Why I Am A Christian

In my last post, I summarized why I cannot be an atheist, based on all the arguments for and against the existence of God that I have explored on this blog over the past year. For me, the balance of these considerations leans towards belief in God – strongly enough to commit to what I see as the truth, especially in light of what it means for my life, and for everyone’s lives, if it is true.

I can say some similar things about why I am a Christian specifically, not merely a theist, and why I believe that what Christianity teaches is true.

Why I Became A Christian

My earliest reason for believing in what Christianity teaches is simply that this is what I grew up being taught. My parents believed in Christ, and my church community believed, and because I trusted them, that is what I believed as well.

Depending on one’s stage of life and the belief in question, this is a totally valid reason to believe something – but naturally, by the time you are grown, you are in about as good a position as your parents to know the truth about God for yourself, so relying on their authority is no longer enough. Which is why I now have other reasons for believing in Christ than just my parents’ faith. If I did not, I would not remain a Christian.

That being said, I’ll readily admit that this early belief and spiritual environment predisposed me to continue believing the teachings of Christianity, and that hasn’t changed. As I said at the beginning of this part of my blog, I have tried to look at the reasons for and against belief in God as objectively as possible, keeping my biases and predispositions in mind. But I cannot say for certain whether I would have evaluated these reasons the way that I did, had I not been raised to believe the way that I did.

In the end, though, I don’t think this is all that important. People who have been raised in much the same way as me have looked at the same evidence and rejected Christianity on that basis (though obviously I think they have done so incorrectly) – so at the very least my upbringing probably has not determined me to believe what I do. And people who have grown up very differently than me have looked at the same evidence and converted to Christianity on that basis – so even to those without a Christian background, the evidence has force.

My childhood may have biased me in the direction of Christianity, but even trying to take that into account as best I can, I still think there are good reasons to believe that Christianity is true. From my perspective, then, my parents raised me to believe the truth – and that actually makes me very grateful that I was raised the way I was.

Why I Am Still A Christian

So then, my parents’ faith is why I became a Christian at first, but I can give three reasons why I remain a Christian. Here they are.

The first is the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, which I wrote about in an earlier series of posts. I’ll summarize here (though of course the details are much more in depth). The origin of Christianity is difficult to explain without the disciple’s belief in the resurrection – and the existence of that belief is backed up by the textual evidence. Their belief is difficult to explain without the resurrection appearances and the empty tomb – and those strange occurrences are again backed up by the textual evidence. I see no good way to explain these things naturalistically – and even factoring in some doubt about whether I have correctly assessed the evidence (as I tried to do in my last post*), I remain convinced that the resurrection is the best explanation, and that it sufficiently outweighs the alternatives for one to be justified in believing it.

(*In fact, thinking again about the evidence for the resurrection, I have to admit I think I was underrepresenting its strength when I wrote my last post a month ago, in my attempt to be fair to the other side. I’ve edited the previous post to try to reflect my assessment of the strength of the evidence more closely.)

So, I find there is sufficient evidence to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead after being crucified. And this points to the truth of Christianity: if Jesus rose from the dead, the best explanation of this event is that God was vindicating Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God. If Jesus rose from the dead, it is no stretch to believe that he empowered his followers to proclaim the true religion, and so we can learn the truth from what they wrote. Christianity coheres with the resurrection of Jesus as no other religion (or irreligion) can.

The second reason is my own religious experience. Namely, I have experienced the presence of God in my life, and those experiences have come in a Christian context and have affirmed key truths of Christianity to me, such as the identity of Jesus as God, the forgiveness of my sins through Jesus, the inspiration of the Christian scriptures by God. (These are affirmed via what you could call “spiritual intuition,” I suppose – a inner sense that these things are true.) And while my own experiences have not been so powerful that I could not doubt them, I also know people who have experienced the presence of Jesus much more closely than I have, and many others who have felt what I have, and their testimony lends me trust in what I have experienced.

All these experiences are, of course, subjective and undoubtably influenced by my upbringing and environment. But they cohere with the evidence for the resurrection, and with my other reasons for believing that God exists, so I still have some reason for believing that they are genuine.

The third reason is along the lines of what C.S. Lewis argues in his Mere Christianity. I have written in this blog about the moral argument for God’s existence. I believe we can learn through natural theology that God is the perfect standard of what is Right and Good; that the Being at the foundation of all reality has written a Moral Law on our hearts. But this has a terrifying corollary.

For we do not follow the Moral Law. We kill, we exploit, we lie, we steal. We have all sinned, all failed to live up to the perfect standard in some way. In fact, we humans have an incredible capacity for evil: those who study genocide have consistently observed that ordinary people perpetuate these horrific acts. All of us actualize that capacity to some degree, doing things we ought not to do.

In violating the standard of Right and Good, in disobeying the Moral Law, we have made ourselves enemies of God. And God, being perfectly good, cannot but hate what is evil, cannot but have wrath against us who impugn his goodness and hurt each other – us creatures whom he loves. We are in trouble, and it even seems like God is in a conundrum. How can his love for us on one hand be reconciled with his hatred for our evil on the other?

Christianity teaches that we have this distressing problem (to put it mildly) – agreeing with natural theology. But it also teaches the solution. In our imperfection and finitude we could never hope to get out of the problem ourselves, and so God himself has provided a way for us to be brought back into right relationship with him. The love and holiness, justice and mercy of God come together in the cross of Christ. And so, it seems to me that Christianity overcomes a potential contradiction in the perfect goodness of God in a way that no other religion does.

