs to be accounted for: the fine tuning of God’s spatial dimensions and the amount of power He has (in units of how powerful a typical average human being is by whatever metric you like). Thus, it is simpler for these values to be zero or infinite, negating the need for further fine-tuning. Indeed, Swinburne says (page 10):

God is one person. So theism is inevitably a simpler theory than polytheism. To be a person at all, a substance has to live for a period of time, to have some power (to do intentional actions), some choice (whether free or not) of which actions to do, and some true beliefs. He will have to have some true beliefs about his intentional powers (what he can do); otherwise he will not be able to bring about anything intentionally.) I shall assume that there cannot be a timeless person, and so that any person who exists exists and so has his properties at moments of time. If there could be such a person, the simplest kind of person would be an everlasting omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly free person, a person to whose length of life, power, true beliefs, and freedom of choice there are no limits; or rather no limits except those of logic, since any description of what all this amounts to has got to be free from contradiction. A person is everlasting if he exists at all times, omnipotent if he can do all actions, omniscient if he has all true beliefs, perfectly free if he is subject to no non-rational desires which influence how he chooses to act.

The concepts of length of time, intentional power, belief, choice, and influence on choice are concepts of properties maximally accessible; we are more familiar with paradigm examples of these properties than of virtually any other properties. The concepts of ‘all’, or ‘unlimited’ (that is having no (zero) limits) are concepts far more accessible than concepts of particular large numbers. Hence the properties of everlasting life, limitless power, having all true beliefs, being subject to no causal influences on choice are far more accessible than the properties of living for a particular large number of years, having a particular large finite degree of power, having a particular large finite number of mostly true beliefs, and being subject to fairly few non-rational desires.

In other words, omnipotent has zero restrictions on power (except logical ones, according to Swinburne), omniscience believes all true propositions and so has no limits on what truths are known, and infinitely free has no restriction on what it can do (no causal restriction). The paper then goes on to put restrictions on God’s omniscience so as not to conflict with His omnipotence (page 12):

But these definitions give rise to a problem, that while there could be an everlastingly omnipotent and perfectly free person, and there could be an everlastingly omniscient person, everlasting omnipotence plus perfect freedom is incompatible with everlasting omniscience. In the absence of rational considerations relevant to his choice and in the absence of any non-rational desires influencing that choice a God perfectly free and omnipotent would have a free choice of which state of affairs to bring about before the time when the relevant state of affairs came about. But then he would have been free to choose to make any earlier belief about how he would choose false, and so only by cosmic luck could all God’s beliefs have been true, and beliefs acquired by luck do not constitute knowledge. So omnipotence plus perfect freedom are incompatible with omniscience understood in the obvious way.

So which is the way of understanding omniscience which makes an omnipotent being the simplest kind of person? The answer is clearly the restricted kind of omniscience which allows him also to be perfectly free.

It’s also important to note that in the previous quote Swinburne said “I shall assume that there cannot be a timeless person, and so that any person who exists exists and so has his properties at moments of time.” This means that God is subject to time; time is more powerful than God in that time restricts Him insofar as God has no control over the past. Indeed, Swinburne states the restriction to God’s omnipotence thusly (page 11):

So omnipotence, being the maximum possible degree of power should be construed as equivalent to the following: a person P is omnipotent iff he is consciously aware of all the states which it is logically possible for anyone to bring about at [time] t (and the description of which does not entail that P did not bring it about); and if he chooses at t to bring about any such state, it happens. Given the logical impossibility of backward causation, an omnipotent person cannot affect the past or the truth of logically necessary truths, which I assume to include the fundamental moral truths. Hence the choices of an omnipotent person can affect only contingent future states.

The restriction of God’s omnipotence (and freedom) in time is a curious move by Swinburne. It’s not one often taken by other theologians. Indeed, schools of thought like Molinism jump through hoops to try squaring God’s omnipotence within, and freedom from, time (I touch on that subject in my post on philosophical arguments, so I won’t discuss Molinism here). It’s not surprising, though, for theologians to heap restrictions on God in the same breath as talking about God’s various omni-properties. Even theologians cannot escape the incoherence and contradictions inherent in a being possessing all the usual omni-properties.

For instance, lets look at infinite freedom. What is it to be infinitely free? Swinburne says that a being is “perfectly free if he is subject to no non-rational desires which influence how he chooses to act” and (pages 11-12):

So it turns out that God being ‘perfectly free’ in my sense has the consequence that while he can do evil, inevitably he will never exercise the choice to do so. In another perhaps equally natural sense of ‘perfectly free’ a perfectly free person would be one who could make any logically possible choice including doing evil. So why my sense of ‘perfectly free’ rather than the rival sense? Because it is a simpler sense. ‘Perfect freedom’ in my sense is simply the absence of properties, non-rational desires; ‘perfect freedom’ in the rival sense would be a complicating feature of God, because it would involve his being influenced by non-rational desires which alone make possible a choice of evil.

And also (page 14):

God’s perfect freedom is, to repeat, merely the absence of the property of being influenced by non-rational desires. It is always simpler to postulate an absence than a presence. It is simpler to suppose that God has the divine properties discussed so far essentially; otherwise it would a vast accident that God continued for all time to exist and have these properties. By contrast an ordinary human person, although he needs some power etc in order to exist, does not need to have some particular amount of power if order to be the particular human he is. And it is simpler to suppose that God does not have thisness, which would be a particularizing feature additional to his properties. (A substance has thisness iff there could be instead of it another substance with all the same properties, intrinsic and relational, as it. God would not have thisness iff there could not be instead of the actual God a different God with all the same properties, and so all the divine properties discussed so far.) But a person who does not have thisness, and for whom not merely having power (plus freedom) but having a particular amount of power (plus freedom) is essential to his being the person he is, is a person unlike any other persons with whom we are familiar.

So here the assertions seem to be A) that all morally good actions are rational actions (though perhaps the converse isn’t necessarily true) and B) that being influenced by non-rational desires is to have restrictions on your freedom. Coming up with counterexamples for A) would be pretty easy, but would also depend on what moral philosophy one is adhering to, but that’s a whole other philosophical rabbit hole. It also brings up the sticky situation of Euthyphro’s dilemma (is something good because God says it is, or does God say it’s good because it’s good?), which I also won’t get into here since I already covered it in my philosophical arguments.

What’s interesting for our purposes here is what B) has to say. What would it mean for a desire to be rational? Swinburne appears to think that a rational desire is defined as a desire which is only good and not evil (or at the very least the desire that maximizes the formula: good – evil = desire). Setting aside again the issue of Euthyphro’s dilemma, is a rational desire one that a person has conscious control over, that has been deliberated on and assessed for its merit, as opposed to being decided by some sort of subconscious and/or spontaneous whim? Is a rational desire simply an impartial desire?

Lets assume for the sake of argument that we can differentiate between rational and non-rational desires. Is it really the case that all non-rational desires come about due to restricted freedom? Could we say that God’s creating our universe is a rational desire (a morally good one, to go by Swinburne’s definition) when it has resulted in suffering that would otherwise not occur had the universe never been created (similar to David Benatar’s anti-natalist asymmetry argument)? 

Let’s for the sake of argument grant that morally good actions (by whichever moral philosophy we want to define them) are only those taken to fulfill rational desires and that non-rational desires are always restrictions on freedom. Is this lack of restriction simpler? That zero or infinite (zero restrictions) modes of existence are ontologically simpler is grounded in the idea that non-zero finite things require some explanation a la the principle of sufficient reason. Just as in the universe the non-zero finite mass of an electron requires some explanation, then so would, say, a deity that is merely one quadrillion times more powerful than a human (as opposed to infinitely more powerful), since there must be something restricting this being from being more powerful that that (i.e. there must be a sufficient reason why the being isn’t, say, 2 quadrillion times or 1 quintillion times more powerful than a human). The fact that an electron, for instance, has a non-zero finite mass, rather than zero mass or infinite mass, thus requires explanation, according to Swinburne. God is that explanation. God does not need an explanation because He has zero spatial dimensions (and presumably zero mass, charge, gravity, etc.) but infinite power, knowledge, and freedom (and maybe even love or other properties).

This takes the view that the default state of things is either nothingness or unrestricted existence. Since nothingness is not the actual state of affairs (setting aside my objections to this very notion), then what must have existed was an eternal and infinite existence, which we have come to call God. With only God in existence, God was all-powerful because all that could conceivably be done was whatever God did; God’s freedom was unrestricted because there was nothing otherwise than what God did (if we think of freedom as possessing the capacity to do other than what you actually did); God’s knowledge was unlimited because God was all that could be known.

Yet none of these properties entail intentionality. All these things could be posited of the multiverse. For humans, the power to do things is measured by various capabilities: lifting heavy weights, solving difficult math problems, being able to eat gluten without getting sick, having 20/20 vision, and so on. These powers are defined by their restriction. It’s why the old joke about God making a rock so heavy even He can’t pick it up can only be answered by heaping more restrictions on God’s power. But infinite power could be construed as the actualizing of infinite possibilities through the multiverse; a being with intention is not necessary.

For humans, knowledge (and I will stick with propositional knowledge here) arises from constructing a model of the world with limitations – we can’t see objects from every point of view and at every scale at once; we don’t have knowledge of every interaction between every subatomic particle in even the smallest objects, much less the entire universe, and so we experience the world as a sort of macroscopic approximation. Indeed, consciousness could arguably be defined as a sort of compression algorithm where the massive amounts of raw data are compressed into a working model sufficient for survival. Having perfect knowledge of some object could only come about by actually being that object; being the object is tantamount to having perfect knowledge of very actual physical state and parameter of the object. That which is not the object can only approximate it through some sort of model. Thus, the perfect knowledge of the universe is the existence of the universe itself.

For humans, freedom is the ability to have done otherwise in a given situation. Do I want pizza or tacos for dinner tonight? I choose pizza, but I could have chosen tacos – there are possible worlds in which I chose tacos over pizza. Setting aside questions of determinism and assuming we humans do in fact have free will, this freedom is defined by my restrictions. My choice of having pizza was a free choice because it was possible for me to choose not to have tacos. Unlimited freedom is incoherent because it lacks this restriction. I would need to be able to choose all of the things and none of the things all at once at every moment in time (taking Swinburne’s time-constrained conception of God). If I chose pizza instead of tacos then I could not have chosen tacos since I did not in fact choose tacos, because it would be some other possible version of myself that chose tacos and not me, which means it was not my choice to have tacos. But, since my freedom is unlimited, it would have to have been my choice so that I am not influenced by the choices made by another. A multiverse, on the other hand, would say that there are actually an infinite number of me in existence and therefore every choice I could possibly make has been made.

This brings me to a point I made in my post on philosophical arguments: if God is all powerful, all knowing, and perfectly free, then why did He even need to fine-tune the universe at all? Couldn’t God have made life possible in any sort of universe with any values for the physical constants? Or just added other additional physical constants to patch things up had the actual physical constants been set to unsuitable values? Why is God restricted by His own creations, the physical constants, into forcing Him to tune them to specific values in order for Him to bring about life? This gives us a sort of Euthyphro’s dilemma for fine-tuning: are the values of the physical constants suitable for life because God made them that way, or did God make them that way because they are the only values that could sustain life?

The best we can possibly say by only observing our universe is that, if a fine-tuning creator deity created our universe, it possessed sufficient power and intelligence to create our universe (we can’t tell just by observing our universe that this being had any choice in the matter). In my post on philosophical arguments against God I said:

One weakness that this argument [the fine-tuning argument] has is that it is reasoning backwards from effect to a speculative (not known, but proposed) cause that does not fit under any category we know of, and therefore nothing prior is known of the cause’s nature. As David Hume points out11, one can only, at best, reason a sufficient cause when only the effect is observed – any attributes above and beyond what is sufficient for the effect to come about is mere speculation. Nothing new can be attributed to the effect from the cause (like a grand plan for existence).

In other words, nothing says that the (proximal) cause of our universe had to be infinitely powerful and infinitely intelligent. It would need only enough of these properties that are required to create and fine-tune our universe. The obvious response would be: well, if the proximal cause of our universe only needed to be sufficiently powerful and intelligent to create and fine-tune our universe, then that proximal cause, not possessing the simpler infinities of power and intelligence (assuming those are coherent), would have needed something powerful and intelligent enough to create it! Perhaps. But that more distal cause would need only be sufficiently powerful and intelligent enough to create the proximal cause (once again, there is no way to know if it had any choice in the matter just by observing our universe). We thus end up in an infinite regress of beings only sufficiently powerful and intelligent enough to have created the next being more proximal than itself to the creation of our universe, never arriving at the final infinitely powerful and intelligent being (since infinity can never actually be reached through such a series).

End of Philosophical Rabbit Hole

Lets get back to Richard Swinburne’s “Bayes, God, and the Multiverse” and Sean Carroll’s lecture. Carroll says that the probability of the multiverse P(M) isn’t necessarily astronomically small because the multiverse isn’t just sort of made up out of nothing, but actually falls out of other theories like inflationary cosmology/eternal inflation for which there is good data to support them. Carroll also points out that the multiverse model is not ontologically extravagant (i.e. Richard Swinburne’s accusation that 1 God is simpler than trillions of universes) because it’s not the number of “ideas” or principles at play that is large. As Carroll says, you wouldn’t say that air is “ontologically extravagant” just because there are a lot of molecules in the air.

The multiverse is the model that says “with an extraordinarily large number of universes (possibly infinite), each with their own physical constants, the probability that some of them will have the right constants for life to emerge is high.” There are few ideas or principles at play here; a much smaller conjunction (or disjunction) of principles. You do not need a separate and (or) for each individual universe, only the conjunction (or disjunction) “many universes exist and they all take on random values for their physical constants.”

God, on the other hand, would require a much longer conjunction (or disjunction), such as “God is powerful enough to create the universe and God is intelligent enough to know what values each of the constants must be in order for life to emerge and God desires that life emerge and God wants to create the universe such that it evolves in such and such a way (e.g. that it begins at the unnecessarily low entropy at which it is observed to have begun)” and so on with more principles, depending on which theory of God you choose (e.g. you could add “and God is all-loving and God takes a personal interest in the individual lives of humans and God sometimes abrogates His physical laws to intervene on behalf of those humans and God is opposed by Satan and etc.”). There are more “ideas” or principles the theory must account for in order for us to observe what we observe.

In other words, the probability of the multiverse is:

P(M) = P(many universes exist) x P(each universe takes on random values for physical constants)

While God requires:

P(G) = P(God is powerful enough to create the universe) x P(God is intelligent enough to know what values each of the constants must be in order for life to emerge) x P(God desires that life emerge) x P(God wants to create the universe such that it evolves in such and such a way) x Pn(whatever other n properties one wants to attribute to God)

And so, what we essentially want is an answer to the question of whether P(M) > P(G) or P(M) < P(G). If we are only considering the complexity of the theory – the number of “ideas” as Carroll says – that each theory must take into account, with the theory being less and less likely for each “idea” needed for it (we might call this the principle of Occam’s razor), then it seems that the multiverse is more likely than God.

Then if we consider our observations, essentially comparing whether P(D|M) > P(D|G) or P(D|M) < P(D|G), then we have to go by what is actually observed. For instance, we could consider the problem of evil, where our data D is the amount of suffering experienced, and ask what the probability is that suffering would occur given the multiverse or the probability that suffering would occur given that a fine-tuning creator God exists. In order to keep our theory of God as simple as possible, however, we do not need to posit that this fine-turning creator God is omnibenevolent – this God does not have to care about the suffering of conscious lifeforms. Obviously, if we want our God to also be all-loving, that would be a demerit to our P(D|G) since it adds another “idea” to the hypothesis and since we observe a lot of suffering in the world.

Lets keep our God theory as parsimonious as possible. We need only posit that this God is a creator God with enough intelligence to know what the physical constants have to be for life to emerge and that God has a desire, for whatever reason, to create a universe that would give rise to life (and that God is restricted by the laws of the universe such that He must fine-tune them to the right values to sustain life rather than possess the freedom to create life regardless of the values the physical constants take).

What is the probability of observing our universe given that this God exists [i.e. what is P(D|G)]? For instance, what is the probability that, given that one of the parameters of our God hypothesis is that God desired the emergence of life, that God would create a universe so vast, empty, and hostile to life? Quantifying this requires making more assumptions about our God hypothesis: for what reason does God want life to exist? If it was just a sort of science experiment to see whether life would come about at all, we might make the probability higher; if it was to have a personal relationship with the life that emerges, we may want to reduce that probability since it is an awful lot of wasted space and time. We observe that the universe is (at least) billions of light-years across and has existed for billions of years, beginning from an unnecessarily low entropy state. If a fine-turning creator God that desired life to emerge created our universe, why not make it the size of our solar system starting a few thousand years ago? None of the rest of the universe outside our solar system is necessary for the life here on earth (at least in the creator God hypothesis); neither were the billions of years prior to the emergence of life here on earth. God, if He is to be a scientific hypothesis, would need to explain why we have all that unnecessary excess of space and time.

We can also go in the reverse direction: if we suddenly forgot everything we know about physics tomorrow, but we still had all the holy scriptures and works of theologians and religious philosophers and prophets, popes, patriarchs, priests, preachers, and so on, would we be able to make any accurate predictions about the universe? Would we, using only the best theory of God we’ve developed over millennia of theologizing and philosophizing, be able to recapitulate our theories of general relativity, quantum field theory, cosmic inflation, dark matter/energy, galaxy and star formation, and so on? I can’t say for sure, but I feel quite confident that the answer would be no. As Sean Carroll’s lecture is titled, God is not a good scientific theory. It has little to no explanatory power. The God hypothesis has had to be changed, modified, and adjusted to the point that it is now significantly different than what it was even just a century ago and practically unrecognizable to what it was a millennia ago: if we follow Swinburne, we now have a very alien sounding dimensionless being lacking thisness and incapable of inflicting the evils attested to in the Bible (e.g. the flood; commanding the Hebrews to slaughter the inhabitants of their “promised land”; the miseries inflicted on Job’s family members and Job himself, etc.) by His very nature. The God hypothesis is always forced to adapt to our scientific discoveries, not the other way around.