Of course, I would need to go into more detail about what exactly Christianity teaches, and how this all works, in order to fully show why I think the above paragraph makes sense. And I intend to do that, in future posts. Suffice to say for now that this Good News – this hope of salvation from our sins, uniquely displaying the perfect goodness of God – is a reason I believe that Christianity is true.

(All of that is to say that I believe Christianity is true; actually being a Christian – living from faith in Jesus and loyalty to him, obeying what he has commanded us – is harder. I’m still working on that part.)

Conclusion

That pretty much wraps up what I wanted to do with this section of the blog – explore the reasons for and against belief in God, and explain why I find belief in God, and Christianity in particular, to be rational. I will be taking a break from this blog for a while before starting the next stage (life has gotten busy lately). When I come back, I will continue exploring my beliefs and my reasons for them – this time, focusing on what Christianity entails.

Why I Can’t Be An Atheist

Almost a year ago I started posting about my exploration of what I see as the strongest arguments for and against the existence of God, and I started writing these posts several months earlier than that. Almost half of the posts on my blog so far have been directed at this question. (And on top of that, apparently my average word count per post has been higher this year than last!) So it has been a fairly long project.

Looking back over all of the thoughts I’ve gathered, here is where I find myself: I cannot be an atheist.

I can imagine why someone might be an atheist. I can imagine how you might weigh the considerations differently so that atheism is reasonable, even. But for me, that is not an option. For me, the arguments for God’s existence substantially outweigh those against.

What I Have to Believe to be an Atheist

Here is what I would have to believe in order to be an atheist:

  • The principle of sufficient reason is false, and the fact that the universe seems to work like it is true is just one huge coincidence. Abductive and inductive reasoning is invalid, and most of our scientific reasoning is undermined.
  • There is ultimately no reason why the universe (or anything at all) exists, or is the way that it is.
  • There is no explanation for the finely-tuned structure of the physical universe, except perhaps for vastly improbable chance.
  • The existence of consciousness is inexplicable, and in fact, because of this, the connection between our experiences and any external reality becomes dubious.
  • There is no such thing as objective morality, no right or wrong. Morals are just subjective impressions foisted upon us by our evolutionary and cultural history, and we have no fundamental obligation to follow them.
  • There is no such thing as objective beauty. Any sense of the transcendent we have in the sight of something beautiful; any experience of awe and wonder at the world around us; is empty and illusory.
  • There is even no such thing as objective rationality, and it is dubious whether our ways of reasoning, even deductively, are capable of reliably producing truth.
  • In a universe void of the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty, with no teleology in our creation, living insignificant lives in the overall scheme of things, and universally destined for non-existence no matter what we do, life is ultimately without value, purpose, or meaning. (And we can pretend otherwise, but it doesn’t change the reality.)

In contrast, in exchange for the meaningfulness, explanatory coherence, and firm foundation that theism brings to one’s worldview, I only have to accept these tensions in order to be a theist:

  • I cannot fully understand why God would create a world containing evil and imperfection (though I can come up with some plausible reasons why he might do so, in general).
  • I cannot fully understand why God would not make more complete revelation of himself universally available, instead revealing himself in particular places and times in history and allowing many false religions and ideas about him to propagate (though again, I can come up with some plausible reasons why he might do so, in general).
  • I cannot fully understand how God has acted in regards to salvation, eternal life, and those who are excluded from that destiny (but logically, I see no barrier to things turning out in a way that accords with his goodness).

I could, perhaps, be accused of playing things up a little bit here for rhetorical effect. I am not saying that these conclusions are obvious and rationally compelling for everyone. I don’t think all atheists are inherently irrational. But at the end of the day, I do think they are mistaken. Under the light of the arguments for God’s existence, I find that atheism results in absurdity.

I admit haven’t spent as much time exploring and responding to the arguments against God’s existence on this blog as I would have liked to – there is much more that could be said (and has been said, elsewhere on the internet) regarding those subjects. And ideally, in a wrap-up post like this I would be including a quantitative assessment of the cumulative strengths of the reasons for and against belief in God, accounting for the degree of dependence or independence between the different arguments.

I will at least attempt to do that quantitative assessment, briefly, here. (“Briefly.” Ha.)

Quantifying Belief

In the comments on a post a few weeks back, one gentleman (who his own blog worthy of reading) suggested a high-level categorization of the arguments for and against God’s existence, and I think it is a good way of looking at things:

  • Argument from Reality: theism is the best way to explain some fundamental features of reality (encompassing the cosmological, teleological, noetic, and axiological arguments).
  • Argument from Imperfection: atheism better explains the fact that reality is full of imperfection (encompassing the problem of non-god objects, the problem of evil, and dysteleological arguments).
  • Argument from Revelation: theism is supported by experiences of God and the evidence of God’s actions in history (encompassing the epistemological and historical arguments).
  • Argument from Indifference: atheism better explains the apparent indifference of religious revelation (encompassing the problem of divine hiddenness, the problems of religious pluralism and religious disagreement, and the problem of exclusivity).

The argument from imperfection is paired against the argument from reality, and the argument from indifference is paired against the argument from revelation. (One further category, which I’m not going to consider in this analysis due to the difficulty of casting them as abductive arguments, would have the ontological argument on the side of theism, and contradictions in the concept of God on the side of atheism.)

Now what I want to do is run a Bayesian analysis of the odds for theism over atheism, considering each of these arguments in turn: reality (R1), imperfection (I1), revelation (R2), and indifference (I2). Using the odds-ratio form of Bayes’ theorem, and iterative use of the fact that P(A & B) = P(A|B)*P(B):

\frac{P(G|R1,I1,R2,I2)}{P(\sim G|R1,I1,R2,I2)}=\frac{P(I2|G,R1,I1,R2)}{P(I2|\sim G,R1,I1,R2)} \times \frac{P(R2|G,R1,I1)}{P(R2|\sim G,R1,I1)} \times \frac{P(I1|G,R1)}{P(I1|\sim G,R1)} \times \frac{P(R1|G)}{P(R1|\sim G)} \times \frac{P(G)}{P(\sim G)}

To make estimating these probabilities a more reasonable task, I am considering them all to be conditional on some level of background knowledge which frees us from having to consider the probabilities of many irrelevant specific contingent data about the world. In this way the focus can be on whether each worldview in consideration (theism or atheism) has the resources to explain the high-level facts we are interested in.

Even with that, it is hard to pin down some of these numbers, so I will actually model them as a distribution of probabilities. More on that below.

P(G)/P(~G):

First, I think it is fair to consider the prior odds of theism (and atheism) to be one to one, or approximately so. I mentioned Paul Draper’s “low priors” argument a few posts ago, but as I said then, I don’t think it is successful. The intrinsically symmetric alternatives that he considers, “source physicalism” and “source idealism,” both need to be further specified to account for the full range of data. And I see no reason to think that theism must be further specified from source idealism than a viable form of atheism must be from source physicalism.

So P(G)/P(~G) = 1.

P(R1|G):

Now, does the existence of God provide a solid ground for the fundamental features of reality (e.g. existence, appearance of design, consciousness, objective value) that need to be explained? Without considering any of the imperfections in reality – that is the next argument, not this one – I would say the answer is a solid yes. So I will set P(R1|G) = 1.

P(R1|~G):

The argument from reality is atheism’s weak point, in my mind. In order to explain these fundamental features of reality, it faces all the difficulties that I raised above. (And I’m trying to stick to the rational difficulties, but there are serious existential difficulties as well.) My initial impulse is to rate this probability no higher than 0.01, with 0.001 being closer to what I would put it at on most days. Just the failure of the PSR alone, I think, is worth putting it below 0.01.

That is probably a bit extreme, so I will ease off by a factor of 2 and say P(R1|~G) = 0.002 to 0.02. (Median value 0.006.)

P(I1|G,R1):

Of the considerations that could go under the argument from imperfection, I have only specifically addressed the problem of evil on this blog. But the others, the problem of non-god objects (why would God, a perfect being, create anything at all?) and dysteleological arguments (why would God create things that appear poorly designed?) do not add much weight to it, honestly. And given what I think are good responses to the problem of evil, I don’t think this probability needs to be much lower than 0.5.

But recognizing that the argument from imperfection does cause some tension for theism, I will estimate P(I1|G) = 0.1 to 0.4. (Median value 0.21.)

P(I1|~G,R1):

Assuming atheism could overcome the argument from reality, can it explain all the imperfections and evils that we see? Yes, completely. P(I1|~G) = 1.

P(R2|G,R1,I1):

The question here is whether it makes sense for God to provide some revelation of himself and whether theism can account for the kind of examples of revelation that we see. I think the answer is yes, in general, and that this probability is pretty close to 1. To make things simpler, any doubt about this can be transferred to a boost to the next probability. So P(R2|G) = 1.

P(R2|~G,R1,I1):

For me, this probability would be pretty close to 1 (making the argument from revelation quite weak) if it were not for the events surrounding Jesus’ death and the origin of Christianity. I do think atheism has difficulty explaining the evidence that we have for what happened there.

Nevertheless, assessing the argument for the resurrection is a complicated matter, and I am fairly uncertain about just how much force it has. My initial thought is to put this probability anywhere from 0.01 to 0.5. To offset the value of 1 given to the corresponding probability on theism, I will set P(R2|~G) = 0.05 to 0.6. (Median value 0.22.)

(*Note: in an earlier version of this post, I instead set P(R2|~G) at 0.15 to 0.75, wanting to be generous to the other side. But upon later reflection, I felt this really underrepresented my assessment of the strength of the evidence, even taking my uncertainty about that into account. With the original numbers, the median value for my overall probability for God’s existence was about 91.5% instead of 95.3%.)

P(I2|G,R1,I1,R2):

The question that theism has to face now is why God’s revelation of himself is apparently so ineffective and localized. Why would God not make his existence more obvious? Why is there so much religious confusion? How could God leave people in this state of uncertainty, and then condemn them to hell?

The kinds of considerations that I have raised in response to these things in that past few posts go a ways to reducing the tension that the argument from indifference brings to theism – but I find it more difficult to overcome than the argument from imperfection. Let us say that P(I2|G) = 0.05 to 0.3. (Median value 0.13.)

P(I2|~G,R1,I1,R2):

Finally, can atheism explain the apparent indifference of religious revelation? Again, it can do so perfectly. P(I2|~G) = 1.

For each of the four probabilities with a range of values, I have modelled them using a logit-normal distribution with the upper and lower values listed above set to the 10th and 90th percentiles. These are what the distributions look like:

 

subjective distributions

And once these random values are put into the Bayesian equation, and the result converted into a distribution for the posterior probability that God exists (using 10,000 sets of randomly generated numbers to estimate the distribution), this is what I end up with:

subjective distribution output smoothed

This ranges from 82% at the 10th percentile to 98.8% at the 90th percentile, with a median probability of 95.3%. (An equal probability for theism and atheism, at 50%, is down below the 1st percentile in this distribution.)