None of what I’ve talked about in this subsection is a defeater for the hypothesis that a creator deity fine-tuned the universe, but it means that our ignorance does not immediately suggest accepting a fine-tuning creator deity as the null-hypothesis (i.e. God is not the only explanation that can fill our gaps in knowledge; we can’t automatically revert to the God of the gaps to fill in areas of ignorance).

Watchmaker Analogy

I already covered this one in the introduction, but I will go into a bit more detail here. In the watchmaker analogy, it is claimed that complexity, such as the complex biochemistry of living organisms, requires an explanation. How can such complexity come into existence? The analogy is that existence is like a watch. In a watch, there are many interacting parts, each of which is necessary for the functioning of the watch. Remove any single part and the watch ceases to function. We also know that, if we just took the individual components of the watch, put them in a container and shook it around, that those parts would not come together in a way that a functioning watch would be built. There must be some sort of intelligence behind it, capable of purposeful, directed behavior, who puts the pieces together in just the right way that a functioning watch is built.

This argument makes four assumptions:

The first is that intelligence is a necessary, though perhaps not sufficient, condition for complexity to arise. It’s not obvious that this is the case. Indeed, simple processes are seen to generate complexity quite often: think about weather patterns, galaxy formation, and chemical crystallization. This assumption begs the question: by trying to prove the existence of an intelligent designer, we have to assume that all the complexity we come across can only arise by the efforts of such an intelligent designer. But this is not meant to be a philosophical argument, but a scientific one, so my task is to show why it is that intelligence is unnecessary and that unguided natural processes are sufficient to explain the observed complexity of our world.

The second assumption is that complexity is defined by how difficult something is for a human to describe or to build from its individual components. Nature is under no obligation to be intuitive to humans. My inability to perfectly describe every chemical process occurring within a living organism does not entail that it is difficult for such processes to come about through natural processes.  For the sake of argument, I will accept the second assumption: that complexity can be defined here as something that is difficult for a human to describe or to built from its component parts.

The third assumption is that life can only ever arise from complex systems. While I would tend to agree with this assumption, it is still important to point out that this is, in fact, an assumption. Theories such as panpsychism could be an alternative to this assumption, but here I will accept the assumption that complexity is a precondition for something to be considered alive.

The fourth assumption is that two things being analogous in one way – say, the way all the biochemical “pieces” work together in a complex system to make a whole and the way all the gears in a watch work together in a complex system to make a whole – means that other properties are also equivalent. This, however, is unfounded. For instance, just because there are a lot of similarities between a house cat and a lion doesn’t mean we can expect the house cat to roar. Similarly, just because the watch has interacting pieces making up a complex system and is also built by intelligent designers (humans) does not mean that something analogous in the first sense (interacting parts making up a complex system) entails that it is also analogous in the second sense (having an intelligent designer). This is particularly problematic in the case of the watchmaker analogy, since we’ve seen (or at least been told by trustworthy sources about) watches being built by humans and have never encountered a watch coming together on its own, whereas we’ve observed neither the abiogenesis nor the intelligent creation of life on earth, meaning we don’t know whether the analogy of how a watch comes into existence by intelligent designers extends to the origin of life on earth. But, for the sake of argument, I won’t use this objection in what follows, but will instead show how science indicates a way that the watchmaker analogy does not have to apply to life on earth.

With those assumptions stated, let’s look at the watchmaker analogy argument for an intelligent designer.

This watchmaker analogy can be applied to the universe itself, but this just becomes the fine-tuning argument, which I already covered above. Where it is often applied, and where I will be discussing it in this subsection, is to phenomena within the universe itself.

Alvin Plantinga in Where the Conflict Really Lies makes the case that Paley’s watchmaker analogy is perhaps not an argument but an observation. Or, what Plantinga calls it, a discourse. What he means by this is that, upon seeing the complexity of life, we do not arrive at the conclusion that it is designed by a discursive or logical argument. We don’t abstract premises from our perceptions and say something like the following:

P1: this organism has many interconnecting parts
P2: all of these parts are needed to function; the loss of any one of them would cause it to cease functioning
P3: all such things I’ve come across, like watches, have had a designer
C: therefore, this organism was probably designed

Instead, Plantinga says, we just see the organism and automatically think “designed.” He calls these basic beliefs or, when about God in particular, sensus divinitatis. I’ve touched on them in my reviews of his book Knowledge and Christian Belief. But it is essentially likening our seeing living things as designed as being similar to seeing a tree and knowing immediately that it is a tree; we do not need an argument to come to this knowledge. Similarly, we see a living organism and just know that it is designed. Plantinga says in Knowledge and Christian Belief:

…the sensus divinitatis resembles perception, memory, and a priori belief…It isn’t a matter of making a quick and dirty inference from the grandeur of the mountains or the beauty of the flower or the sun on the treetops to the existence of God; instead, a belief about God spontaneously arises in those circumstances, the circumstances that trigger the operation of the sensus divinitatis. This belief is another of those starting points for thought; it too is basic in the sense that the beliefs in question are not accepted on the evidential basis of other beliefs.

The issue, as I talked about in my reviews of the book, is that we come to a lot of false beliefs using this basic-belief forming faculty. That the world is flat, or that the sun revolves around the earth, or that solid objects are not mostly empty space, or that time and space are absolute, are all things that we can’t help but see even when we know they aren’t true. Science, in these cases, has served us a rebutting defeater. Even though we might see things as having the appearance of design, the theory of evolution by natural selection has given us at least an undercutting defeater for this belief.

Additionally, this argument begs the question. One must already believe in the existence of a designer to accept the sensus divinitatis as being a faculty humans possess. And indeed, I could just as easily counter by saying instead that humans have a sensus propellente – a sense of agency – that makes us perceive agency everywhere because that is what we evolved to do. That is therefore why things appear designed even if they aren’t: as a byproduct or spandrel of our evolutionary past. In fact, the hyperactive agency detection explanation for religious thinking says just that. Given these considerations, I don’t think Plantinga’s discourse view of Paley’s watchmaker analogy is successful.

Let us then turn to the argument from design. This argument is most explicitly stated in Michael Behe’s irreducible complexity. In Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution he says:

By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.

And that:

An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.

In the watch analogy, this is observed in the fact that no single component of the watch can be removed and still have the watch function. Analogously, in biochemical systems, no single component can be removed and still maintain proper function. Popular examples are things like the eye and the bacterial flagellum: if any part of the eye is taken away, it no longer functions; if any protein in the bacterial flagellum is taken away, the flagellum ceases to function. Thus, the argument goes, either each of the components must have had to evolve simultaneously, with the overall function (the eye for seeing, the flagellum for moving) already an end goal. But, since evolution is blind and has no goal in which it has set out to accomplish, and that since the many components evolving in just the right way simultaneously is astronomically improbable, we need to reject this explanation. Only an intelligent designer, the argument says, could satisfy these two criteria – having a goal in mind and bringing together multiple necessary components simultaneously.

Evolution by natural selection offers a mechanism and explanation that satisfy these criteria. This is in the form of the irreversible complexity, or the “add a part, and then make it necessary” explanation. The analogy can be a bridge:

At the top there is a bridge composed of three stones. We then add the flat slab on top of it. In the third step, we remove the center stone, making the flat slab necessary for the function as a bridge.

Paul Draper explains it this way:

The sort of route I have in mind occurs when an irreducibly complex and irreducibly specific system S that serves function F evolves from a precursor S* that shares many of S’s parts but serves a different function F*. Notice that parts that S and S* share and that are required for S to perform F need not be required for S* to perform F* even if they contribute to F*, and parts that are irreducibly specific relative to F may be only reducibly specific relative to F*. Thus, both S* and the specificity of its parts may have been gradually produced via a direct evolutionary path. Then one or more additional parts are added to S*, resulting in a change of function from F* to F. And relative to F, the parts and their specificity, which had not been essential for F*, are now essential.

This can be observed in the examples of the eye and the flagellum.

Major stages in eye evolution (Source)

Chemicals interacting with light is as fundamental to chemistry as simple reactions. Being able to use chemical excitations as a method for detecting the presence and absence of light would be quite simple. Even single-celled organisms can undergo phototaxis (i.e. movement in response to light). When we think of each part of our own eye being necessary for the functioning of an eye, what we really mean is that it is necessary for our eyes to function exactly as they do. It is certainly the case that every component of the human eye is necessary for the human eye to function in the way that it does. Indeed, removing a single component can result in things like color blindness. But it does not follow that the eye must function exactly like a human eye in order to be considered an eye. Through evolution by natural selection, how an eye as complex as our own could arise from simpler eyes is easy to see (no pun intended), and each stage adds something new and then makes it necessary for that additional functionality.

Indeed, Nilsson and Pelger calculated that it would take about 364,000 years to evolve the vertebrate eyes from photoreceptor cells. The co-option of other proteins into eye proteins, such as the opsins and crystallins (used in lens), is reviewed by Russell Fernald, showing that we have a good idea of where and how these proteins have evolved. Plenty of other evidence can account for the evolution of eye proteins.

The bacterial flagellum is another popular example of this phenomenon, focusing on the individual proteins necessary to make a flagellum functional. The bacterial flagellum requires a large number of different proteins in order to function, many of which are necessary to the proper functioning of the flagellum.

Proteins required for flagellum function. (Source)

But how could evolution by natural selection, a blind process, know what was required to make a protein complex used for bacterial motion? And how could it be that each of the components, oblivious to any of the other components, evolve into existence simultaneously?

The answer is that evolution did not have a goal and the evolution of each component did not occur simultaneously. Simpler existing functional structures, through random mutations, interacted in new ways; this so-called promiscuous interaction, upon conferring evolutionary fitness, can then become specific interactions, resulting in a tightly associating protein complex. Through gene duplications, gene fusions, and novel ways of proteins interacting, new functionality can emerge. This new functionality confers evolutionary fitness and therefore propagates through the gene pool of that species.

Steps in evolution of bacterial flagellum. Each step along the way has its own functionality. (Source)

Additionally, the loss of the flagellum has been observed in the genomes of endosymbiotic bacteria in insects. This acts as a sort of atavism that shows that the precursor structures are indeed what led to the evolution of the bacterial flagellum. Plenty of other sources account for the evolution of the bacterial flagellum.

These are just two examples where the seemingly “irreducible complexity” is being peeled away. Other examples, such as the immune system and blood clotting, are also popular shibboleths among the intelligent design advocates. Needless to say (or, I suppose, it does need to be said), the evolution of these systems is being explored. None of them are perfectly accounted for in the way a billiard ball knocking another billiard ball is accounted for perfectly by kinetic energy and momentum, but what needs to be shown for our purposes – in order for evolution by natural selection to be an undercutting defeater of the God hypothesis – is that the emergence of this biological complexity can be sufficiently accounted for by evolution. In other words, that there is a plausible (i.e. not significantly improbable as to be unlikely) way in which we can conceive of these things emerging by unguided natural processes.

Michael Behe, in his next book titled The Edge of Evolution: the Search for the Limits of Darwinism, argues that since the Plasmodium falciparum parasite (that causes malaria) has not evolved new protein-protein interactions in response to the development of drugs like chloroquine to combat the illness, it must be that the evolution of protein-protein interactions without an intelligent designer is, in principle, impossible.

As a side note, this seems an interesting example organism given that he is essentially arguing that antimalarial resistance could only have come about through the actions of the intelligent designer, meaning that the intelligent designer (perhaps God) has been purposely making malaria more resistant to our efforts to thwart it. The main point for our purposes, however, is that Behe concludes such protein-protein interactions have not and in principle can not come about through evolution by natural selection.

This is an incorrect assertion. But even if it were not incorrect in the specific case of Plasmodium falciparum, the evolution of novel proteinprotein interactions is not the mystery that Behe claims. To be fair his book came out in 2008, but his thesis is that such protein-protein interactions could not in principle come about through evolution by natural selection and thus must be caused by an intelligent designer. His thesis was not that no such instances of protein-protein interactions emerging through evolution by natural selection had yet been found, but that they will never be found since it cannot occur. Thus, his thesis fails by failing to stand up to the test of time.

The question then becomes: if God is not a necessary mechanism to explain biological complexity, then is evolution a sufficient explanation for how the complexity arose? Philosopher and Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga, in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies, builds the argument up (with the intention of knocking it down) thusly:

  1. There is, in principle (even if we could never in practice know all of it) a history of every genetic mutation, every inheritance of those mutations, and every change, both beneficial and detrimental, conferred by those mutations. Such a history can, as I said, in principle be known, since it did in fact occur, even if it is too vast and too distant in time to ever be practically known. The point is that there is an actual history of all of biology that did in fact occur.
  2. There is valid evidence available to humans right now to give an overall, big picture view of this history.
  3. We have informed hypotheses as to how changes occurred, such as what I discussed above with the eye and the bacterial flagellum. We can thus have some degree of confidence that, for instance, there is a continuous series of photon detectors (some sort of eye or eye-like organ) that leads from organisms with no eye to the modern human eye.
    • Plantinga says that we can imagine a 3-dimensional space of countably infinite points representing all possible ways that an eye could exist. Evolution says that there is a continuous line from a point in that space representing “no eye” (we could call it the origin) to the point representing the modern human eye. Mutations cause a jump from one point to another, with the distance between the points being essentially the probability that the mutation(s) could occur in a given unit of time. The eye, of course, is a stand-in for all of biological complexity, but I will stick with it here as it is a quintessential example and is the one used by Plantinga.
  4. It is such that each point in the space of all possible eyes that lie within the line connecting no eye to the human eye arose by random genetic mutations applied to the previous point.
  5. Each point on the line between no eye and the human eye aided in the survival of the organism that possessed that eye.

What Plantinga wants to show is simply that science can not and does not show that evolution is undirected. In other words, Plantinga wants to show that the existence of God is compatible with evolution, and that it is rational and warranted for a person to believe that God has guided evolution with the intention of giving rise to humans. What he is arguing against in this section of the book is Richard Dawkins’ claim that evolution by natural selection must be unguided by an intelligent designer, occurring only by physical processes. Plantinga lays out the above enumerated list as Dawkins’ argument.

Plantinga then says that this argument has two weaknesses. The first is that there is no way to be confident that there is a “not too improbable” path through the space of possible eyes. He cites Michael Behe in saying that some points in the space could not be reached by sufficiently small steps (essentially the argument that multiple steps would have to occur simultaneously, as I discussed above). Plantinga says that this means (4) and (5) above “are controversial, unsupported, and pretty much guesswork.” The second weakness, according to Plantinga, is that the time constraint means that the points in possible eye space cannot be arbitrarily close together and the line connecting no eye to human eye cannot be arbitrarily long. This means that we cannot say with confidence that the line going from no eye to the human eye, given the time that it actually took for this to occur, is not astronomically improbable.

I’ve already covered Plantinga’s first claim to the weakness of this argument. I might further add that we do have evidence of different species at different points in time, including so-called “intermediary” species. We also have evidence that mutations do occur, and even have rough calculations at the rates of those reactions (more on that in a bit). What we do not have any evidence for is a deity causing or guiding any of this. Sure, it’s not impossible that this is the case, but there is no reason to assume that it is.

The second claim of weakness is essentially that we don’t know that there has been enough time for random mutations to have brought about the evolution of no eyes to the human eye. This is not necessarily true. As I said, we do have rough calculations of not only the mutation rate, but the rate of beneficial mutations. I will try to steel-man Plantinga’s case, so let’s go with a very low estimate from the first link and say that there is 10-10 mutations per base pair per year. Let us then assume a small genome (humans have roughly 3 billion base pairs in their genome; I will use 1 billion). Let us then assume only 1 billion years of evolution instead of ~3.5 billion. How many mutations do we get?

10-10  mutations/(bp*yr) x 1,000,000,000 bp x 1,000,000,000 yr = 100,000,000 mutations

And what percentage of the genome has then been mutated?

100,000,000 mutations / 1,000,000,000 bp = 0.1 = 10%

That means that at a mutation rate of 10-10 on an organism with 1 billion base pairs after 1 billion years will have accumulated 100 million mutations. This is about 10% of its genome. Humans and chimps are only about 1.2% different in their genome and are quite distinct species. This 1.2% has happened only within the last 10 million years, however. That 1.2% is 12% the size of the 10% given by the steelman argument, which is roughly the same size as the 10 million compared to the 100 million. Thus, it is within the realm of the plausible that, even with the steelman assumptions, there would be enough time for something with genome A to speciate into something with genome B and something with genome C, with B and C being 10% different from each other.

If I get rid of the steel-man assumptions, the change comes out to:

0.5×10-9  mutations/(bp*yr) x 3,000,000,000 bp x 3,500,000,000 yr = 5.25×109 mutations

And what percentage of the genome has then been mutated?

5.25×109 mutations / 3,000,000,000 bp  = 1.75 = 175%

So that is 175% of the organism’s genome that is changed over that amount of time. That’s almost a complete changeover of the entire genome twice over. This is all with simplifying assumptions, such as that mutations are just as likely at every point of the genome (there are no preferred regions in a DNA strand that can be mutated, even though this is not the case), that every mutation is equivalent (even though, given the redundancy in the genetic code, as well as similar chemical properties for some of the amino acids, that this is not the case), and using numbers for human mutation rates per year, where humans are slow at procreating. This would be even more rapid for organisms with higher rates of reproduction. The point of this exercise is to show that the mutation rate observed in nature is adequate to account for the speciation observed in modern biodiversity and within the fossil record. This means that Plantinga’s argument that we don’t know if enough time has passed for unguided evolution to achieve this observed diversity is incorrect.