So, there you have it. Given how I’ve weighted the above arguments, I should on average be a bit more than 95% confident that God exists.

Faith and Reason

This value (or distribution of values) represents an assessment of the strength of the rational justification for belief in God. Obviously, it is a product of several subjective judgements, and different people could weight the arguments differently and get a different number out as a result. On a different day, I myself might feel that different numbers are more appropriate than the ones I have given here. So this number shouldn’t really be thought of as any kind of precise determination of my level of belief in God.

But even more than that, while rationality is extremely important, at the end of the day I have to admit that it isn’t the only consideration that goes into forming one’s beliefs. There are existential considerations as well: considerations about finding meaning and purpose in our lives, and about how our beliefs are going to impact the way we live. So while I definitely think that there are good reasons to believe in God – 95% isn’t insignificant, after all – there is more than that. And the meaning and purpose of life that I find in the theistic worldview draws me, essentially, to commit to what I see as the truth.

The existence of God is too important, and the implications too far-reaching, for it to be practical to be indefinitely weighting the reasons for and against theism, holding that left tail of the distribution in mind and wondering if it will change. This gets back to something I wrote about at the very beginning of my blog: we need critical thinking, but we also need epistemic faith. When we see good reasons to accept a belief – as I see good reasons to believe in God – we should trust that, and not linger in unnecessary skepticism.

Basically, what I am saying is that I am willing to take that last 5% on faith, and I think it is proper to do so. I will trust what I have good reason to believe.

This does not mean that I think I should seal up the issue of belief in God and never subject it to scrutiny again. If something comes up that makes me think about how I’ve weighed the evidence, or if I come across some new consideration that could affect the balance, I am willing to take a look at it. (Granted, given the scope of my exploration of this issue so far, I admit that I find it unlikely that something will ever impact my belief so much as to make me change my mind. But I want those who disagree with me to be open to changing their mind, so I should probably exhibit the same attitude!)

So, that is why I am not an atheist. In my next post, I will write a little bit more on why I believe that Christianity, specifically, is true.

The Problem of Evil and Suffering

My last post looked briefly at the problem of divine hiddenness. That problem, to me, is one of the two strongest reasons to disbelieve that God exists. The second of those two reasons is the problem of evil and suffering. It is the question, “If God exists, why is there so much wrong with the world? Why is there so much pain?”

One way to logically formulate the problem goes like this:

  • If God exists, then he is all-good and all-powerful.
  • If God is all-powerful, he creates whichever world he prefers.
  • If God is all-good, then he prefers a world with less evil and suffering than our own.
  • But the evil and suffering of our own world do exist.
  • Therefore, God did not create a world with less evil and suffering than our own.
  • Therefore, God does not exist.

Based on considerations such as the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, and the axiological argument, I accept the first premise. The fourth premise is true by definition. And the intuitive plausibility of the second and third premises is what gives the problem of evil its intellectual force. Pain and suffering are intrinsically less preferable than their absence, making worlds with less of it better in some respect than worlds with more of it. And it certainly seems like God should prefer better worlds, and be able to create them.

“Epicurus’s old questions are still unanswered. Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able to prevent evil, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both willing and able? Then whence evil?” – David Hume

Nevertheless, I think there are consideration which should lead us to doubt these crucial two premises of the problem of evil. Contra Hume, many philosophers have answered Epicurus: God is able to prevent evil, and he does not will it to occur – but he can have good reasons to allow it in the world the he creates.

See here and here for two animated videos on the problem of evil and suffering, which cover the topic pretty well in a short format.

The Second Premise

The second premise is that if God is all-powerful, then he can and will create whatever world he wants. There is one important consideration that gives good reason to reject this premise: the possibility of free will.

If God chooses to give genuine free will to his creatures – and there is significant value in him doing so, since, I would argue, it is what makes real loving relationships with and between his creatures possible – then God actually cannot just create whatever world he most wants to exist. In creating human beings with free will, God allows us to be co-actualizers of his reality. He can only create a world in which we make certain free choices if those are the choices that we would freely make.

To put it another way, if God prefers that we choose A, but we instead choose B, then he can only create the reality where we choose A by removing our free will. By allowing us to make free choices, some possibilities are closed off to God. This says nothing to undermine his omnipotence, but it does overturn the intuitive justification for the second premise.

The Third Premise

The more powerful objection to the problem of evil, however, is to reject the third premise on the grounds that God may have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil and suffering to occur. Free will comes into play here in a significant way as well: it is often put forward that God allows evil because he wants to allow free, morally significant choices to occur, and sometimes such choices result in evil. And he wants free, morally significant choices to occur because they are a necessary condition of loving personal relationships with his creatures, and for his creatures to undergo the moral growth that is necessary for them to experience perfect happiness.

Sometimes philosophers discuss a difference between moral evil and natural evil, the former being the result of free choices by moral agents (such as one person murdering another), and the latter being suffering that does not result from any such choice (such as an animal dying in a forest fire caused by a lightning strike). It is harder to see how natural evil could be justified by the consideration of free will, in addition to moral evil, but in fact I think it can be done.

Natural evil happens because the laws of nature operate in a certain consistent way, and God does not constantly intervene in the natural order that he has created to prevent such evils from occurring. But the fact that he does not constantly intervene actually serves as one of the conditions which makes our free will significant. The existence of consistent natural world enables us to reasonably predict what the consequences of our free choices will be, and provides us with opportunities to choose good over evil that we would not otherwise have.

Moreover, I would argue there is a kind of beauty in the natural world that would be diminished if it were constantly disrupted by God to prevent every kind of pain and suffering. We also have to consider that not all pain and suffering is completely bad: it is an intrinsic part of diverse ecosystems, it can serve to prevent further harm, and it can actually draw people closer to God. From a Christian perspective, there are verses in the Bible indicating God’s approval of the natural world, complete with instances of apparent evil (such as predation).

So those are some reasons why God might permit evil to occur. Here is another article giving another set of goods which may require allowing evil in order to be realized. I think these are worth mentioning:

  • As I have already said, a knowable natural world providing an arena for morally significant free choices is a great good. And there is aesthetic value in the order of the natural world itself.
  • Being able to form our own character in response to evil and suffering is good. Such character growth, in fact, may be the only way for finite created beings to fully enter into a relationship with God and experience perfect happiness.
  • The existence of evil and suffering allows God’s redemptive response to that evil and suffering, which is very good. More generally, I think true stories of conquering evil are morally valuable.
  • There are relational goods that may only be realized in response to evil (for example, sacrificing oneself for another, or love relationships forged by experiencing suffering together).

All of this goes to show that God may have reasons to allow some evil and suffering, but does it show that he has reasons to allow as much evil and suffering as exists in the actual world? The answer to that is, for all we know, it certainly could. The fact is that there is a lot of evil in the world that seems to serve no purpose – but from our limited perspective, we cannot expect to be able to see all of the reasons that God has for any specific instance of evil. The huge complexity of the world means that we can only see so far – whereas God’s foreknowledge stretches from the beginning to the end of time.

The other thing to consider when trying to evaluate whether the amount of evil in the world can be justified is that, if Christianity is true, there is the potential of an eternity of perfect happiness to counterbalance any extent of suffering experienced in our mortal lives, no matter how great. And, I think, the issue of free will that I have been talking about plays into that.

In order for a community of finite, created beings to experience perfect happiness in relationship with God and with each other, for eternity, they have to make certain choices. They have to choose not to pursue their own happiness at the expense of others. They have to make wise choices that will not lead to harm. Because God is perfectly good and only he knows completely what is best, they have to choose to submit to God and allow him to guide them. And they will have to go on making these choices forever.

Though some Christians believe free will is going to be taken away or changed somehow when we are brought into the new creation, so that it is no longer possible for us to sin, I think that may not be the case: I am inclined to think that free will is necessary for a true loving relationship, whether we are in heaven or not. But that raises an interesting question, to me.

What if all our experiences of evil and suffering – our individual experiences, including our moral growth, and the collective experience of humanity and all of the lessons learned from “doing things our own way” – is exactly what God foreknows is needed to create a community of moral agents who can experience perfect happiness together forever? What if, by allowing a finite amount of evil and suffering, God secures an infinite amount of good, freely chosen by his creatures?

And what if, because of God’s love for us, every individual human life has unique, irreplaceable value to him? What if the amount of evil and suffering in our world is precisely what God must allow, and no more, in order for all the goods of this world to be realized – including eternal life for each of the specific individuals who freely choose to follow him? If these last two “what if’s” are possible, then there could actually be a respect in which this world is better than any other possible reality, which would be enough to justify God’s decision to create it.

Conclusion

Often, the problem of evil is raised up as the problem for belief in God. But in the end I do not think it is anywhere near a definitive disproof of God’s existence. There could very well be reasons for God to allow evil. We can think of a number of such reasons in general. And given our limited ability to survey the vast complexity and scope of history, we should not expect to be able to see God’s reasons for allowing specific evils in many cases.

So again, the problem of evil presents a tension in the theistic worldview, but not one that cannot be overcome. Perhaps the biggest challenge of the problem of evil (especially when combined with the problem of divine hiddenness) is the emotional one: pain hurts, and it is natural to ask why God lets painful things happen to us or to loved ones, or why he does not at least show up personally to comfort us when those things happen.

All the philosophizing in the world is probably not enough to answer someone going through a time that makes them ask those questions, but I do appreciate what William Lane Craig has to say on that subject: although the problem of evil introduces a tension in the Christian story, in the end, it is the Christian story that provides the greatest comfort in the face of evil. He says it better than I do, so rather than elaborate further, I will just link it here. I encourage you to give it a look.

The Problem of Divine Hiddenness

In this blog I have surveyed what I believe to be seven (or so, depending on how you count them) fairly strong arguments for the existence of God. But it is nonetheless true that God’s existence is not completely obvious to most people in the way that, say, the existence of the physical world is obvious. So why is the evidence for God’s existence not more direct? Why doesn’t God make his presence as clear as day to everyone – especially when he supposedly wants people to know him?

This is the problem of divine hiddenness, also called the argument from non-belief, and to me it is one of the two strongest arguments for atheism (together with the problem of evil, which I will discuss in the next post). It can be formulated simply as follows:

  • If God exists, then he is perfectly loving.
  • If God is perfectly loving, he would make it so that every person believes that he exists.
  • Some persons do not believe that God exists.
  • Therefore, God does not exist.

The gist of the argument is that, if God existed, he would want to be in a loving relationship with every person he created. But a precondition for being in a loving relationship with God is believing that God exists. So, God would ensure that everyone is aware of his existence in order for it to be at least possible for them to enter into a relationship with him.

Since in fact it does not appear to be the case that everyone is aware of God’s existence, this line of reasoning lends support to the belief that God does not exist.

Evaluating the Argument

As a theist who finds the axiological and ontological arguments for God compelling, I am in complete agreement with the first premise: if God exists, then he is perfectly loving. So we can take that as a given.