As I’ve stated before, this does not disprove the existence of a God, or even that God has guided evolution. It could certainly be the case that God simply uses evolution by natural selection as His method of bringing about complexity. Once again, however, Occam’s Razor tells us that God is an unnecessary, superfluous, and untestable addition to the mechanism. It’s like saying that gravity works through the curvature of spacetime and also magic elves pulling things together. The elves are superfluous and not necessary; the curvature of spacetime is a sufficient mechanism to explain gravity. Sure those elves could still be there, and perhaps even be necessary for spacetime itself to curve, but we have no good reason to posit the elves or any other superfluous mechanism.

Similarly, biology shows that God is not a necessary part of the mechanism giving rise to biological complexity and that evolution by natural selection is sufficient as an explanation for how complexity came to be. Proposing God as a necessary component of the mechanism raises more questions than it answers: just who and what is God? Why did this God use evolution by natural selection to bring about humans and not some other process? Why did it take Him so long to get to the point (i.e. why go through multiple mass extinctions and millions of different species before finally landing on His goal of creating humans)? Presumably the creator deity was able to make the universe come into existence in one grand gesture – the big bang – so why not do the same for humans, who are the reason that God created the universe in the first place? And why use a process – natural selection – that requires so much pain, misery, disease, starvation, and death just to bring about humans? Why not a more benign process? Why is it still occurring even though the goal has been reached? Especially since the rapid evolution of viruses and bacteria that is of immediate concern to us humans is allowed to continue? When a new variant of COVID emerges, for instance, should scientists tell the public that God has deigned to switch some bases in the viral genome in order to continue plaguing us with this ongoing nightmare? And how do we even know that humans were the end goal of evolution? Maybe God is working toward something in the future, or God has already long ago accomplished what He originally set out to do and has simply left existence by the wayside like an unused treadmill?

Again, none of these questions disprove the existence of God, or show that God was not involved in the evolutionary process to some degree, but these questions arise when God is proposed as a mechanism involved in evolution; the answers to these questions (i.e. why so much pain and death? why is it still happening?) is simple when we accept a non-guided form of evolution: evolution does not hold any sentimentality toward life and nothing has happened that would put a stop to it.

Plantinga says that these questions pose little problem for the theist, but he has to turn toward Christian doctrine to show why (e.g. we may need suffering for atonement, it may be that Satan also screws with evolution). This could all be true, but if this is required to show why God is a necessary part of the mechanism by which life emerged, then it is begging the question (not to mention all of the “it may be thus and so” that he uses; it may be any number of things, but there is no reason to suppose it’s because of what Christian doctrine claims).

Plantinga notes that in the arguments he has put forward that he isn’t trying to give a general explanation for complexity, thus his argument does not need to apply to God. In other words, he does not see the issue of an infinite regress emerging from his arguments. Namely the argument that goes like this:

  1. The existence of complexity requires an intelligent designer
  2. An intelligent designer would have to be at least as complex as that which is designed (this is the refutation which Plantinga is above attempting to make: that simple processes, like the laws of physics and chemistry, are not sufficient to give rise to complexity without an intelligent designer)
  3. Therefore the intelligent designer also requires an intelligent designer (of greater or at least equal complexity)
  4. Rinse and repeat ad infinitum

Plantinga, however, does not provide any criteria to use in determining why the designer-requirement applies to biology but not to God. If complexity in general does not require an intelligent designer, then why does it apply to the case of biology in particular? There would have to be some reason or criteria that makes the designer-requirement apply to biology and not to God, otherwise it is arbitrary and there is no reason why we should apply it in one instance and not the other. One of Plantinga’s premises is that complexity requires an intelligent designer, and so this either applies in all instances or some further premises are needed to justify why it applies to biology and not to God.

Cosmological Argument

I’ve already covered this in my post about philosophical arguments. But what does science have to say about the cosmological argument?

The cosmological argument is most simply stated in the following way:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause
  4. No scientific explanation (in terms of physical laws and initial conditions of the universe) can provide a causal account of the origin (very beginning) of the universe, since such are part of the universe.
  5. Therefore, the cause must be personal (explanation is given in terms of a non-natural, personal agent)

Sometimes the 4th and 5th points are left as a separate argument. While 4 is reasonable, there is little reason to think that 5 must be true: why would the cause have to be personal? This is saying that the cause must be either non-personal or personal, and since it is not non-personal then it must be personal. But nothing in the four preceding premises rules out the non-personal, only that there is a scientific explanation that could be discovered within our universe.

Young earth creationists will point to the book of Genesis as the explanation for how the universe came into existence. One could make an entire series of posts showing the scientific evidence for why young earth creationism is not only incorrect, but wildly incorrect. Radiometric dating, the fossil record, astronomical observations paired with the finite speed of light, plate tectonics and other geological evidence, and so on and so forth all attest to a universe much older than the roughly 6,000 years held by young earth creationists.

There would be too much to get into with young earth creationism, so I am not going to belabor the point, except to say that not once has any shred of scientific evidence ever suggested that the universe is only a few thousand years old. The following two videos do a great job of covering some of the problems with young earth creationism:


The creationist recourse could obviously be that all the evidence is incorrect – that radiometric dating is flawed or that radioactive decay had been much faster in the past; that fossils were planted either by God to test our faith or by the devil to tempt us away from God; that the speed of light had once been faster or that our measurements for the size of the universe are incredibly and systematically inaccurate; that the earth was created in the middle of geologic activity in such a way as to suggest geologic activity prior to creation, but that it had not actually occurred. These means of dismissing the scientific evidence are 1) begging the question (assuming God exists when attempting to prove that God exists) and 2) articles of faith and therefore outside the purview of science. And besides, they create a whole plethora of new problems that would lead to an epistemic crisis: for instance, why would the laws of physics (rate of radioactive decay or speed of light) have changed in the past but now remain constant? How could we ever trust anything if the laws of physics could potentially drastically change at any given moment? And why would God cause, or at least allow for, these deceptions?

Many religious people now accept the big bang theory of our universe’s origins. The cosmic microwave background, baryon acoustic oscillations, Lyman-alpha systems, the expansion of the universe, astronomical observations of distant galaxies (which, due to the finite speed of light, is the same as looking into the past), and so on all attest to a beginning for our universe. The religious, having to accept the evidence if they wish to be intellectually honest, will then point to the big bang as the moment of creation, the time at which God created our universe. The big bang theory, they will claim, shows that the universe had a beginning. This means that there was a state of affairs (I use this terminology to try avoiding words that assume the existence of time when no universe existed, since time itself may or may not have been created along with the universe) in which the universe did not exist. Thus, the argument goes, one must accept either one of two explanations: that the universe came from nothing (that something came from nothing) or that the universe came from something. Since it is impossible for something to come from nothing (at least within our universe), it must mean that something came from something else. That something else is God.

This of course makes the assumption that the beginning of the universe was the beginning of all existence (with the exception of God, who always seems to get a pass when using the logic that all existing things need a cause or beginning). That the state of affairs in which our universe did not exist was a state of affairs in which nothing (except God) existed. Whether or not the existence of something obtained when our universe did not exist (the word “when” here denoting time, but it’s difficult for humans not to think in terms of time; thus, we can perhaps conceptualize the non-existence of our universe as preceding, in some way, our universe) is not known, and may never be known. But we cannot assume that in the absence of our universe, there was an absolute nothing. All we can say for sure is that in the absence of our universe, what obtained was a state of affairs that did not include our universe. This is tautological, but it’s the only thing we can say with any certainty.

There is also the assumption here that because within our universe everything requires a cause, that this is also the case for existence outside our universe. We cannot make any sort of judgement about how existence is outside our universe based on how things are within our universe, for instance, that time exists outside our universe. Causality, as it exists within our universe, requires time – causes necessarily precede effects in time within our universe – but we cannot say for sure that time exists outside our universe (or at least that time operates the same way as it does within our universe). This is more of a philosophical point, which I discussed in my previous post on this subject, so I won’t get into it any further here.

Let’s focus back on the science. Does what we know about our own universe need to be augmented with God as a mechanism or explanation? We know from observation that our universe exists and from scientific inquiry that it has a beginning. We don’t know anything outside of that. What state(s) of affairs obtained “prior” to or outside our universe is (at least at present) unknown, and likely unknowable in practice given our limitations. What we can observe, however, is how the universe since the big bang has evolved according to the laws of physics; indeed, the laws of physics are sufficient to understand how our universe has evolved since the big bang.

What we can say about the state(s) of affairs “prior” to or outside our universe is that it is not at all clear or obvious that God is a necessary mechanism or explanation for how our universe came to be. Proffering a God as an explanation for the existence of our universe only raises more questions than it answers.

When the religious say that the universe requires a cause but God does not, they are simply regressing the issue at hand – that everything has a cause – back a step. Why does God not need a cause? And if we are to accept that some existing things do not need a cause, then why not apply that to existence itself – whether our own universe or some existence beyond our universe in which our universe was caused? One could say that this existence beyond our universe just is God, but we cannot make any claims about it, such as that it has intentions, emotions, intelligence, purpose, a personal relationship with humans, and so on.

Once again this does not disprove the existence of God. All it does is show that God is not a necessary condition to explain the existence of our universe, and that a non-intelligent, non-intentional, non-personal state of affairs is sufficient (or at least plausible) to explain the existence of our universe.

Concord or Conflict?

In Alvin Plantinga’s book Where the Conflict Really Lies the last two chapters (9 and 10) are dedicated to proving that science in fact has deep concord with theism but deep conflict with naturalism (and materialism). The concord with theism rests heavily on the Imago Dei interpretation of “man created in God’s image” that says that this has to do with our cognitive faculties resembling that of God’s and not just our physical appearance. The conflict between science and naturalism is from a famous argument Plantinga has championed known as the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) that says that naturalism is a self-defeating belief (like the belief “all my beliefs are false”). I will go through these last two chapters here and address Plantinga’s arguments.

Chapter 9 examines the putative deep concord between science and theism. Plantinga says that the laws of physics are finitely inviolable instead of necessary, meaning that God can break them (unlike with logical impossibilities), but finite beings like humans cannot. This gives the laws of physics a sort of necessity that isn’t as strong as logical necessity, and from this the reliability and regularity of the physical laws arises. Plantinga says there are three ways that theism is in concord with the reliability and regularity of the physical laws. I’ll go through each one in turn:


Science requires regularity, predictability, and constancy; it requires that our world conform to laws of nature… From the point of view of naturalism, the fact that our world displays the sort of regularity and lawlike behavior necessary for science is a piece of enormous cosmic luck, a not-to-be-expected bit of serendipity. But regularity and lawlikeness obviously fit well with the thought that God is a rational person who has created our world, and instituted the laws of nature

This of course requires we take the point of view that God’s intellect is prior to God’s will (that God is Intellect in the Aquinas/Avicenna/Maimonides tradition instead of God being untrammeled Will in the Ockham/al-Ghazālī/Gabirol tradition), which is not obvious, especially if we allow for God to make special intercessions that go against His law.

But let’s assume that it is the case that God’s intellect is prior to God’s will. The enormous cosmic luck could be explained by the anthropic principle: beings like us could only have evolved in a world that has regularity, predictability, and constancy. We will therefore necessarily find ourselves in such a world.

Additionally, why should we expect that worlds that do not exhibit regularity, predictability, and constancy are more likely than ones that do exhibit such features? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to believe that such irregularity, unpredictability, and inconsistency would be less likely since we would then have to account for why such chaotic fluctuations in the physical laws occur? In other words, shouldn’t regularity, predictability, and constancy be considered the default, with chaos requiring some further explanation? I don’t know, but it is not obvious that chaos must be the default or more common than regularity, predictability, and constancy.

And couldn’t we just as easily argue that, if God exists, then the laws of nature could be changed based on God’s whim? There is nothing about the nature of God to categorically preclude a being so incredibly beyond human understanding from doing such a thing; or from believing that God hasn’t done such things in the past (in the Bible God has changed His mind about things). God Himself could be the agent of chaos that allows deviations from the regularity, predictability, and constancy that are the default.

The theist who takes the Intellect prior to Will stance will say that God wouldn’t do such a thing. That the nature of God’s Intellect precludes Him from deviating from the regularity, predictability, and constancy that so pleases His very Intellect. It could not be ruled out that, in God’s unfathomable wisdom, He might choose to produce such chaos, but I will grant for the sake of argument that God, if we accept His Intellect as prior to His Will, would not deviate from His divine regularity, predictability, and constancy.

But then why ascribe a will at all to God? Why not a panentheistic God in the tradition of Spinoza/German Idealism? Wouldn’t perfect knowledge of the universe simply be being the universe? An object, like a stone, contains the maximal amount of information needed to perfectly describe the stone, and therefore it possesses perfect, complete knowledge of that stone. In the same way, the universe possesses perfect, complete knowledge of itself by virtue of being itself. It is the mind that that can be characterized by possessing knowledge of things other than itself, but a knowledge that is imperfect by virtue of not being the object of its knowledge, and therefore must make approximations that introduce inaccuracies. If one commits themselves to having God’s Intellect trump His Will, then one must justify why we ought to consider God as anything other than an inert (Will-less) perfect and complete description of existence.


….for science to flourish, scientists and others must believe that it [manifest regularity and law-like behavior]. …such a conviction [in the Order of Things] fits well with the theistic doctrine of the image of God.

It also fits well with the fact that we humans evolved to live in the universe that in fact has these “laws” of nature. The doctrine that humans are made in the image of God (Imago Dei), and that this includes that humans have minds similar to God’s insofar as they are meant for acquiring true beliefs, does a lot of heavy lifting in all of these arguments. Where does this doctrine come from? It is Biblical and not something derived from natural theology, which makes us less warranted in accepting it. The passages from where this cognitive flavor of Imago Dei is interpreted are (from the New International Version):

  • Genesis 1:26-27 – Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
  • Genesis 5:1-3 – When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “Mankind” when they were created.
  • Genesis 9:6 – “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.

So from this we have to accept the premise that “in our image, in our likeness” entails “having a mind similar to ours, but not so similar as to begin with a great deal of propositional knowledge.” Let’s set aside that this isn’t an obvious interpretation of the above Biblical passages, and that not every theologian has interpreted it as such, and assume that the following conditional is true: if God created humans, then the doctrine of Imago Dei is true.

We cannot get to the conclusion that God created humans by means of our “conviction” in the Order of Things (we cannot affirm the consequent to prove the antecedent). But perhaps what Plantinga has in mind is instead: if the doctrine of Imago Dei is true, then God created humans. But this is circular, because it is saying “if we were created by God in His image, then we were created by God.” And so this isn’t a successful argument.


[T]heism enables us to understand the necessity or inevitableness or inviolability of natural law… Again, from the point of view of naturalism, the character of these laws is something of an enigma. What is this alleged necessity they display, weaker than logical necessity, but necessity nonetheless? What if anything explains the fact that these laws govern what happens? What reason if any is there for expecting them to continue to govern these phenomena? Theism provides a natural answer to these questions; naturalism stands mute before them.

I’ll examine each of the three questions raised in this part:

  1. What is this alleged necessity that natural laws display?

What would be the alternative? Absolute chaos? We could invoke the anthropic principle here: we would not find ourselves in a world of absolute chaos, since such a world would not support beings like ourselves.

  1. What explains the fact that these laws govern what happens?

Assuming we are not satisfied with it as a brute fact, we need to be careful about not equivocating the meaning of law as it is understood as edicts and decrees and law as it is understood in science. In science, a law is how we think about something that is reliable and predictable. That doesn’t mean that there is some law “written into” the universe that stops physical reality from attempted transgressions, like Xerxes having the Bosphorus straits whipped for sinking his bridge. Regularity precedes any notion of law.

I will however take it as meaning that these regularities must be accounted for, that the default would be chaos until something or someone organizes everything into the observed regularities. Why should we expect that these laws govern what happens if there is a God? I suppose we could invoke Imago Dei again, but since God can supersede the laws (since they are only finitely inviolable and not necessary) then what gives us reason to believe God won’t do so? If we take Imago Dei to mean that we can assume God thinks in some way analogous to humans, then would the fact that because humans would love to play around with the laws of physics mean that God would also want to do this? I don’t know, but there isn’t any reason to think that God wouldn’t want to play around with the laws of physics.

  1. What reason is there for expecting the natural laws to continue?

Two things: one, for them to suddenly discontinue, or undergo a drastic change, would be arbitrary – meaning, again, why assume that this would be the default? Second, even if we had no reason to think they will continue, that may be a frightening notion to us, but it doesn’t bare one way or the other on whether or not God exists. But in the end, expecting them to continue has worked so far and has yet to give us a reason to believe they won’t continue. If that turns out not to be the case, there isn’t a whole lot we can do about it. And besides, as I said above, why would the existence of God give us any reason to believe the natural laws will continue when God is able to supersede them?

(I will fill in my comments on Plantinga’s arguments for why mathematics has deep concord with God in a future edit of this post)

Later in the chapter, Plantinga asks “why do we choose certain [scientific] hypotheses to endorse, when there are infinitely many compatible with our evidence?” He answers this by saying that they have theoretical virtues, which are:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Parsimony
  3. Elegance or beauty
  4. Fruitfulness

He then essentially gives two arguments for why this produces deep concord between science and theism. I will go through each in turn.

First, insofar as we have been created in God’s image, it is reasonable to think our intellectual preferences resemble his. We value simplicity, elegance, beauty; it is therefore reasonable to think that the same goes for God. But if he too values these qualities, it is reasonable to think this divine preference will be reflected in the world he has created.

I don’t think it is at all reasonable to think our intellectual preferences will resemble God’s. As I said above, Imago Dei, which is doing a lot of the heavy lifting in all of Plantinga’s arguments in this chapter, is a scriptural interpretation, not a matter of natural theology. We don’t arrive at it by reason, but by scriptural decree. But for the sake of argument, I will grant once again that: if God created humans, then the doctrine of Imago Dei is true.