The third premise, I believe, is also fairly obviously true. There are Christians who claim (on the basis of a couple verses in the Bible) that deep down, everyone really believes that God exists: no one is truly an atheist, and anyone who claims they are is lying, even to themselves. I have come to think that this is a very mistaken response. It is extremely uncharitable, it actually isn’t well supported by Scripture, and it isn’t well supported by the testimony of many current and former non-theists. See this article by Randal Rauser for more on that. So I also accept the premise that there are real atheists and agnostics out there.

The second premise is more questionable. Here is how it might be justified. Since God is perfectly loving, he desires the best for everyone. Since God is the locus of all value, being in a personal, loving relationship with God is the greatest good that anyone can experience. So God desires for everyone to be in a right relationship with him. And more simply, since he loves everyone, he desires relationship with them for its own sake: and he would certainly reach out to them rather than abandoning them to an existence devoid of the goodness of his presence.

Now, if belief in God is indeed a precondition for right relationship with him, then we can make the inference from “God desires for everyone to be in a right relationship with him” to “God desires for everyone to believe that he exists”. And I think it is certainly the case that, for the kind of deep and reciprocal relationship that God ultimately desires us to have, belief is required. However:

  • Not all persons may be capable of belief in God. (For example, infants or cognitively impaired persons.) Nevertheless, it may be that such persons can still have a kind of relationship with God, the way that even an unborn child has a kind of relationship with her mother.
  • Since God is not just one personal being among others, but is also the ground and locus of all value, it may be possible to have a positive relationship with God even without believing in him, by relating to Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.
  • If God has foreknowledge of our free choices, he knows whether producing belief would lead to the kind of positive relationship that he is interested in. There may be those who, upon coming to believe that God exists, would still reject relationship with him, enter into an improper relationship with him, or enter into a relationship with him which they would ultimately choose to forsake. (Such persons may or may not be culpable for being in these contrary states; there can be a variety of reasons for such dispositions.) God’s reasons for producing belief in these cases are much reduced.
  • Similar to the above point, there may be people to whom God has given sufficient rational grounds for belief in his existence, who have freely and culpably rejected those grounds, or who have shut themselves off from God in some other way (for example, by refusing to seek God because of a desire to be in control of their own life). Not desiring a coerced relationship, God’s reasons for forcing belief on such persons are also reduced.

This means there is some reason to doubt that God’s desire for relationship automatically leads to God’s desire to produce belief in his existence. Furthermore, even if God desires for someone to believe that he exists, that does not imply that he has an all-things-considered desire for that person to believe that he exists. God may have other considerations, some in favour of allowing created persons to remain unaware of his existence, at least for a time. Here are some reasons for divine hiddenness:

  • Delaying in making evidence available for a person to believe in God may alter their circumstances in such a way that they enter into a higher quality relationship with him later than they would have if he had made such evidence available earlier. (Daniel Howard-Snyder argues along these lines in this paper.)
  • Divine hiddenness may allow for greater independence and interdependence of creatures, benefiting our moral development. (Dustin Crummett makes this suggestion here.)
  • Divine hiddenness may reduce coercion in some situations and allow for more opportunity to freely choose what is good for the right reasons (i.e. because it is good, not just for fear of punishment, for example).
  • Perhaps it is appropriate to God’s holiness to maintain a certain degree of distance from his creatures.
  • Because of the butterfly effect, divine hiddenness could lead to better possible outcomes in ways that are totally unpredictable from a human perspective, but that can be foreseen by an all-knowing God.

(Take a look here for a resource that explores some of these possibilities further, with references to other philosophical works.)

In evaluating why God may remain hidden from some people, we also have to consider that if God exists, then human persons may have an eternity before them in which to relate to God: our mortal lives may just be an infinitesimal sliver of the whole of our existence. Which means that for all we know, God’s sacrificing some depth of relationship for a short time in order to obtain other goods may very well be justified.

Conclusion

Given these considerations, I am far from certain that the second premise of the problem of divine hiddenness can be sufficiently supported. Perhaps we could modify it:

  • If God is perfectly loving, then for every person A who is capable of entering into a personal relationship with God, such that A has not culpably shut themselves off from relationship with God in some way, God brings it about that A believes in his existence, unless he has an overriding reason to permit A to remain in non-belief.

I can accept this premise with reasonable certainty. But then we need to modify the third premise in order for the argument to remain valid:

  • There is at least one person who has not culpably shut themselves off from relationship with God, and who has not come to believe in God’s existence; and God has no overriding reason to allow this person to remain in unbelief.

And this premise is quite plausibly false. At the very least, it seems impossible to prove from a human perspective: we cannot possibly be in a position to adequately evaluate all of God’s reasons for doing something, and we can think of a few reasons in favour of divine hiddenness that cannot be ruled out conclusively.

(Note: There is, perhaps, one very important consideration which the proponent of the hiddenness argument could raise to say that God cannot have an overriding reason to allow anyone to indefinitely remain in unbelief: the person’s eternal salvation depending on having a right relationship with God. This gets into the problems of religious pluralism and exclusivity, which I will discuss in upcoming posts.)

Thus, I think it is quite reasonable to disbelieve this modified premise (provided the theist has a response to the problems of religious pluralism and exclusivity). Which means that, while the problem of divine hiddenness introduces some tension into a theistic worldview, in the end I do not find that tension to be insurmountable. After all, there is evidence for God’s existence, so he is not and does not remain completely hidden. And it may very well be that this evidence is enough to accomplish God’s purposes in this world: enough for people to seek him and begin a loving relationship with him, if they so choose.

Obviously, I have only scratched the surface of this topic, and there is a great deal of philosophical work that has been done (and that is still being done) to explore it further. I have to admit that in this post I haven’t dealt with the problem of divine hiddenness in as much depth as I’d like. In the future, I may come back to expand on what I’ve written here. For now, I want to keep moving on to new topics (and I don’t have as much time for blogging these days), so I am content with this overview.

The Presumption of Atheism

Do we really need a reason to not believe in God? Isn’t atheism the default position?

To answer this question we need to distinguish between believing that God does not exist on one hand, and not believing that God exists on the other. The former is the belief in an absence. The latter is simply the absence of a belief.

“Atheism” is commonly defined as the belief that God does not exist, but there are a growing number of people who define it in a weaker sense as the state of not believing that God exists (beginning with Antony Flew, who first suggested to use “atheism” in this way). For clarity, I will call the former sense “positive atheism” and the latter sense “negative atheism”.

So then, is atheism the default position? The answer depends on whether you mean positive or negative atheism.

If you mean negative atheism, then yes! I am in complete agreement that negative atheism is the default epistemic state. One does not need arguments or evidence to be a negative atheist, because negative atheism isn’t a belief at all. Being merely the lack of a belief, it does not assert that anything is true, and so requires no justification. It is just a description of someone’s subjective mental state. Babies, cats, and rocks are all negative atheists, since they do not hold a belief in the existence of God. (At least, we don’t think they do.) Positive atheists are negative atheists, but the converse isn’t necessarily true – agnostics are also negative atheists. (Which is why, if you want to distinguish between atheism and agnosticism, you have to mean positive atheism.)

Negative atheism is trivial. Note that we can just as well define “negative theism” to mean not believing that God does not exist, and then that is also the default position! (Someone can lack both the belief that God exists and the belief that God does not exist, and indeed the babies, cats, and rocks of the last paragraph are in that position – along with the agnostics.)

Because “negative atheism” is so trivial, it is only a useful category in some sociological contexts – in studying the kind of things that people believe, for example. But when we are talking about more than that – when we are talking about whether or not God really exists, not just what people believe about that – what we care about is “positive atheism”.

And there, the situation is quite different. If you claim that positive (not merely negative) atheism is the default position, well, you are simply wrong. Positive atheism is a belief – it takes a stand and asserts that something is true (namely, that God does not exist). And we should have reasons for believing what we do. We should seek to have justified beliefs. Thus, positive atheism requires justification to back up the assertion that it makes, which means it is not the default position.

I think this is worth repeating. The claim that God does not exist is no less strong of an assertion about the nature of reality than the claim that he does. So atheism (that is, positive atheism) is not an epistemically neutral stance. In order to be an atheist in any philosophically significant sense of the word, you have to have reasons.

To put a bit more rhetoric behind this statement: the atheist who says that he needs no evidence for atheism (because it is the “default”) is no better than the fideist who says that he needs no evidence for theism (because he accepts it by “faith”). Worse, even: at least the fideist usually recognizes that his position is irrational.

You’ll find atheists who say that atheism is not a claim, and therefore it has no burden of proof. But this can only be true of negative atheism: if said about positive atheism, it is blatantly false. The distinction between theism and atheism is not that one claims something and the other doesn’t. Rather, the distinction is that one is a positive existential claim (it claims that something exists) and the other is a negative existential claim (it claims that something does not exist).

And there is nothing about negative existential claims which makes them exceptions to the rule that we should have rational justification for what we believe. For comparison: philosophical idealism makes a negative existential claim, but that does not make it the default position, nor does it allow us to deny the reality of the physical world without valid reasons.

Reasons for Atheism

The saying “you can’t prove a negative” becomes relevant here. Some people assume that this is true, and that it means that justification for a negative existential claim can’t actually be given, letting atheism off the hook. But this saying is false. There are perfectly good ways to justify negative existential claims. There are, in fact, some reasons to believe atheism. Therefore, the requirement that atheists have reasons to be atheists is not unreasonable.

First, though, here are a few statements that are not reasons to be an atheist:

  • “There isn’t any evidence for God.”

If by “evidence” you mean the kind of natural, physical evidences that we study with science, then you’re looking in the wrong place. It presupposes atheism or philosophical materialism to insist that all justification for beliefs has to be evidence of this kind. Moreover, it is self-refuting, since we rely on certain non-evidential beliefs in order to acquire and use evidence at all. Construing “evidence” more broadly to mean any rational justification for a belief, this objection is false. See: all my previous posts on arguments for God’s existence.

  • “None of the arguments for God’s existence are convincing.”

This leaves you without a reason to believe that God exists, but it doesn’t give any reason to believe that he doesn’t. So at best, this leaves you with agnosticism. If you say you can be an atheist merely because you haven’t been convinced about theism, then you might as well say you can believe anything you want as long as it is not obviously false. I think rational belief requires a little bit more than that.

  • “God isn’t a valid explanation of anything.”

This objection is sometimes used against the cosmological or teleological arguments, saying that the God hypothesis is really a non-explanation. But for one, this objection is false: if God exists and created the universe, then God obviously would be an explanation for the existence of the universe. (And so the claim that God is a non-explanation just presupposes atheism, without justification.) And for two, even if true, this objection would only negate reasons for theism, rather than providing reasons for atheism.

(See also here for a further exploration of the not-a-valid-explanation objection.)

  • “Science shows that God doesn’t exist.” Or, “Science shows that we don’t need to posit God to explain anything.”