Let’s examine the above argument. We can set it up discursively as follows:

  1. If we are created in God’s image (Imago Dei), then our intellectual preferences will resemble God’s
  2. If premise 1 is true and humans value simplicity, elegance, and beauty, then God must also value simplicity, elegance, and beauty
  3. If God values simplicity, elegance, and beauty, then the world will be created with simplicity, elegance, and beauty

We can then arrive at the following conclusion:

  1. Our intellectual preferences include simplicity, elegance, and beauty
  2. Therefore, if premise 1 is true, then God values simplicity, elegance, and beauty
  3. Therefore, if 2 and 3 are true, then the world was created with simplicity, elegance, and beauty (modus ponens of 3)

All we can say with any kind of confidence is that 4 is true, but we need the conjunction of premise 1 with “humans value simplicity, elegance, and beauty” to be true. We thus need to determine that Imago Dei is true. But we cannot conclude Imago Dei by affirming the consequent of premise 1. And so we have to assume the truth of Imago Dei, which is once against doing most of the heavy lifting. But let’s grant that Imago Dei is true. That would mean we are warranted in believing that God values simplicity, elegance, and beauty by virtue of the fact that we humans value simplicity, elegance, and beauty (modus ponens of premise 2). That means by modus ponens on premise 3 we can also conclude that the world was created with simplicity, elegance, and beauty.

But what if that is not true? So far it seems like there is a conflict between quantum field theory (QFT) and general relativity (GR). One might argue that just because we haven’t found a way to reconcile these two fabulously well-established theories doesn’t mean we won’t do so in the future. That might be true. But Plantinga has used the fact that we don’t have a full picture of every mutation that could lead from primitive light detectors to human eyes as an argument that there probably is no such path, so if we play by those rules, then I am warranted in saying that our not having a reconciliation between QFT and GR means there may not be such a reconciliation. This ruins our simplicity, elegance, and beauty, which denies the consequent of 3, which then denies the consequent of 2, which then denies the consequent of 1, meaning that Imago Dei is not true.

Let’s for the sake of argument assume that there is some sort of undiscovered reconciliation between QFT and GR. Then we still run into a sort of Euthyphro Dilemma with the simplicity, elegance, and beauty of the universe: did God create the universe in the way that it is because it is beautiful, or is it beautiful because God created it this way? If it is the former, then there must be some standard of beauty to which God must adhere, in which case there is a proposition (i.e., “the universe is simple/elegant/beautiful”) that God did not make true. If it is the latter, then couldn’t have God made it any way He wanted to and just called that beautiful?

And when it comes to simplicity, why didn’t God make the universe even simpler than it is? One might argue that God was forced to make the universe sufficiently complex, but no more complex, than was needed to make beings like us. By why is this the case? Why would God be forced to follow any sort of physical law? Why would God’s own creation dictate what God was allowed to do, given that the universe is only finitely inviolable? It is not logically impossible for God to have created a universe capable of harboring our presumably non-physical souls (i.e., if our souls are of a different substance than our brains, then our consciousness is not dependent on the physical laws of the universe) in a universe that is much simpler and more elegant than the one that we inhabit?

It seems to me that if consciousness depends upon the physical (is supervenient on the physical) then there would have to be a sufficient level of complexity to the physical world, but that if consciousness is independent of the physical world, then the physical world could have been as simple as God wished. And if God favors simplicity, elegance, and beauty then He could have made it much simpler. And if God valued elegance and beauty, then He could have either made the universe more elegant and beautiful (perhaps by making it not so hostile to living creatures) or simply by making the conscious inhabitants have a much higher appreciation for elegance and beauty than we already do.

Second, what we have here is another example of God’s having created us and our world in such a way that there is that adequation intellectus ad rem [the fit of intellect with reality]. We are so constituted that our intellectual success requires that the world be relevantly simple; the world is in fact relevantly simple. This fit is only to be expected on theism, but is a piece of enormous cosmic serendipity on naturalism. It is therefore one more way in which there is deep concord between theistic religion and science.

Or maybe humans could only have evolved in a world that is constituted in such a way? Or that our intellect fits this reality because it is the reality in which we evolved?

Finally, in chapter 10, we get Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN), which goes like this:

  1. P(R|N&E) is low
  2. Anyone who accepts (believes) N&E and sees that P(R|N&E) is low has a defeater for R
  3. Anyone who has a defeater for R has a defeater for any other belief she thinks she has, including N&E itself
  4. If anyone who accepts N&E thereby acquires a defeater for N&E, N&E is self-defeating and can’t rationally be accepted
  5. Conclusion: N&E can’t rationally be accepted

R = the proposition that our cognitive faculties are Reliable
N = Naturalism
E = the proposition that we and our cognitive faculties have come to be in the way proposed by the contemporary scientific theory of evolution

As to R, this goes to Plantinga’s theory of warranted belief. A belief is warranted, according to Plantinga, if is satisfies the following conditions:

  1. The belief is formed by a properly functioning cognitive apparatus
  2. The belief is formed in a suitable environment for the cognitive apparatus
  3. The cognitive apparatus is oriented toward forming true beliefs
  4. The cognitive apparatus is designed so as to reliably form true beliefs

It is this final point that he means by reliability. It means roughly (from his book Warrant and Proper Function):

…if one of my beliefs has warrant, then the module of the design plan governing the production of that belief must be such that the statistical or objective probability of a belief’s being true, given that it has been produced in accord with that module in a congenial cognitive environment, is high.

He then goes on in Where the Conflict Really Lies to try showing particularly why premises 1 and 2 are sound. For premise 1 he says that “…naturalistic evolution…gives us reason to doubt two things” which are:

  1. That a purpose of our cognitive systems is that of serving us with true beliefs
  2. That they do, in fact, furnish us with mostly true beliefs

And he then goes on to say:

What is the likelihood, given evolution and naturalism (construed as including materialism about human beings), that the content thus arising [from neurophysiological properties] is in fact true? In particular, what is the likelihood, given N&E, that the content associated with our neural structures is true? What is the likelihood, given N&E, that our cognitive faculties are reliable, thereby producing mostly true beliefs?

And that: “…fitness requires accurate indication; but nothing follows about reliability of belief.” Where indicators are thought of as (using a frog as an example organism): “…the frog does have ‘indicators,’ neural structures that receive input from the frog’s sense organs, are correlated with the path of the insect as it flies past, and are connected with the frog’s muscles in a such a way that it flicks out its tongue and captures that unfortunate fly.” In other words, an indicator is what gives the organism the ability to respond to a given stimulus with a behavior that increases the organism’s chances of survival.

And so Plantinga has granted that naturalism could plausibly allow for accurate indication. What he is saying, however, is that the stimulus-response does not require the content of belief. In other words, “if tiger, then run” according to Plantinga does not require that the organism formulate the semantic content “what I am perceiving is a tiger, and the tiger is dangerous, and therefore in order to survive I ought to avoid the tiger.” Indeed, Plantinga argues, a number of other semantic contents could accompany the indication “if tiger, then run”:

Perhaps Paul very much likes the idea of being eaten, but when he sees a tiger, always runs off looking for a better prospect, because he thinks it unlikely the tiger he sees will eat him. This will get his body parts in the right place so far as survival is concerned, without involving much by way of true belief. … Or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a large, friendly, cuddly pussycat and wants to pet it; but he also believes that the best way to pet it is to run away from it. … Clearly there are any number of belief-cum-desire systems that equally fit a given bit of behavior.

Plantinga is assuming a kind of dualism between the content of belief and neurophysiological states insofar as it is possible for there to be different beliefs that accompany the same neurophysiological state. Such a thing is logically possible, but I don’t think he is warranted in taking this assumption for granted as a physical possibility given our actual universe. We know there is at least a correlation between neurophysiological states and thought, since brain damage, or different types of manipulations of the brain (chemical, electrical, magnetic), can alter thought. And so, if beliefs form by virtue of the neurophysiological states of the brain, and the neurophysiological states of the brain come about in virtue of indications (proper behavior in response to a stimulus), and indications are accurate in virtue of conferring reproductive fitness, then wouldn’t it follow that the beliefs be accurate as well? Or at least appropriate? In other words:

  1. If {[a particular indication A occurs if and only if there is a particular brain state X that results from stimulus R] and [a different particular indication B occurs if and only if there is a particular brain state Y that results from stimulus S]}, then there is a causal relationship between [X and A] and between [Y and B]
  2. If in the actual world a belief with some semantic content P accompanies a particular indication A, then in the actual world the semantic content P must be accompanied by the particular brain state X
  3. If the particular brain state X and the particular indication A must be accompanied by the semantic content P in the actual world, then the semantic content P is by definition the correct or appropriate belief pertaining to the stimulus R in the actual world

Where Plantinga goes wrong is in thinking that the semantic content P could just as easily be replaced with Q, but this would be like saying that an acceleration of 10 meters per second per second could, after 1 second, give a velocity of either 10 meters per second or 15 meters per second. If beliefs are caused by brain states, then, just like your speed after so much time at a particular acceleration must be a particular value depending on what the particular acceleration rate was, the semantic content P must accompany that particular brain state, and since the semantic content P must accompany brain state X and indication A must accompany brain state X, then P and A are equivalent. And thus we can say:

  • If a particular indication A and corresponding brain state X arose as an evolutionary adaptation to the stimulus R, then the particular semantic content P is also an evolutionary adaptation to the stimulus R

Plantinga is also assuming that we need the content of belief to be the cause of action, and not the physically determined neurophysiological states causing both action and belief, lest we condemn ourselves to Semantic epiphenomenalism and thus semantic content is invisible to evolution. But, as I said, if the semantic content must accompany the brain state, which must accompany the indication (evolutionary adaptation), then the semantic content is not invisible to evolution.

Of course, another issue with EAAN is that it, if it were true, it would also work as a defeater for theism: if P(R|E&N) is low, then R is low and therefore any proposition pertaining to God is also unreliable. This means that if the proponent of naturalism accepts Plantinga’s conclusion, that naturalism is self-defeating, then the proponent of naturalism must conclude that their own thoughts are unreliable. If their own thoughts are unreliable, then the thought “my thoughts are unreliable in virtue of naturalism making my thoughts unreliable, therefore I ought to accept theism” is also an unreliable thought.

The theist will likely respond: but if you accept theism, then reliability comes with it, since P(R|T) is high (where T = theism). Theism is a defeater deflector in that its acceptance deflects the defeater of naturalism by virtue of Imago Dei: we are in God’s image (though not perfect replicas) and God can’t be wrong, so we must have at last a partially reliable truth-acquiring cognitive apparatus. But this is circular: I can reliably trust in my belief in God in virtue of my reliable belief-forming cognitive faculties, which I possess because God made me that way. Essentially it is saying:

  1. I know God exists because my beliefs are reliable, since only if God exists could my beliefs be reliable
  2. But how can I be sure that God exists? Because I believe in God, which ensures that my beliefs are reliable
  3. How do I know my beliefs are reliable? Go back to 1

But lets for the sake of argument grant that naturalism really is self-defeating. Does Imago Dei guarantee that our belief-forming cognitive faculties are reliable? Well, I might offer the following argument:

  • P1: If God is all-powerful, absolutely free, and the creator of humankind, then God could create humans possessing any set of propositions
    • If God could not, then one of the properties (all-powerful, absolutely free, or creator of humankind) would have to be false
  • P2: If God can create humans possessing any set of propositions, then God can create humans that accept as true propositions which are in fact false
    • God could be Descartes’ evil genie; we might also posit that the devil or some kind of demon is corrupting the true propositions with which God has furnished us, but either way it doesn’t matter, the result is that R is dealt a defeater
    • We already know that lots of people form all manner of untrue beliefs; additionally, if someone is a Christian, then they will think that all other religions are indeed forming untrue beliefs about God
    • If we added in premise 1 that God is also omnibenevolent, then one would expect that everyone would at least form true beliefs about God since God would not want to deceive people about Himself; but the pluralism of religion and their mutually exclusive claims about the nature of God demonstrates that necessarily there are people who formulate false beliefs about God
  • P3: If God can create humans that accept as true propositions which are in fact false, then my beliefs could be false
  • P4: If my beliefs could be false, then I have a defeater for any beliefs I have
  • P5: If I have a defeater for any beliefs I have, then my belief in God has a defeater
  • P6: God is conceived of as all-powerful, absolutely free, and the creator of humankind
  • C: Therefore, I cannot rationally accept that God exists

Which means that theism, too, is self-defeating. One might argue that God could deceive us, but that He would not do so on account of Imago Dei (like I said, this doctrine is doing a lot of heavy lifting throughout all this). But given the argument above, a belief in Imago Dei could be one of the deceptions that God has foisted upon us. Since our conception of God as all-powerful, perfectly free, and the creator of humankind means that God is capable of such a deception, we can never rule it out if we accept that a God so conceived actually exists.

Sure, the theist might say, perhaps this does undermine R and therefore make P(R|T) low. But that doesn’t help the case for P(R|N&E) at all. What I would propose, however, is that even if we can’t know that some semantic content P is in one-to-one correspondence with existence as it is in-itself, we at least know that P works in a pragmatic epistemological way. If we can never be certain that we have knowledge of things in-themselves, then at best we can say that we operate in a sort of Kantian phenomenal realm where the real world remains ever out of reach. But what we can say is that the way in which we operate within the phenomena works, and it is unnecessary to invoke God to explain any of our observations of the phenomena, which means that we are warranted in a pragmatic sense in dismissing God as a hypothesis, since the phenomena is all we can ever be certain that know.

Divine Intervention

What does it mean that God intervenes in our universe? Most people hold an intuitive idea about what this means. When Jesus turned water into wine or raised Lazarus from the dead, that was a divine intervention. When God plagued Job with misfortune, that was divine intervention. Perhaps even when you saw an image of the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast or when traffic resulted in your missing your flight which ended up crashing, that those are also divine interventions.

There is in the Abrahamic religions also the doctrine that God conserves the universe, that it takes some kind of act of will on God’s part in order for the universe to persist. This is an unfalsifiable claim and nothing indicates that it must be the case (in the same way that nothing indicates that magical elves are necessary for the universe persisting). It is therefore outside the scope of science and so I won’t consider it too deeply here.

But lets try to come up with something more rigorous for what counts towards the divine action of God that we will be considering.

I propose the following:

First, as already established, one condition is that God’s putative act of will needed for the universe to persist is not counted as an occurrence of divine intervention. We might say conversely that this means that an instance of divine intervention must be irregular or unexpected, that a reasonable person could plausibly classify an event as an instance of divine intervention. The person might wrongly attribute divine intervention, or wrongly discount an instance of divine intervention as something more mundane, but it would in principle be plausible that a person has some justification for believing an event to be divine intervention when it is in fact divine intervention.

Second, an intercessory act of God – a divine intervention – should be such that at some time t-1 prior to the intervention at time t0, the state of the world at some time t1 following t0, which I will call S(t1), could not have been predicted at time t-1 by Laplace’s Demon (a being with knowledge of all the positions and momenta of every particle in the universe at some time t-1 that can use this information to predict all subsequent positions and momenta of all the particles in the universe at any arbitrarily distant future time t1). Conversely, in all possible worlds where the instance of divine intervention does not occur at time t0, the state of the world S(t1) could have been predicted at time t-1 by Laplace’s Demon.

Third, the event – the instance of divine intervention – which occurs at time t0 must have a sufficiently low probability of occurring by more mundane (well-characterized) causes. How low the threshold ought to be is certainly a matter that could be debated. Some might say that the event has to have been impossible given the laws of physics; others might propose that it must only be astronomically improbable; yet others might argue that it merely be less probable than some other outcome (e.g. spontaneous remission of late stage cancer). The idea, however, is that the likelihood of the event occurring through regular, well-established, and predictable causes/mechanisms must be sufficiently low – getting snow in Alaska during January would not qualify as miraculous. This is more epistemological than metaphysical, acting to remove reasonable doubt that an event was an instance of divine intervention.

This third condition is also meant to cover quantum phenomena. There are many things in quantum mechanics that have a non-zero probability of occurring. The position of every particle in your body has a non-zero probability of being anywhere in the universe, since the position is represented by a wavefunction that extends out to infinity. As such, it is not impossible for every particle in your body to suddenly be, say, 10 meters north of where you are, but this is an astronomically improbable event and arguably not able to be predicted by Laplace’s Demon. Thus, we could say that such an occurrence qualifies as a candidate for divine intervention.

Fourth, and this will likely be even more contentious, I would propose that the event must be partial in some way. We could propose all kinds of possible miracles occurring at subatomic scales or happening billions of light-years away. What we are interested in, however, is the relation of divine intervention to people. In other words, the event must matter (and therefore be observable) to someone. It must cause some change in fortunes for at least one person, no matter how large or small or whether it results in a favorable or unfavorable outcome for the person(s) involved. Thus, the quantum leap of an entire planet over the distance of 10 meters occurring in some uninhabited region billions of light-years away would not qualify as a candidate for an instance of divine intervention because the event is out of causal range for any interested parties; in other words, we can’t know that it happened, there would be no significant change to the outcome of the universe or its inhabitants, and such an occurrence is not ruled out by quantum mechanics. If the universe is infinite in space and/or time (neither of which we can rule out), then we would expect astronomically improbable events to occur somewhere at some time with 100% certainty. We however cannot say that such events would have to occur right here where humans live during the minuscule time that humans have been around. Thus we require both the astronomical improbability of the occurrence of the event itself multiplied by the astronomical improbability that it occur in just the right location that it alters the fortunes of some interested party.

To sum, I would say that divine intervention 1) must be recognizable as an instance of divine intervention by a reasonable person; 2) must not be predictable given the state of affairs and the laws of physics at some time prior to the intervention; 3) must be sufficiently improbable; and 4) must have some effect on an interested party.

Spiritualism and Miracles

The Abrahamic conception of God is that He is not a material being, but a spiritual being. Thus, divine interventions must occur by some interaction of spiritual substances with material substances. The mechanism of divine intervention is therefore an alteration of material substances caused by spiritual substances. The same mechanism is proposed to be how the human soul interacts and controls the material body. Thus, we must examine this mechanism of action for how divine intervention is to occur.

It is not axiomatic within science, but it is often taken as an assumption by proponents of science (or, at least, by opponents of spiritualism and miracles) that our universe can be considered a closed system. Alvin Plantinga, in Where the Conflict Really Lies, says that we have no good reason to believe this assumption. Thus, miracles – the intervention in our universe by God – are not made impossible by the conservation laws, which apply only to closed systems.

If there is an interaction between the physical substance and the spiritual substance, we can then say that the physical universe + spirit realm constitutes a closed system; the physical universe is embedded in or subsumed under or parallel to the spiritual realm, the combination of which fully account for all the exists.

If this is correct, it means that the physical universe is therefore not a closed system unto itself. Energy and momentum could potentially be transferred into the universe from the spiritual realm, causing motions and alterations within the physical universe that cannot be predicted or accounted for by considering the physical universe as a closed system unto itself. We could, however, measure the introduction of new energy (or mass) or the loss of existing energy (or mass) within our physical universe via such interactions between the physical component of the system with this spiritual component of the system.

I have touched on this argument in my post about why spiritualism is untrue. Arguing that a spiritualist idea of the human soul is untrue, I pointed out that even if we take the physical universe as not being a closed system, we would still see the effects of the spiritual substance that accompanies (or transcends) the physical substance. Here is what I said in my post about why spiritualism is untrue:

If we were to postulate a spirit world that can interact with our own world, though, we would predict seeing increases in energy and breaking of time translation symmetry. When a human soul, acting from the spirit realm outside the closed system of the universe, caused the movement of ions inside the brain in order to induce thoughts, this would introduce new energy into the universe. There would also be a corresponding breaking of the time translation symmetry associated with energy conservation, which would cause observable changes in spacetime around the heads of human beings. Neither the introduction of new energy nor alterations in spacetime around people’s heads are observed.

The second law of thermodynamics says that the total entropy of the universe always increases. This also takes the universe to be a closed system. An open system, such as the earth, can see a decrease in entropy because it gains energy from the sun. That energy can be used to do work, which can decrease local entropy, but still increase the total entropy of the entire universe.

A world of spirits able to interact with our universe, though, would mean that this law would not have to hold. Our universe would not be a closed system, but in fact an open system within the larger system containing the physical universe and the spirit realm. We would be able to observe decreases in local entropy without corresponding increases in total entropy throughout the universe.

Really, though, the idea of a physical-spiritual dualism, aside from not agreeing with observations, just does not have any explanatory power. Ideally what it would explain is why physical material, having no conscious experience itself, can organize into the brain and have any sort of accompanying consciousness. This merely pushes the explanation back: how is it that a soul or spirit can have consciousness? No question has been answered in such a case, instead just having the answer relegated to the realm of the inexplicable. That, of course, does not mean it is not true, but without actual evidence of a spirit realm – and, indeed, evidence that there is none, at least, that interacts with our physical world – why would we posit one?

This same argument could apply to God’s intervention into the physical world. Presumably the parting of the Red Sea would have introduced a measurable amount of energy into our physical universe. We would have been able to measure the force inhibiting the sea from occupying the path the Hebrews traversed. The water standing as two walls on either side of this path would have been in an energetically unfavorable state and would have tended toward a lower energy state, giving off the energy used to keep it separated – the same energy harnessed by hydroelectric dams.

Such a miracle would have offered something measurable. It’s telling, of course, that all these big miracles only occurred long ago. God saw fit to intercede into the physical world in such significant ways when the Hebrews were fleeing Egypt, on their way to brutalize and savage the inhabitants of the land God promised them, and yet God decided that the Holocaust wasn’t worthy of any such grand gestures. This dearth of miracles in our modern times – which, I might point out, also happens to be the times when science has become a prominent epistemological institution – has made any such measurements difficult, if not impossible.

Once again, none of this disproves the existence of God, or even that God has ceased intervening in the physical world, but the question still remains: why propose that God need be any part of it? What explanatory power does God offer such that keeping all else the same and removing God is not sufficient to explain all physical phenomena?

Quantum Mechanical “Divine Collapse-Causation”

Alvin Plantinga says in Where the Conflict Really Lies that a clockwork deterministic universe on the Newtonian/Laplace’s Demon model is not a threat to divine intervention because we now have quantum mechanics. If quantum mechanics is widely known for anything it is its unintuitive, probabilistic, and explicitly non-deterministic nature. Popular conceptions of Schrodinger’s cat, God playing dice with the universe, particles being in two places at the same time, and spooky action at a distance dazzle the popular imagination with its seemingly mystical properties.

I would note that although quantum mechanics is probabilistic at its core, it is not necessarily non-deterministic. It obeys what is called unitarity, which essentially says that the evolution of the wavefunction through time occurs in a deterministic manner: if we have some time-evolution operator Ȏ act on the wavefunction Ψ(x) then the state of the wavefunction at time t is:

Ψ(t) = ȎΨ(0) = e-iHt/ħΨ(0).

Which tells us that the wavefunction at time t is dependent on the wavefunction at time 0. I will ignore this nitpick since it’s not going to effect our analysis here.

Fortunately, Plantinga does not try obfuscating his point with a bunch of the usual quantum woo. He takes a Collapse Theory/Ghirardi-Rimini-Weber (GRW) interpretation of the wavefunction. This is the interpretation that the position (for example) of a particle will spontaneously collapse with regular probability as opposed to the Copenhagen interpretation, which says the wavefunction only collapses when the system is measured and that nothing prior to the measurement determined what one would measure:

The orthodox position gives a very simple answer to the question: what determines the outcome, when different outcomes are possible? The answer is “nothing”—the theory is complete and therefore it is illegitimate to raise any question about properties possessed prior to a measurement, when different outcomes of a measurement of an observable have non-vanishing probabilities of occurring, if the measurement is actually performed. Correspondingly, the referents of the theory are only the results of measurements. These are to be described in classical terms and involve in general mutually exclusive physical conditions.


Essentially what the Copenhagen interpretation says is that a quantum mechanical system, say a single electron, evolves according to the Schrodinger equation until it is measured, at which point it collapses into a single state (such as a position). While not being measured, a particle could be in position |A> or in position |B> (using Dirac bra-ket notation), or in a superposition of both of them ΨΨ* = Ψ2 = <A|α2|A> + <B|β2|B> where α and β are complex numbers such that α2 + β2 = 1 and Ψ* is the complex conjugate of Ψ. (In real systems, where position is continuous, you need an integral <Ψ> = Ψ2 =∫<A|α(x)Ȏα*(x)|A>dx where Ȏ is an operator for position in this instance, but I will use the two positions for the sake of simplicity) The issue is: what, physically speaking, does it even mean for a particle to be in a superposition of two states (such as position)? What does a “measurement” and “collapse” even mean and why should a measured quantum system behave different than an unmeasured quantum system? And how can we measure an isolated quantum system using another quantum system (what is known as the measurement problem)?

The GRW interpretation [sometimes called QMSL (Quantum Mechanics with Spontaneous Localizations)] attempts to solve these issues. GRW says that collapses are spontaneously occurring all the time. It can be summarized briefly:

It is assumed that each constituent of a physical system independently undergoes spontaneous collapses. The collapses are random in time, distributed according to a Poisson distribution; they are random in space and are more likely to occur where the wave function is larger. In between collapses, the wave function evolves according to the Schrödinger equation. For composite systems, the collapse on each constituent causes the collapse of the center of mass wave functions.


Also, this video does a good job explaining it:

Essentially what all this is saying is that collapses are a natural and spontaneous phenomenon, which removes the arbitrariness of the “measurement” and makes “collapse” an integral part of quantum systems. Thus, a particle undergoes spontaneous collapses without the need to define what a measurement is. The question then becomes: what is the nature of these spontaneous collapses? One potential issue is how often do these spontaneous collapses occur? If the probability of a spontaneous collapse is a constant probability per unit time:

dP/dt = λ

We then have a Poisson distributed sequence of times t1, t2, t3, …, ti, …, tn with a waiting time between these spontaneous localizations given by:

τ = ti+1 – ti = 1/ λ

Where the GRW model predicts a frequency of:

λ = 10-16 s-1

So that we then have

τ = 1/ λ = 1016 s = 300,000,000 years

In other words, the spontaneous collapses occur about once every 300 million years. This seems like a very long time to wait. But if we have macroscopic systems of entangled particles, then only one out of, lets say N = 1023 particles (on the order of 1 mole) has to spontaneously collapse to cause all of the other particles to collapse as well. That would give us:

τ/N = 1016 s / 1023 particles = 10-7  s/particle

Or, in other words, within our system of 1023 particles, there would be a spontaneous collapse about once every 100 nanoseconds.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the mathematical detail here (one day I will get around to making videos about the interpretations of quantum mechanics, but this is neither the time nor the place; if you are too eager to wait for me to get around to making such videos, I would recommend checking out the book Foundations of Quantum Mechanics by Travis Norsen, which was the source of the above calculations).

The aspect of this nature of spontaneous collapse that we are concerned with here is: what causes these spontaneous collapses? According to Plantinga, these spontaneous collapses could conceivably be caused by God. He calls this Divine Collapse-Causation (DCC). Thus, when a miracle occurs, the divine intervention in question is God causing spontaneous collapses of particles into extremely low probability positions (the quantum observable that GRW is primarily concerned with).

Let us assume for the sake of argument that the GRW interpretation, or one of its extensions (such as Continuous Spontaneous Localization or CSL), is the correct one. Once again, Plantinga’s strategy is not terribly effective or convincing. It’s certainly possible that God is causing these spontaneous collapses. It can’t be ruled out just within the framework of quantum mechanics. Neither could a functionally infinite number of other things. We have no good reason to suppose that God is causing these spontaneous collapses. No more reason to believe it than the hypothesis that magical elves are causing the spontaneous collapses.

Plantinga is attempting in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies to show that science and God are compatible; that believing in one does not preclude believing in the other. The above analysis does not categorically preclude God should we accept the GRW interpretation of quantum mechanics. But what does this tell us about specific instances of miracles attested to in scripture?

As our specific example, let us consider the transubstantiation of water into wine. I will assume 1023 molecules of pure water without any “exotic” isotopes. This would be 1×1023 atoms of oxygen and 2×1023 atoms of hydrogen. Oxygen contains 8 protons and 8 neutrons and brings 8 electrons to the reaction, so we will say that 1×1023 atoms of oxygen contains 8×1023 each of protons, neutrons, and electrons. The hydrogen brings 1×1023 each of protons and electrons. This gives us (8 + 8 + 8 + 1 + 1)x1023 = 26×1023 = 2.6×1024 subatomic particles.

For simplicity, we will say that wine is composed of: water, 86%; ethanol, 12%; glycerol and polysaccharides or other trace elements, 1%; different types of acids, 0.5%; and volatile compounds, 0.5%. To further simplify, lets only look at the water, ethanol, and sugar. This means that wine contains carbon (containing 6 protons and 6 neutrons each), which pure water does not contain. This means that we will either need hydrogen to undergo fusion or water to undergo fission in order to produce carbon. We can assume that this occurs via spontaneous collapse into improbable positions (i.e. 6 hydrogen nuclei spontaneously collapse into positions of close enough proximity to become trapped by the strong nuclear force, or two protons/neutrons from oxygen spontaneously collapse into positions far enough away from the oxygen nucleus to escape the attraction of the strong nuclear force). This latter case simplifies things, since we can use the escaping protons from oxygen to produce some of the extra hydrogen we will need for our ethanol and carbohydrates.

With our sample of 100% water turning into something containing 86% water while maintaining our volume of liquid, we would need to have 14% of the water undergo a change into ethanol and sugar. If we assume the fission of 1 oxygen to produce 1 carbon + 2 hydrogen, this means that 1.4×1022 oxygens would undergo fission (we could have 1.4×1022 fission events). If we say that the energy needed to do this is the reverse of the CNO cycle, and then for simplification we round down and say that it requires 20 MeV or 3.2×10-12 Joules for each full fission event from one atom of oxygen to on atom carbon, then

3.2×10-12 Joules/fission x 1.4×1022 fissions = 4.2×1010 Joules

This is an order of magnitude more energy than is released by one ton of TNT (1 ton of TNT releases 4.184×109 Joules). And that’s considering only the nuclear reactions without considering the chemical reactions that would have to occur as well. In other words, all the energy being drawn into this transubstantiation will cause the surroundings to get very cold (to make an understatement) as energy is drawn in by the change (once the protons and neutrons escape by the attraction of the strong nuclear force by spontaneously appearing outside the nucleus via spontaneous collapse, energy will be drawn into the nuclei to bring them up to the higher energy level of the carbon nuclei relative to the oxygen nuclei). If we went the other way and instead generated our carbon by fusion of hydrogen, we would have the opposite effect: a powerful explosion.

These phenomena – either a flash freezing everywhere around the water turned to wine, or a massive explosion – was not reported in the account of Jesus turning water into wine, which means we ought to be skeptical of quantum mechanical processes being behind this miracle. I can anticipate that Plantinga would likely argue that the energy source or sink during this miracle was the spiritual realm – the energy for the fission came from the spirit realm or the energy from the fusion went into the spirit realm. Fine. But why not suppose the source/sink is the super-spirit realm where ultra-God resides? Or Narnia? Or some other substance/realm that is transcendent or parallel to our own?

Intercessory Prayer

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that God can intervene; that God is capable of intervening through one of the above mechanisms (spirit-material interactions and/or quantum mechanics). An issue with divine intervention comes from the question of why God would wish to intervene in the first place. Alvin Plantinga in Where the Conflict Really Lies points out three objections often brought up by theologians (people who believe God exists) against God’s intervening in the world. They are:

  1.  The problem of evil: if God intervenes occasionally, why not more often? Why isn’t God stopping evil more often?
  2. The problem of free will: having fixed laws, according to these theologians, is a necessary prerequisite for individuals to possess free will. Essentially, if God is constantly changing and adjusting things (perhaps even including the minds of other people), then He is (at least potentially) altering human behavior and therefore interfering in our free choices and decisions.
  3. The problem of divine consistency: if God has created a universe of perfect order, or is perhaps even a necessary part of sustaining that order from moment to moment, then it would contradict God’s divine consistency for Him to also be changing things. Or, according to Nicholas Saunders: “how can God uphold the laws of nature with one hand, whilst simultaneously overriding them by performing miracles with the other?”

Plantinga does not find these objections compelling. He does not offer any defeaters for the objections but simply tries to show that these objections are themselves not defeaters of a conception of God that can and maybe even does perform miracles. One consistent through-line for Plantinga (in a lot of his work) is that we humans don’t know what it is God is ultimately trying to do, and so we can’t attribute any criteria that God must follow when divinely intervening in our physical world. For instance, Plantinga argues that #1 above isn’t compelling because we humans don’t know which evils God would and would not wish to stop or for what reasons, and therefore something like the Holocaust isn’t a defeater for a conception of God that occasionally intercedes to put a stop to some evils (but not others, for reasons we do not and maybe can not fathom). This is certainly true, but it’s far more parsimonious to say that many evils are “allowed” to happen because there simply isn’t any being in existence with the power to stop them.

As with many of Plantinga’s arguments, I don’t find them too compelling. Granted, in Where the Conflict Really Lies (at least in the earlier sections of the book) he is not attempting to show demonstrably that science proves the existence of God, only that it does not disprove the existence of God and that accepting scientific findings and maintaining a belief in God are not incompatible sets of beliefs. As far as that goes I am mostly in agreement with him. I don’t think science disproves God (though I think the philosophical arguments against the existence of God are, in fact, defeaters for God). But that’s a far cry from even suggesting that God is involved in any physical processes, much less that any particular conception of God (the Christian trinity, the Islamic tawhid, omnipotence, omniscience, benevolence, and so on) is true of this being.

However, this post isn’t meant as a refutation of theodicy. What we can say, though, is that if God does perform miracles via divine intervention, then God either does it arbitrarily and therefore is capricious and inconsistent and may as well be assumed an aspect of chaos and randomness, or God has some reason for choosing to intervene in the universe (even if we do not and can not fathom these reasons). For the sake of argument I will assume the latter.

Those reasons for God’s divine intervention may be unfathomable to us humans, whether in principle or in practice. But one such reason that is widely believed by many religious people is that divine intervention occurs because God answers prayers. In other words, God’s worshipers petition God for certain interventions and as a result God grants those requests. I italicize “and as a result” to stress the idea that had the person not made the request to God in a prayer, then God would not have taken the intercessory action to alter what was otherwise going to happen in the absence of the prayerful request.

Prayer has the problem of clashing with God’s omniscience (why would God need to change something in response to a prayer when God knew that the person was going to ask for it before they ever asked for it? Why not just make the universe in such a way that either the prayer would be answered automatically, or even such that the prayer would have been unnecessary in the first place?) and with the three objections from above, which could be stated thusly:

  1.  Why does God answer some prayers and not others? Why are some relatively minor evils worthy of God’s intervention (e.g. helping someone get through a time of grief or giving someone a better outcome when they get sick) while relatively major evils, like the Holocaust, are not worthy of God’s intervention (surely there were people who prayed for the survival and safety of many Holocaust victims but whose prayers went unheeded)?
  2. If God answers prayers, is He not interfering with people’s free will (e.g. if someone breaks into your house and you are hiding in the closet praying that the person doesn’t look in the closet and as a result of your prayer God makes it so the person doesn’t look in your closet, is that not interfering with the free will of the criminal)?
  3. Why would someone asking God for some form of divine intervention prompt God into action? Why would God choose to abrogate the exquisite workings of His perfect creation because someone asked for it, whereas if the person had not asked for it, God would have chosen to maintain His perfect creation unaltered? And if God has an ultimate, divine plan for everyone and everything in existence, then does God alter that plan in some way because somebody asked Him to?

Once again, these objections are not defeaters, and they are also more in the realm of theology and philosophy than science.

So, what does the science tell us about prayer? Lets look at a 2001 study:

Objective: To determine the effect of intercessory prayer, a widely practiced complementary therapy, on cardiovascular disease progression after hospital discharge.

Patients and methods: In this randomized controlled trial conducted between 1997 and 1999, a total of 799 coronary care unit patients were randomized at hospital discharge to the intercessory prayer group or to the control group. Intercessory prayer, ie, prayer by 1 or more persons on behalf of another, was administered at least once a week for 26 weeks by 5 intercessors per patient. The primary end point after 26 weeks was any of the following: death, cardiac arrest, rehospitalization for cardiovascular disease, coronary revascularization, or an emergency department visit for cardiovascular disease. Patients were divided into a high-risk group based on the presence of any of 5 risk factors (age = or >70 years, diabetes mellitus, prior myocardial infarction, cerebrovascular disease, or peripheral vascular disease) or a low-risk group (absence of risk factors) for subsequent primary events.

Results: At 26 weeks, a primary end point had occurred in 25.6% of the intercessory prayer group and 29.3% of the control group (odds ratio [OR], 0.83 [95% confidence interval (CI), 0.60-1.14]; P=.25). Among high-risk patients, 31.0% in the prayer group vs 33.3% in the control group (OR, 0.90 [95% CI, 0.60-1.34]; P=.60) experienced a primary end point. Among low-risk patients, a primary end point occurred in 17.0% in the prayer group vs 24.1% in the control group (OR, 0.65 [95% CI, 0.20-1.36]; P=.12).

Conclusions: As delivered in this study, intercessory prayer had no significant effect on medical outcomes after hospitalization in a coronary care unit.

Then there is this 2005 study:

Background: Data from a pilot study suggested that noetic therapies—healing practices that are not mediated by tangible elements—can reduce preprocedural distress and might affect outcomes in patients undergoing percutaneous coronary intervention. We undertook a multicentre, prospective trial of two such practices: intercessory prayer and music, imagery, and touch (MIT) therapy.

Methods: 748 patients undergoing percutaneous coronary intervention or elective catheterisation in nine USA centres were assigned in a 2×2 factorial randomisation either off-site prayer by established congregations of various religions or no off-site prayer (double-blinded) and MIT therapy or none (unmasked). The primary endpoint was combined in-hospital major adverse cardiovascular events and 6-month readmission or death. Prespecified secondary endpoints were 6-month major adverse cardiovascular events, 6 month death or readmission, and 6-month mortality.

Findings: 371 patients were assigned prayer and 377 no prayer; 374 were assigned MIT therapy and 374 no MIT therapy. The factorial distribution was: standard care only, 192; prayer only, 182; MIT therapy only, 185; and both prayer and MIT therapy, 189. No significant difference was found for the primary composite endpoint in any treatment comparison. Mortality at 6 months was lower with MIT therapy than with no MIT therapy (hazard ratio 0·35 (95% CI 0·15–0·82, p=0·016).

Interpretation: Neither masked prayer nor MIT therapy significantly improved clinical outcome after elective catheterisation or percutaneous coronary intervention.

And of course the famous 2006 STEP study:

Background: Intercessory prayer is widely believed to influence recovery from illness, but claims of benefits are not supported by well-controlled clinical trials. Prior studies have not addressed whether prayer itself or knowledge/certainty that prayer is being provided may influence outcome. We evaluated whether (1) receiving intercessory prayer or (2) being certain of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with uncomplicated recovery after coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery.

Methods: Patients at 6 US hospitals were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 groups: 604 received intercessory prayer after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; 597 did not receive intercessory prayer also after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; and 601 received intercessory prayer after being informed they would receive prayer. Intercessory prayer was provided for 14 days, starting the night before CABG. The primary outcome was presence of any complication within 30 days of CABG. Secondary outcomes were any major event and mortality.

Results: In the 2 groups uncertain about receiving intercessory prayer, complications occurred in 52% (315/604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/597) of those who did not (relative risk 1.02, 95% CI 0.92-1.15). Complications occurred in 59% (352/601) of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer compared with the 52% (315/604) of those uncertain of receiving intercessory prayer (relative risk 1.14, 95% CI 1.02-1.28). Major events and 30-day mortality were similar across the 3 groups.

Conclusions: Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.

There are of course some studies that show a small benefit, though there are also studies that show that prayer may actually be net harmful (such as the STEP study above). One possible explanation for these results is that there may be psychological issues at play, such as pointed out in a brief 2016 meta-analysis by Savannah Vincent:

(1) Increased prayer could lead to improved psychological and physiological functioning that would be related to better wellbeing and potentially better health outcomes (positive relationship between prayer and beneficial health outcomes);

(2) Individuals who decline in their health may be more likely to seek divine comfort and help in coping with there illness or healing their illness, which would show a negative relationship between frequency of prayer and beneficial health outcomes;

(3) Those who pray or get prayed for during stressful times may focus on their stress while praying, resulting in a passive and potentially unhealthy coping strategy, which could also result in a negative relationship between frequency of prayer and beneficial health outcomes;

(4) Some who pray or are prayed for during stressful times might focus on how divine purposes and plans will help them through their difficult situation and could lead to a positive relationship between frequency of prayer and beneficial health outcomes.

At best what we can say is that the efficacy of prayer is inconclusive. The simpler explanation is that it is having no effect at all. Even if we accept that God is listening and that in some instances He does grant requests made in prayers, He does not appear to do it often. No better than chance in most studies, and the ones with positive results it is usually barely a statistical significance.

These studies cannot tell us what reasons God would have for answering some prayers and not others. Nor can we discern what conditions would have to be satisfied for the subjects of prayerful requests (does the subject of the prayer and/or the person doing the praying have to be adherents of a certain religion? Do the people praying and/or the people being prayed for need to have led a certain kind of life? Are their certain rituals that must accompany the prayer?).

We also have to remember that these studies cannot tell us: A) given the individuals who were the subject of intercessory prayers and ended up with better outcomes, had those particular individuals not been the subjects of intercessory prayers, would they have had worse outcomes? And conversely B) given the individuals who were not subjects of intercessory prayers and had worse outcomes, had those particular individuals been the subjects of intercessory prayers, would they would have had better outcomes?

This is because comparing the cause-effect (prayer-outcome) of two different individuals may not be the same as comparing the cause-effect (prayer-outcome) of a single individual under different prayer conditions (either being the subject of intercessory prayer or not being the subject of intercessory prayer). For instance, it’s possible that there are a number of elect for whom God is only ever willing to intercede, or it could be the case that there are some situations in which God will intercede for some portion of people but not others, and perhaps even that this cohort can change over time or in different circumstances. Of course, in either of these cases, a person doesn’t have any control over which of their prayers God deigns to answer, so for us humans who don’t possess knowledge of the criteria God employs to determine which prayers are worthy of His attention, intercessory prayer remains as much a crapshoot as doing nothing (sort of the same crapshoot as the Calvinist doctrine of the Unconditional Elect).

The other thing to keep in mind with these studies of intercessory prayer is that none of them are asking God to perform miracles that would produce phenomena far outside what could happen otherwise. Nobody has been raised back from the dead. Nothing has undergone transubstantiation (water into wine; bread into flesh). No seas have parted. Nobody has walked on water. The phenomena under investigation in these studies are all things that could plausibly occur without ever invoking divine intervention. I guarantee that if all 7 billion people across the entire world prayed for God to turn a single cup of water into a cup of wine that it would not happen.

So, the takeaway from this is that if we examine prayer as a candidate reason that God may have for divine intervention, then the science indicates that God, at best, only gets around to addressing a handful of prayers for every several thousand prayer petitions He receives for reasons we do not understand. More likely He either does nothing, leaving things to play out according to purely physical mechanisms, or He doesn’t exist and so there isn’t anyone there to “do something” in the first place.


A more comprehensive treatment of this topic is found in my post “The Case for Moral Nihilism.” Some of the following section is adapted into that post, but there is also much more in that post that is not found here.

Nowhere is God said to intervene in human affairs more than in the realm of ethics and morality. Indeed, it is when it comes to matters of morality that God (in the Abrahamic religions) is most often invoked. It is God who either created morality, or is the judge and jury for some higher sort of morality (we can, for the sake of this discussion, set aside Euthryphro’s dilemma about what came first, God or objective morality; see my post on the philosophical arguments against God for more on that). Furthermore, God is aware of everything we do and cares deeply about whether we obey His moral dictates. Indeed, we are not just to obey His dictates, but to love them more than ourselves, to obey them even if it causes suffering to ourselves or others. It is thus assumed that morality is something more than mere opinion or cultural convention, more than an evolutionarily instilled intuition, but is something as real as (if not even more real than) the screen on which you are reading these words. It is something woven into the fabric of reality, eternal, immutable, and universal, for God created the universe with an objective (mind-independent) moral order the precedes and transcends humans.

It is therefore in this section that I will examine the idea of an objective moral ontology, i.e., the ontological commitment to morality preceding humanity and existing independent of any consciousness (human or otherwise). But first, a few preliminaries.

There is an implicit assumption among humans that a certain level of intelligence and/or consciousness is required for morality. Children are held to different moral standards than adults, and animals are held to yet lower moral standards (with variation even among the animal kingdom – your pet dog can be a “bad dog” but most people wouldn’t say a fly could be a “bad fly”). Conversely, we also give different organisms different moral value: it’s not okay to abuse a dog, but committing a veritable holocaust on cockroaches would be fine (and, in many cases, seen as a moral good, or even moral imperative, such as when a building superintendent has it gassed for insects).

The point being, morality has humans at its pinnacle. We humans have both the greatest moral value and the greatest moral responsibility. This is often justified in religious circles (at least in the Abrahamic religions) in claiming that humans have a soul while animals (and plants and fungi and prokaryotes and archaea and inanimate objects) do not. We are God’s favorite beings within all creation, indeed we are the very reason God created anything at all. But in order for us humans to reciprocate the great gift of existence with which God has bestowed us, we must behave in the fashion set out for us by God in His holy scriptures and imprinted on our souls.

There are two things at play in the above . The first is that there is an objective moral ontology, i.e., that morality exists independent of the mind – that slavery is wrong is as objectively true as the fact that 7 + 5 = 12 is objectively true. The other issue at hand is whether it is only humans who have moral value and moral responsibility. I think it is clear that both of these things are mutually exclusive: if there is an objective moral ontology that is independent of the mind, then it is always wrong to rape, murder, enslave, steal, lie, etc., regardless of species (indeed. regardless of whether one is ignorant of objective moral facts). And so, if humans are the species with the highest (or only) moral value and greatest moral responsibility, then objective moral ontology cannot be true. It could, of course, be the case that neither of them are true: there is no objective moral ontology and humans do not possess the highest (or only) moral value and moral responsibility.

Morality grounded in an Abrahamic God tends to make one, the other, or both of the above claims. To escape the contradiction I mentioned, objective moral ontology might be restricted only to humans, i.e., it is objectively true that it is wrong for humans to rape, murder, enslave, steal, lie, etc., but it is fine (or at least less wrong) when non-humans do it. This could be justified, perhaps, by appeal to the soul: in order for objective moral ontology to apply, the being must have a soul. This seems a little ad hoc, but it is at least consistent with doctrine.

From a scientific point of view we can approach the above three possibilities by examining (A) the evidence for objective moral ontology, and (B) the evidence for morality among non-humans, a morality from which our own could have been derived. As with everything in this post, we will not discover any rebutting defeaters, but there are undercutting defeaters for the above notions (i.e., reasons to doubt).

Note on the definition of morality:

I am not going to wade into all the nuance surrounding morality (people have literally spent entire lifetimes on the subject, and I have discussed and critiqued on it elsewhere on this blog), but I think most people can agree on an intuitive notion of morality based on the pleasure principle that I will call naive morality. It essentially says that it is morally better for more people to flourish and experience less suffering than it is for more people to fail and experience greater suffering. What we mean by flourish and suffer there is much wiggle room, but I would call a person’s level of flourishing in how well they satisfy Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I will use that as a naive morality that can largely be agreed on (at least in part) by the vast majority of people. It is something like this morality, at least at is most basic level, that I will be using throughout this section.

Objective Moral Ontology

The issue with objective moral ontology is the same as with any abstract objects: in what way can they be said to exist? Especially if we are to take them as being mind-independent. For instance, in what way could abstract objects such as “freedom” or “justice” or “ugly” or “seventeen” or “useless” be said to exist independent of the mind? The concept seventeen seems to be the member of this list with the greatest claim to objective ontological existence, but we still cannot say in what way seventeen, as a concept (not as particular instances of when seventeen of some concrete objects exist), exists independent of minds. In the same way, if the universe was filled only with non-conscious objects, in what way could it be said that slavery is wrong?

Something that distinguishes objectively (mind-independent) existing things from mind-dependent things is that of grounding. The former do not exist by virtue of some conscious, intentional mind while the latter do. As such, the former tend to be discovered while the latter are constructed. What this means, in effect, is that mind-independent objects (concrete or abstract) can exist without anyone knowing about it. For instance, the speed of light was the speed of light before anyone ever knew that the concept of speed even applied to something like light. Being ignorant of the fact that the speed of light is finite and constant would not have allowed the ancients to have moved faster than the speed of light – it was true before anyone knew about it. Slavery, on the other hand, required minds in order to be instantiated: it did not exist prior to conscious beings and was not “discovered” by anyone, but brought into existence by virtue of conscious thought.

This poses a problem for objective moral ontology in that, should morality have objective ontology, it may be the case that we humans are still ignorant of some (or even all) moral laws. In other words, we may be routinely committing immoral acts that we are not aware of, but are nevertheless objectively immoral and therefore are counted against us (by who- or whatever is keeping score, should such a thing exist). It also means that we could potentially be objectively incorrect in our moral doctrines or intuitions: just as the ancients were wrong about the earth being flat, we could be wrong about stealing or lying or murdering.

If we accept naive morality as defined earlier, then any moral syllogism must have something resembling the following forms:

P1: It is naive moral when state of affairs Y obtains
P2: Doing X has a high likelihood of resulting in Y obtaining
P3: People ought to do those things that have a high likelihood of causing naive moral states of affairs to obtain
C: Therefore, people ought to do X


P1*: It is naive immoral when state of affairs Z obtains
P2*: Doing W has a high likelihood of resulting in Z obtaining
P3*: People ought to not do those things that have a high likelihood of causing naive immoral states of affairs to obtain
C*: Therefore, people ought to not do W

If there is objective moral ontology, then those first premises (P1 and P1*) can appeal to the objectively real morality for their justification (by comparing Y or Z with the objective moral standard). Also, P1 and P1* are true even if the option of doing X or doing W are never actualized occurrences. Further, even if someone does not know that P1 or P1* are true, they are nevertheless true, and so not doing X, or doing W, is still immoral, even if people do not know it. That not doing X or doing W is immoral is something that would have to be discovered, which would mean that it cannot be determined a priori.

A corollary to the above is that morality is universal in time, space, and in any context. Universality in time is clear: that something is immoral was as true in the Planck epoch as it will be at the heat death of the universe. Universality in space is also obvious: if it is immoral to do W in the U.S., then it is immoral to do W in China, or in international waters, or on the moon, or in the Andromeda galaxy, and so on. But universal in all contexts is where things run up against our intuitions: if “thou shalt not lie” is universally true without qualification, then the Nazi’s lying about the Holocaust is as bad as me answering “fine” when someone asks how I’m doing and I’m not actually doing “fine”. And if it is true, but with qualification, then there must be some objective standard of qualifying the principle “thou shalt not lie” which must be discovered and justified by appeal to some endless series of Platonic Ideals of different cases of when it is and is not okay to lie, and when one lie is worse than another lie, and so on. While such a thing does not disprove objective moral ontology, it greatly over saturates the ontology one is committed to.

But if there is no objective morality, then to say that some state of affairs is moral or immoral (i.e., naive moral or naive immoral) requires further justification. This justification must supervene on (human or otherwise) psychology (which, the metaphysical naturalist must commit to, supervenes on the physical). In other words, to say that it is moral for state of affairs Y to obtain, or immoral for state of affairs Z to obtain, is contingent on the psychology of conscious beings. We are essentially taking the care/harm and fairness/cheating (and perhaps liberty/oppression) moral foundations as our basis for morality, since something is immoral just in the case that it is harmful or unfair (or oppressive) to some individual or group of people. There does not need to be an appeal to some mind-independent morality, only to the affect an action has on the relevant parties.

As a guide to this conversation, I will use the paper “No Moral Progress without an Objective Moral Ontology” by Jaron Daniël Schoone. In the paper, Schoone gives the following argument in support of objective moral ontology, and for the position that objective moral ontology must be grounded in something “non-natural” (i.e., morality does not supervene on psychology or any purely naturalist metaphysics):

P1: If there is objective moral progress, then an objective moral standard exists.
P2: If an objective moral standard exists, then it is either natural or non-natural.

P3: Nothing natural can function as an objective moral standard.

C1: If there is objective moral progress, then a non-natural objective moral standard exists.

P4: There is objective moral progress.

C2: A non-natural objective moral standard exists

Schoone uses a definition for moral progress in P1 given by Dale Jamieson, which says that “moral progress occurs when a subsequent state of affairs is better than a preceding one, or when right acts become increasingly prevalent.” Schoone then says:

With these definitions in hand it seems clear that there has to be some kind of moral standard which is used to measure whether a person or society is changing progressively or regressively. If moral progress is objective, then this moral standard also has to be objective. I want to reiterate that I am primarily concerned with the ontological status of such a moral standard. To use an analogy: just like the meter is ontologically grounded in a piece of platinum, so too right and wrong have to be ontologically grounded in something. When one progresses from holding one moral proposition to another moral proposition, the latter being closer to the moral standard, one can speak of moral progress.

Where earlier he said “With objective I mean that moral facts are mind-independent.” But why would it have to be that moral facts are mind-independent in order for their to be a standard? Indeed, I think the analogy with the meter is telling: a meter is not ontologically grounded in a piece of platinum, because a meter is something we humans have defined. I’m sure what Schoone means is that something can be a meter long even if nobody is there to measure it (or even perceive or think about it), but that a meter is defined as a particular length is something humans have invented, i.e., there would be no concept of meters if no conscious being had ever invented them.

Schoone uses the example that abolishing slavery was moral progress and is therefore mind-independently a moral good. Yet this is in worse shape than with the meter, since without people to be slave and enslaver, not only does the concept of slavery no longer exist, but neither can there be any instantiation of slavery. It would be like living in a universe that is less than a meter in diameter and so nothing could ever physically be an instantiation of a meter. That slavery causes suffering (i.e., instills undesirable psychological states in people) works as a mind-dependent justification for why abolishing slavery is moral progress.

For P2 Schoone says that natural is defined as the acceptance of metaphysical naturalism while for non-natural:

Non-naturalism then becomes the denial of metaphysical naturalism. It is not the case that everything is reducible to natural objects but there are non-natural objects and morality is grounded in these latter objects. Examples of non-natural views are for instance Platonism and Divine Command Theory, but the aforementioned view that moral facts are brute non-natural facts also fall within this category. With these clarifications in place P2 becomes self-evident, for P2 simply states that either metaphysical naturalism is the case or it isn’t. Therefore the objective moral standard is either natural or non-natural.

This seems a good working definition for natural vs. non-natural morality.

For P3 Schoone wants to show why natural morality encounters problems by examining “…the location problem, the problem of speciesism, and the problem of evolutionary explanations for morality.” The location problem says:

Moral facts and properties need to be given “a place in the scientific account of our world”. But where can morality be placed or located within the realm of natural entities? No one would ascribe moral properties to elementary particles. But somehow there are collections of elementary particles that do exhibit moral properties. Since there are other collections of elementary particles that do not exhibit such properties it seems that the naturalist is required to explain why certain collections of particles have this moral dimension while others do not.

Furthermore, it might be the case that non-naturalist theories can locate morality, for instance in the Platonic realm of Ideas or in the nature of a deity.

I do think that the view of metaphysical naturalism (materialism) appears to be incomplete as an explanation for consciousness (to which Schoone compares the location problem of morality). But the notion that components of a system (elementary particles) must possess the same properties as the system (e.g., a human being) is fallacious (see fallacy of composition and fallacy of division). In other words, just because elementary particles do not have moral properties does not mean that things composed of elementary particles (such as human beings) cannot have moral properties.

I think natural morality faces fewer issues than non-natural morality. For one, we know how altering the brain can alter consciousness. The famous case of Phineas Gage is a case-in-point, but other bizarre phenomena, such as akinetopsia, prosopagnosia, hemianopsia, or chemical changes using drugs and psychadelics, all attest to the brain having at least some sort of causal mechanism with consciousness. More germane to morality, we also know that the brains of psychopaths (people who do not experience normal empathy, often resulting in immoral behavior) are different in significant ways from typical average people; we know that people born without an amygdala exhibit no sense of fear, which leads them to various amoral behaviors, and other studies on the neurological correlates of morality abound in the literature. None of this of course definitively demonstrates that metaphysical naturalism must be true, but it does suggest the importance of the brain in moral sentiments. This, along with the fact that there is no way to test whether moral thinking can be altered through alterations to Platonic Ideas or Deities, suggests that the brain may be sufficient as an explanation for moral thinking.

For speciesism, Schoone says:

Speciesism means that one prefers one’s own species to other species. In the case of morality it seems that ethicists separate human beings on one hand and other animals on the other. Human beings are moral agents but animals are not. But why would this be the case under naturalism?

Richard Taylor considers what [people living in a state of nature] would think if one person would kill another person. “Such actions, though injurious to their victims, are no more unjust or immoral than they would be if done by one animal to another. A hawk that seizes a fish from the sea kills it, but does not murder it; and another hawk that seizes the fish from the talons of the first takes it, but does not steal it – for none of these things is forbidden. And exactly the same considerations apply to the people we are imagining.”

Obviously this is not a problem for those who would reject the difference between hawks and humans and would state that all animals exhibit moral behaviour (sometimes called pre-moral behaviour when it concerns animals with less evolved brains). This view however would leave us with a world filled with morally despicable creatures that eat each other, rape, steal and so forth. Most ethicist would shy away from that conclusion. There are philosophers and biologists who would argue that certain kinds of animals do exhibit moral behaviour. Usually this pertains to animals with higher cognitive functions, such as certain ape species.

It seems to me that once again this distinction is based upon the presupposition of metaphysical naturalism. For one could agree that only certain animals exhibit moral behaviour and are moral agents without having to hold that this is due to any natural reason. Suppose for instance that the reason some animals behave morally is due to the fact that these animals have consciousness. It appears that many ethicists who ascribe morality to animals also ascribe to them some kind of consciousness, albeit less advanced than human consciousness. But apart from epistemological issues involved with our knowledge of other minds, the issue once again becomes whether consciousness is reducible to the natural. And this has simply not been shown to be the case.

…on naturalism, there seems to be no reason for proposing that some animals act morally and others do not as long as there is no clear explanation of this difference in naturalistic terms.

I made essentially the opposite argument earlier: if we are to accept the proposition that there is an objective moral ontology, then there is no argument for why morality applies to one species and not another. Just as 5 + 7 = 12 and c = 299,792,458 m/s are true for humans, dolphins, salamanders, sea urchins, mosquitos, Psilocybe cubensis, chlorophyta, Staphylococcus aureus, Ebola virus, and so on, so too should an objective (mind-independent) morality be true to all such creatures (and, indeed, to non-conscious objects).

Morality emerging naturally is a better explanation for the seemingly arbitrary way in which moral value and moral responsibility is applied. That humans, for instance, evolved in a social environment, where we depended on the cooperation of other humans in our group, and not on the cooperation of dolphins and salamanders, would explain why we evolved to give other humans much greater moral value (and why we give other humans within our in-group even greater moral value than other humans not in our in-group).

Schoone is concerned with how we can legitimately say that humanity as made moral progress if we do not have an objective criteria by which to compare the shifting moral zeitgeist of humanity over time. There is of course the issue that this judgement has to be made by humans who are situated in a particular moral milieu, which means any such judgement will not be objective (the ancients likely would view our modern society as being in a state of moral regress; older people often lament the moral decay of younger generations). But even if we set that aside, if we use our naive morality, we can judge moral progress by the increase in human flourishing and reduction in human suffering. For instance, the abolishing of slavery and emancipation of women from male servitude are deemed good because:

P1: it is desirable to my own consciousness to have increased flourishing and reduced suffering
P2: all humans have a consciousness of equivalent richness and capacity for joy and suffering
P4: if it is desirable to my own consciousness to have increased flourishing and reduced suffering, then it is desirable to increase the flourishing and reduce the suffering of those other equivalent consciousnesses
P4: the institution of slavery and the relegation of women to second-class citizenship reduced the flourishing and increased the suffering of those equivalent consciousnesses
C: therefore, slavery and subjugation of women is undesirable

This moral intuition has in recent decades begun to expand even beyond humans.

Schoone attempts to show that morality with its “foundations” in evolution leads to moral nihilism:

One could therefore in theory construe a moral standard using these natural facts about evolution. Unfortunately, it seems that evolutionary ethics presents its own problem; instead of acting as an ontological foundation for morality it seems to function as the opposite: it eventually leads to nihilism.

The root of the problem lies with the shift that takes place in the meaning of moral terminology such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The evolutionary ethicist seems to understand these words as meaning ‘good for survival and reproduction’ and ‘bad for survival or reproduction’. But of course this is something different than the pre-Darwinian ethicist (let alone the common sense user) meaning of these terms.

And the person who then argues that evolution may be the origins of our moral thinking, but is not the foundation of morality, runs into another problem:

[evolutionary ethicists] would explain that evolutionary ethics is about how morality evolved in our species, but that does not imply that we have to act accordingly. Thus it turns out that evolutionary ethics might explain the origin of morality, but even if it does it seems that it does not explain why we should act accordingly. This seems to be the reason why many scholars agree that given evolution it follows that morality is an illusion cooked up by natural selection to get us to survive and reproduce. But if we do not (have to) act according to our evolutionary moral instincts, then how should we act? This is exactly the dilemma: if evolutionary ethics is the foundation of morality then we should act to increase our fitness, which is almost universally rejected as being what morality is about, but if it isn’t the foundation of morality then we still require a foundation for our current ethics. In both cases, evolutionary ethics fails as the foundation for morality. An example of this dilemma inaction can be seen in Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s  Dangerous Idea. In the chapter concerning ethics he uses the following quote from Ruse and Wilson: “Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaption put in place to further our reproductive ends.” Dennett’s reply: “Nonsense. Our reproductive ends may have been the ends that kept us in the running till we could develop culture, and they may still play a powerful – sometimes overpowering – role in our thinking, but that does not license any conclusion at all about our current values.” I would suggest that Dennett is correct, but apparently he grounds our current morality in culture, which would lead to the conclusions that (1) morality is not grounded in nature and (2) morality is subjective.

We can put the question this way: if evolution furnished us with our moral intuitions, but we are free to reject the logical consequence of evolutionary morality (i.e., that what is morally good is that which increases fitness), then what other purely natural phenomenon (outside of evolution) can the naturalist take as the foundation for morality? There is the tautological response to this criticism: our morality is still founded in evolution because we must have evolved to be the kind of creature that possesses our sense of moral realism, thus grounding moral realism itself in our evolution. Although perhaps trivially true, this explanation is still very unsatisfying, since it does little to inform us in which cases we ought to reject the logical consequences of evolutionary morality (a logical consequence, according to Schoone, being that eugenics would be morally good) and which moral propositions we ought to adopt.

This is, of course, the perennial problem of ethical philosophy: what is it we ought to do, and why ought we do it? In other words, what is (are) the supreme principle(s) of morality? The further problem for the ethical naturalist is: is there some fact of nature that informs us which moral propositions we ought to adopt? I answered this question in my post on the supreme principle of morality:

Each individual’s consciousness is absolutely unique and non-fungible. If, say, your child dies, you can’t just “replace” them with a new child, because each of the two individual children were a consciousness that is absolutely unique from each other. A computer or smart phone, however, is not conscious and is therefore fungible – it doesn’t matter which particular “token” phone you have because all that matters is its functionality, and each phone of that “type” has the exact same functionality. The fact that the matter composing each token phone of a certain type is not numerically identical to the matter composing all other token phones of that type does not bestow any extra value to any particular token phone. It is the phone’s functionality that gives it value, and the functionality is replicable and fungible.

Each individual consciousness, on the other hand, are not simply tokens of some type, but are absolutely unique. That a particular consciousness is the consciousness that it is cannot be determined by anyone else, and once that consciousness ceases to exist, it is lost forever. The scarcity of something, which is a function of how difficult it is for that thing to be actualized in existence, is the primary locus of value attribution by sentient beings (at least all the ones we humans know about). Since every individual consciousness (as the consciousness that it actually is) is not something that can be purposefully made and can never be reproduced or recovered, making each individual consciousness the most scarce entities in existence. Thus, the supreme principle of morality is grounded in the absolute uniqueness of each individual consciousness.

I hinted at this above as well, in the previous syllogism: notice I never actually used the word “moral” or “ethical” in it, but simply desirable, i.e., if it is desirable to myself to increase flourishing and reduce suffering, then it is desirable to do so for other equivalent consciousnesses (the word equivalent was also intentional given the above quote – no two consciousnesses are identical). In a sense, this is using the subjective theory of value as a foundation for morality: those things that are irreplaceable (such as an individual consciousness), irreparable (once damaged, a consciousness cannot simply be repaired or reset to some prior state), and inimitable (a replica, simulacrum, or close approximation of an individual’s consciousness cannot be reproduced) are each of infinite scarcity and therefore possess infinite value.

But it’s more than just that another consciousness has infinite value for me (i.e., other people have some utility function for me). It is the recognition other consciousnesses as value-creators in their own right. Because I desire to actualize some state of affairs (i.e., I value some possible state of affairs over other possible states of affairs) for myself, I recognize that the same is true of all other consciousnesses by virtue of the fact that those other consciousnesses arise from the same neurophysiological processes as mine and have been furnished by evolution with the same (or at least very similar) value-making and moral intuitions as me. And since evolution has informed us that those things that possess a common property ought to be related to and interacted with in some way germane to that property, then a person ought to behave toward others in ways that they desire others to behave toward them (the Golden Rule, a common maxim for naive morality).

Schoone may argue that the above still does not get us to an objective moral ontology in the sense of morality that is mind-independent. For instance, if humans had evolved as a solitary species, we would not have evolved reciprocal altruism and therefore we might instead have moral propositions such as “stealing is morally good” since stealing resources from others is a good way to bring those resources into my possession with minimal energy expenditure. To that I would say: if we are committed to objective (mind-independent) moral ontology, we might simply say that this mind-independent moral principle is something like the following:

P1: if one is a member of a species of social organisms, then it is morally good to behave in ways that increase the flourishing and reduce the suffering of one’s species (or, at the very least, one’s social group)
P2: human individuals are members of the species of social organisms known as Homo sapiens
C: therefore it is morally good for individual humans to behave in ways that increase the flourishing and reduce the suffering of Homo sapiens (or one’s social group)

Or something along those lines. The specifics do not matter as much here as the point that an objective moral ontology does not necessarily commit one to a categorical imperative, but merely a hypothetical imperative. In the case of humans, we just so happen to be a species of social animals, and so something like the above conditional, which is objectively true, applies to humans.

Or, if we don’t buy into something similar to the above, we could also simply admit that morality has no foundation, that there is no objective moral ontology. We just need to suck it up and accept moral nihilism. The point being, that moral nihilism may in fact be the case might be a state of affairs that we must learn to live with. Just because it is uncomfortable to realize that our morality is baseless, arbitrary, and relative does not make it untrue. It simply may be something we have to grapple with, like the probabilistic nature of quantum phenomena: just because it chafes at our human sensibilities does not make it untrue.

This is more likely than objective moral ontology. The proponent of objective moral ontology has to explain, for instance, why it is that humans evolved to be subject to objective (mind-independent) morality while presumably most animals, all plants, fungi, bacteria, and archaea (and perhaps even non-conscious objects), did not evolve to be subject to objective (mind-independent) morality. If it is possible for an organism to evolve and not be subject to the mind-independent laws of morality, then why presume that humans evolved to be? And why does objective moral ontology give us a standard while subjective moral ontology does not? Just because the qualia of the color red is purely subjective does not mean that all appearances of red are mere opinion.

Schoone says

Whether one holds to utilitarianism, deontological ethics or virtue ethics; the roots of these three ethical theories are based upon some kind of objective principle. Therefore, one can account for the above list of apparent cases of moral progress […abolishment of slavery…abolishment of fossil fuels, other agreements to decrease climate change, the decrease of violence worldwide, the advent of animal rights, the acceptance of universal human rights and human equality, the abolishment of child conscription, etcetera.] by accepting that there is moral progress based on an objective standard.

Can the moral subjectivist similarly account for moral progress? There appear to be at least two problems for the moral subjectivist. The first is that, on subjectivism, the notion of moral progress seems incoherent. I explained under section P1 that moral progress means a change towards some kind of standard. For the objectivist this standard is mind-independent. But what kind of standard would suffice for the moral subjectivist? An examination of different subjectivist positions will show that the  different kinds of subjectivist standards are incompatible with the notion of moral progress. An individual subjectivist (or individual relativist) believes that ones own opinions are the moral standard. But since people often disagree on what is moral, two individual subjectivists with opposing views will have the problem of both having to affirm their own ethical beliefs while also having to affirm that the other person has good reasons to affirm his/her own ethical beliefs. This consequence of individual subjectivism would make it impossible to talk about moral progress, since that notion would simply be a matter of personal taste.

With a similar examination of the cultural subjectivist/relativist that concludes “Therefore, a cultural subjectivist must hold that there is no such thing as moral progress, since any kind of change would be in contradiction to the culture that one has been brought up in.” He then points out that moral nihilists (i.e., people who do not think there is mind-independent morality) like Richard Dawkins still use objective statements concerning morality (e.g., “[religious] indoctrination is wrong” as opposed to “it is my opinion that [religious] indoctrination is wrong”).

I think conflating moral subjectivism and moral relativism is confused, since Schoone says that “An individual subjectivist (or individual relativist) believes that ones own opinions are the moral standard.” But moral relativism is saying that nobody’s opinions are the standard, for there is no standard, hence why morality is relative. Further (if we overlook this conflation), I don’t think it is necessarily the case that a moral subjectivist is committed to believing that their personal opinions on morality are the standard. People often change their mind on matters of morality throughout their life. Schoone would probably say that this is because the moral subjectivist is actually secretly, or unconsciously, a moral objectivist, and wishes to bring their opinions concerning morality in line with the objective standard. But it could also be the case that the moral subjectivist is simply making the moral propositions they adopt cohere better with moral intuitions (originally furnished by evolution and genetics). In other words, moral progress occurs when humans extend moral behaviors, grounded in moral intuitions, to more people, thereby reducing the cognitive dissonance of arbitrarily applying those moral intuitions to some people and not others. Or put another way, moral progress is when our moral behavior becomes more consistent with our moral intuitions, when a moral intuition such as “treat others how I wish them to treat me” becomes more widely and consistently applied.

Is Objective Moral Ontology Definitively False?

The issue with discussing objective moral ontology in an article about the existence of God is that not believing in God does not commit one to moral anti-realism. In other words, you can be an atheist and still believe in moral realism. The reason I include this discussion, however, is that belief in the Abrahamic religions tends to entail moral realism. This is seen, for instance, when someone argues that without God then there is no morality, which is a statement that assumes the truth of moral realism, i.e., that only if God exists does the word “morality” have a mind-independent referent, which is the position of moral realism. And so, as I discussed in the introduction to this section on morality, providing undercutting defeaters to moral realism serves to weaken the argument that the “existence” of morality is evidence of the existence of God (scare quotes around the first mention of “existence” since, as discussed above, it is somewhat unclear in what way morality could be said to exist). But again, I reiterate: undercutting defeaters for moral realism does not disprove the existence of God, and not believing in God does not commit someone to moral anti-realism.

Where Does Religion Come From?

Explaining how religion (and associated areas of inquiry once thought the sole domain of religion, such as morality) arose through evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience does not disprove the existence of God. For instance, let’s examine Justin Barrett’s popular Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD) hypothesis for how people can come to believe in god’s and spirits. This says that humans have evolved to detect agency in the world, and that a false positive is far less costly than a false negative. For instance, if we see a bush rustling and we think there is a predator hidden in it, but then it turns out to have just been the wind, the cost is not very high. Conversely, if we see the bush rustling and think it is just the wind, but then it turns out to have been a predator, that puts ourselves in grave danger. Thus, it is better to assume there is some agency there than to assume no agency.

When this agency detection becomes hyperactive, we start seeing everything as being caused by some agency or another – the weather, disease, and various other turns of fortune (whether favorable or unfavorable). Thus, we humans have evolved the sort of brain that is receptive to attributing agency to the phenomena we experience.

I happen to think this is a plausible explanation for how humans have come to be receptive to ideas of supernatural agencies. What this hypothesis does not say, however, was whether or not God actually exists. As Plantinga points out, we have also evolved to see color, but we wouldn’t say that just because our perception of color has evolutionary origins that it is irrational to believe in colors. Tacking on the assertion that “HADD makes us believe in agencies that don’t actually exist” doesn’t add anything to the theory.

But, as with everything in this post, God is at best an overdetermination of how belief in God arose. Just as it doesn’t add anything to the HADD hypothesis to say that it makes us believe in agencies that don’t actually exist, it also doesn’t take anything away from the theory to add it. Or, to be more precises, saying that “human receptivity to religious belief arose from HADD and because God created us with knowledge of Himself” is not a better hypothesis than simply saying “human receptivity to religious belief arose from HADD.”

The evolutionary psychology of religion offers numerous candidate explanations for how and why humans have religion. From HADD to social cohesion to spandrels, explanations abound. Some of them sound more plausible than others; some have more explanatory power than others; some are more well-supported by the evidence than others. It’s an interesting field but I’m not going to go through each hypothesis here (maybe I’ll add some summaries of them in a future edit of this post).

What interests me, though, is that all these candidate explanations offer sufficient mechanisms in which God is an unnecessary component. We don’t require any God of the gaps arguments for how religion arose. Nothing that is invisible and unfathomable to us need be invoked. This is the main thing that science offers on the question of God: it does not and cannot disprove God’s existence, but it offers sufficient mechanisms for which maintaining God as a component is an overdetermination. God is not necessary; non-theistic explanations are sufficient.

In this section I want to examine the science of religious belief from four different perspectives. The first is the religious experience – things like seeing/hearing/feeling the presence of gods/angels/devils/demons/spirits, having out-of-body experiences, and experiences of transcendence that arise during religious ritual. The second is the origins and nature of morality, which was once thought to be solely within the domain of religion. The third is what we might call the problem of religious pluralism. The fourth is historical biblical criticism, where I will primarily focus on Judeo-Christian scripture and how well it aligns with what is known through history and archaeology.

Religious Experience

Is God a Scientific Hypothesis?

In Warranted Christian Belief, Alvin Plantinga discusses whether God (and Christian belief in particular) can be thought of as hypotheses or something like a scientific theory that explains religious experience. Plantinga takes on a model of religious (Christian) belief that depends on sensus divinitatis and the noetic effect of sin that Plantinga calls the Aquinas/Calvin Model. He says that this “serve[s] as occasions for theistic belief, not premises for an argument to it.” This, Plantinga says, is like memory:

One could hold that our beliefs about the past are really like scientific hypotheses, designed to explain such present phenomena as (among other things) apparent memories, and if there were a more “economical” explanation of these phenomena that did not postulate past facts, then our usual beliefs in the past would have no warrant. But of course this is merely fantastic; we don’t in fact accept memory beliefs as hypotheses to explain present experience at all.

This, to me, seems to miss the point. What we would need is a theory of why memories counts as justified and warranted belief – why we are justified and warranted in believing our memories. There are reasons that memory is justified: taking memories to be true works in an epistemologically pragmatic sense, and in most cases other people who formed memories of the same events will hold similar beliefs about those events. This also warrants us in holding beliefs about memories, because these justifications tell us that memory, for most day-to-day things at least, are furnished by cognitive faculties in a congenial environment oriented toward truth (or at least an operative version of the truth).

The theory, then, would have to explain the proper workings of these cognitive faculties. Neuroscience and cognitive psychology supply just such theories. But what theory is there to show that religious experiences are warranted as occasions of belief? Is a religious experience that convinces someone to murder their children warranted? Or to bomb an abortion clinic? Or to hold bigoted views? If there is no theory about the reliability and warrant of religious belief, then how can one say that this isn’t the case?

Plantinga, I assume, would submit the theory of the noetic effect of sin: people who have religious experiences that lead them to do and think terrible things (undoubtedly by our modern standards) have had their thinking warped by sin. But, once again, we would need a theory that tells us why religious experiences of one kind are the result of sin-laden faculties while religious experiences of another kind are the result of the Holy Spirit. We would need a theory as to why religious experiences that accord with our modern, western-civilization sensibilities are the good ones while those of the Dark Age Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties, or the Middle Age Crusaders, or the Atlantic slave traders, were all bad and produced by faculties stained by sin. The theory would also have to tell us why we are justified in thinking that the future is unlikely to see our religious experiences as being sullied and unreliable due to sins we might not even be aware will be counted as sins at some future time. We would therefore need at least something like a hermeneutical theory of religious experience, if not an explanatory theory (where Plantinga’s A/C Model is a candidate of the latter but is missing the former).

The same pragmatist justification we use for memory won’t work for religious experiences, because religious experience has made people do terrible things, meaning that the simultaneous existence of religious experiences that lead to evil and an omnibenevolent God is suspect at best. We also can’t use the mutually agreeing beliefs formed by experiencing the same event, because different religions, and different sects within the same religion, and even down to different individuals, all have different religious experiences that lead them to accept different propositions about God and what it is that God wants.

What is a Candidate Theory of Religious Experience?

To be completed

Induced Religious Experiences – The God helmet and the range of temporal lobe sensitivity and its connection to temporal lobe epilepsy (sometimes called Dostoevsky Seizures); the Apostle Paul may have had temporal lobe epilepsy; psychedelic drugs and near death experiences; religious experiences do not always point to the same God, but often the one prominent in the experiencer’s culture (or that they already believe)

Problem of (Incompatible) Religious Pluralism

It shouldn’t take a lot to convince yourself that most people will adopt the religious beliefs of their parents. A look at a religious demographic map gives a telling story:

There is plenty of research showing this is the case, even in a secularized country like the United States:

But what does this have to do with whether or not God exists? Or, at least, with whether or not we are warranted in believing in God? This is the problem of religious pluralism or the problem of religious incompatibility: all religions claim to be the truth, but all of them are incompatible. It cannot possibly the be the case that all religions are true, which means that some proportion of people are wrong. But, if religious beliefs were based on an interest in discovering the truth (i.e. which of the many religions make the correct truth claims), then we would expect one of two things: either religious belief would not be so geographically distributed (the distribution of people accepting the truth claims of different religions would be more randomized) or else that a greater number of people would accept a single belief (e.g. like the number of people in the world who are aware of climate change accepting the phenomenon as true). 

Because we don’t see either of these things, what it tells us is that coming to accept the truth claims of a particular religion isn’t based on an interest in forming correct beliefs concerning religious truth claims, but comes from things like socialization and the availability heuristic.

This is exactly analogous to the undercutting defeater from the introduction of this post. If you are born into, say, a Calvinist family, then you grow up being socialized into believing the truth claims of Calvinism. This is analogous to seeing Mary-Kate in front of you and forming the belief that who you are seeing is Mary-Kate. But then, just like when you are told that an identical twin, Ashley, also exists, your belief that who you are looking at is undercut. Similarly, when the Calvinist encounters other protestants, like Lutherans, Baptists, etc., and then even Catholics and Orthodox; and then Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs and so on; and then learning that their religions hasn’t even existed for most of human history, this all undercuts the belief in Calvinism.

That or they just have to believe that they themselves were spectacularly lucky to have been born in the right place at the right time (while the vast majority of other humans were born in the wrong place and/or wrong time). But why should someone consider themselves to have won the celestial lottery? If you had been born elsewhere, or at a different time, that possible version of you would believe something different and, according to the actual you, that possible you would be wrong. But that possible you would (at least potentially) be just as deeply convinced that they are right and that the actual you is wrong.

A possible response would then be: if atheist parents are more likely to have atheist children, then aren’t atheists in the same predicament as the religious? Why should someone be an atheist if they didn’t come to the conclusion with an interest in forming true beliefs, but by accident of their (time and place of) birth? This at first appears to be a good counter to the conclusion that, given A) that all religions believe themselves to be true; B) that all those religions are mutually incompatible (e.g. a belief within most religions is that other religions are wrong to some degree), and C) these two facts jointly act as an undercutting defeater of all religions, then one ought not accept any of the truth claims made by religions.

But not believing in a particular religion is an analogous epistemic state to not believing that who you are seeing is Mary-Kate. (There are more religions than two, so to stay with the analogy we could think of a hypothetical ~200-tuple of genetically identical siblings). There are versions of strong atheism (accepting the proposition “I believe no deities exist”), but at least a weak version of atheism (accepting the proposition “I do not have a belief in any deities”) is the default once a belief has been undercut by the discovery of other (equally possible) religions (similar to the belief “I do not have a belief that this person is Mary-Kate”).

Another rejoinder might be that “I know my religion is the right one because I’ve observed/experienced its truth!” This might be the witnessing of some purported miracle or undergoing a transcendental experience. The issue remains, however, that adherents of other religions attest to experiencing/observing phenomena that to them confirms their incompatible beliefs.

Yet another counter that I have come across is people pointing to conversion rates: “such-and-such many atheists or people of other religions are converting to religion X.” This is to try showing that people are coming to the conclusion that the truth claims of religion X are accurate through deliberation, or because they had an experience that (given the fact that they were not previously a believer) had to come from the deity of religion X and not because the person already held a belief that influenced their (interpretation of the) experience. Once again, I’ve come across in my lifetime this tactic being used by numerous religions (in fact, the times I have encountered it, it was usually for either Mormonism or Islam). Thus, it is victim to the same pluralist incompatibility.

Finally, the religious adherent may point out that there are many things (indeed likely most things) which are not unanimously accepted, but that doesn’t mean it’s rational to be agnostic about all those things. The existence of alternatives is not always an undercutting defeater. That it’s possible for Russell’s teapot to be orbiting our sun near the asteroid belt doesn’t mean that we have to take this proposition as being an undercutting defeater to the belief that no such teapot exists.

This, of course, gets into the discussion of the nature of evidence, the nature (and ontology) of scientific theories and interpretation, epistemological justification, and epistemic responsibility. What we can say for our purposes, however, is that we want to weigh evidence and formulate theories to explain the data that are A) parsimonious, B) falsifiable, and C) give data that is in principle equally accessible to everyone (hence why science prefers to study phenomena that are quantifiable and measurable, because 1 kilogram is 1 kilogram for everyone, regardless of where and when they were born).

Religion is none of these things. It is not parsimonious because it requires numerous ontological add-ons (e.g. that imperceptible spiritual substance(s) exists). It is not falsifiable because without any objective criteria by which to judge or measure it, one can always increase or decrease the “evidence base” (i.e. move the goalposts) to preserve the belief in light of contradicting evidence. And there is no data offered by religion that is equally accessible to a non-believer or a person with different beliefs (i.e. testimony about religious experiences are not equally accessible to third parties).

It’s by these three criteria – parsimony, falsifiability, and accessibility (and possibly other criteria, but at least these three) – that a theory can be judged. In the Mary-Kate analogy, upon learning of the existence of her identical twin Ashley, we wouldn’t posit that God specifically made it so that in this instance it is in fact Mary-Kate who I am looking at, and therefore my belief that she is Mary-Kate is warranted; that would not be parsimonious, because a whole slew of additional assumptions must be added on. If we wished to maintain the belief that it is in fact Mary-Kate, we could test this belief (e.g. by asking her who she is) and therefore subject it to falsification. And we could not simply say that the person we are looking at “is Mary-Kate to me” because there is an actual state of affairs that obtains and is accessible to everyone; she either is or is not Mary-Kate, regardless of your experience or what you want the truth to be. Religions are add-on filled, unfalsifiable, and personal (not objective or equally accessible to all parties).

One could then object that, say, the way you and I experience the color red being the same is an unfalsifiable and not equally accessible phenomenon. This is certainly true. I’m actually (partially) convinced that people do not have exactly equal qualia for things like the color red. But whether that is the case or not is irrelevant. The referent of “red” is the same between two (or more) people, even if both (or all) of them do not experience it in exactly the same way. Place a red and blue ball in front of two people and ask them to point to the red ball and both of them will point to the same ball. The referent of a religious experience, even among people within the same denomination, is not always going to be the same. Try asking two people to define what a spiritual substance is and you are likely to get ambiguous, differing, or even contradictory answers.

Historical Biblical Criticism

Historical Biblical Criticism (HBC) is the field of historical and archaeological inquiry that attempts to examine the Bible without assuming its historical truth. It proceeds by assessing facts that could (at least in principle) be agreed on by everyone, even non-believers and those of other faiths. Essentially it looks at what the Bible says happened and asks whether it actually happened in reality and then searches for evidence outside the bible (writings from contemporary sources outside the Bible, archaeological evidence, and textual criticism within the Bible). Thus, I include this in the post on scientific reasons not to believe in God because HBC at least attempts to be scientific.

Even if I possessed the expertise go through all the historical, archaeological, and textual criticism out there, this could literally fill volumes (as it has). Sources that I follow on this topic, of which I am nowhere near an expert (I’m at least a biochemist who has taken many classes and done much independent study on physics and philosophy, so I’m a bit more in my wheelhouse on those topics) are primarily:

The books and lectures of Bart Ehrman:, who works more on the textual criticism aspect of HBC

Books of his that I’ve read:
Misquoting Jesus
Jesus, Interrupted
God’s Problem
How Jesus Became God
The Triumph of Christianity

Lecture series of his that I’ve listened to (all from The Great Courses):
The New Testament
The Historical Jesus
The Greatest Controversies of Early Christian History

I also subscribe to ReligionForBreakfast, a Youtube channel by Dr. Andrew M. Henry, who works more on the historical/archaeological aspect of HBC, while also examining many religions outside of the Abrahamic traditions. He also hosted a really great series on the Patheos Youtube channel called Excavating the History of the Bible that I highly recommend.

I put this all here not only because it’s very interesting and you should check it out, but also to indicate the limited extent of my knowledge on the subject of Historical Biblical Criticism. As I said, I’m not going to write an essay describing the field and its findings. Instead, what I want to talk about is whether HBC acts as any sort of defeater for religion, and in this section I will be speaking on Christianity in particular.

What I will say of HBC is that it has shown that the account given in the Bible (in either testament) is not always internally consistent or historically accurate. The contradictions within the Bible, even just between the four Gospels, is well attested to. There have been additions and deletions of portions of the Biblical text (see Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted for examples of just a few of them); this includes sections to make doctrines like the trinity appear to have more scriptural basis. Some of the Pauline Epistles are known forgeries. Many books of the Bible are known to have been written quite long after the events they recount, anywhere between decades (e.g. the gospels) to centuries (as in many books of the old testament). Some important accounts, such as the origins of the Hebrew people, are vastly different than the pentateuch (the Hebrews are actually related to the Canaanites and there is no record of them being enslaved in Egypt, much less escaping a la the Exodus – see the Excavating the History of the Bible playlist I linked to above).

Does all this result in a defeater for the existence of (the Christian) God? Maybe not. One could just say that God still exists but that all these accounts were inaccurate. But it certainly offers at least an undercutting defeater for many specific claims made by Christian doctrine and scripture.

It’s presumably important to Christian doctrine that a man named Jesus (or Joshua or Yeshua) did actually in reality get executed by means of crucifixion and then come back to life three days later. It’s of course not outside the realm of possibility that Jesus was executed by means of crucifixion. That it happened for our sins can’t be known, and it only raises more issues, such as when salvation will occur (now, or when we are bodily/physically resurrected?) and what salvation even means (is it the judicial or participationist model?). There is no account outside the Bible of Jesus rising from the dead, and the accounts within the Bible don’t agree on who found him or what he did after coming back from the dead.

My point in this is that there is ample reason to be (at the very least) skeptical of the devotional account of Christian doctrine on account of what is known through Historical Biblical Criticism. There is enough doubt cast on the current view of the Christian narrative (I stress current because the doctrines and scriptural interpretations widely accepted now certainly aren’t the views that have always been accepted – another fact known through HBC) that a person is not just warranted in disbelieving the current narrative, but it is bordering on irrational to cling to it in light of all the contradictory evidence.

Concluding Remarks

Although there are no rebutting defeaters for the existence in the realm of science, there are plenty of undercutting defeaters. In other words, there are good reasons to be skeptical of God’s existence. What we can boil things down to, however, is this: over the last five centuries, science has repeatedly encroached on those things thought to be the purview of religion, but never has religion ever retaken any of that ground. Never has anyone discovered that science was flat out wrong about something because it was discovered that, in fact, God was responsible. It’s religion that must routinely adjust its propositions and relegate things to the metaphorical in order to accommodate scientific discoveries, not the other way around.