No, it doesn’t. I’ve written about this before. But by way of brief response: science allows us to explain a lot of things via natural causes, but it cannot explain everything, and it certainly cannot explain where those natural causes themselves come from. (To take up that question is to leave the realm of empirical science and go deep into the realm of philosophy.)

With those out of the way, here is one statement that is a valid reason to be an atheist (if true):

  • “There isn’t enough evidence for God’s existence, compared to the amount that there would be if he did exist.”

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the saying goes – unless we should have that evidence if the thing did in fact exist. (For a more in-depth exploration of that principle, see here.) Where this is used as an argument for atheism, it is known as the problem of divine hiddenness. More generally, we can provide justification for negative existential claims in the following way:

  • “If X exists, then Y should be true. But Y is false. Therefore, X does not exist.”

This is the logical form behind the problem of evil and other arguments against God’s existence. These are the kind of arguments that can actually justify atheism, and they are what I will be exploring in upcoming posts.

Implausibility of Theism

There is one further argument that I will address which is relevant to the question of whether or not atheism can be considered the default epistemic position. It is raised by Paul Draper in his article on atheism and agnosticism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The idea behind this “low priors” argument is that theism is intrinsically improbable, so that even before taking any evidence into account, the presumption is in favour of atheism.

Draper argues for the low prior probability of omni-theism (his term for the kind of theism that I believe follows from the arguments for natural theology) by comparing it to an alternative position that he calls source physicalism:

  • Source physicalism: the physical world is ontologically ultimate, and any mental reality depends on the physical for its existence.
  • Source idealism: the mental world is ontologically ultimate, and physical reality depends on the mental for its existence.
  • Omni-theism: a subset of source idealism, which further specifies the ontological ultimate to be a unique, perfect person.

Draper’s claim is that 1) source physicalism and source idealism have equal intrinsic probabilities, principally because of the symmetry between the two positions, and 2) omni-theism is a very specific version of source idealism and therefore it must be much less intrinsically probable than source idealism in general. From this it follows that 3) omni-theism is much less intrinsically probable than source physicalism.

These claims are, of course, contestable. Despite Draper’s assertion, there is an asymmetry between source physicalism and source idealism, both in regards to our epistemic position (we can doubt the existence of the physical world, but we cannot rationally doubt the existence of our own minds), and in regards to their ontological status (there are mental phenomena that do not seem possible to derive from the physical world even in principle). It seems to me that these are a priori considerations that could tip the balance in favour of source idealism in terms of its intrinsic probability, over source physicalism.

Second, it seems to me that Draper’s claim about the specificity of omni-theism, compared to source idealism, is greatly exaggerated. Over and above source idealism, omni-theism simply claims that the ontological ultimate is personal instead of impersonal, one instead of many, and perfect instead of imperfect. The first of these additional claims arguably has the advantage due to similar considerations as those in the last paragraph. And the latter two claims are in some sense simpler than their counterparts, and could claim greater intrinsic probability on that basis.

Finally, omni-theism is actually a very simple hypothesis: it postulates the existence of a single entity (an immaterial person) who can be described by perhaps just three properties (knowledge, power, and goodness) and who possesses those properties in the simplest possible way (to the maximum degree, with no limitations). Compare this to Draper’s source physicalism, which has to postulate the brute existence of a number of physical entities, laws, constants, and initial conditions (or some kind of mechanism for generating such). So I would say that considerations of simplicity actually tip the balance of intrinsic probability in favour of theism!

So I don’t believe that Draper is successful in his argument that omni-theism is many times less probable, intrinsically, than source physicalism. Which means that is not a good reason to take atheism as the “default position”.

 

An aside on Draper’s arguments in the article referenced above:

I might add that Draper’s complete “low priors” argument also includes the premise that the total evidence does not favour omni-theism over source physicalism. (Where “evidence” in this context means any rational source of justification for a belief – experience, arguments, etc.) Combining this with the premise that omni-theism is intrinsically much less probable than source physicalism, he concludes that omni-theism is very probably false, and thus, atheism (understood just as the denial of omni-theism) is very probably true.

As I said, I think there is reason to doubt the premise about the intrinsic probabilities of omni-theism and source physicalism. But even if that were established, I absolutely disagree with this claim about the balance of the evidence. Justifying it requires one to undercut or defeat all of the arguments for omni-theism from natural theology, or at least to balance them with equally strong arguments for source physicalism. And that, from my perspective, is a very difficult task.

(Draper’s appeal to the “fallacy of understated evidence” is a good starting point for discussion about potential weaknesses or balancing considerations of certain theistic arguments, but it in no way shows that those considerations actually succeed in reducing the force of those arguments by a significant degree.)

Interestingly, the failure of this premise is related in a way to the potential success of the other one. One of the ways that Draper tries to justify his premise about the intrinsic improbability of omni-theism is by saying that omni-theism makes very specific claims, each of which must reduce its probability. But if we’re being rational, we theists don’t just make those claims out of the blue. We make specific claims about God and reality because of reasons that we see for them (for example, from natural theology). So in the end, theism’s level of intrinsic probability doesn’t really matter. The important thing is its probability when the evidence is taken into account.

The put it another way, omni-theism is not postulated a priori as an arbitrary refinement of source idealism, any more than the Standard Model of particle physics is postulated a priori as a refinement of source physicalism. These things are postulated as hypotheses to account for facts that need to be explained. So the fact that omni-theism is more specific than source idealism is no more of a strike against theism, to my mind, than is the fact that the Standard Model is more specific than source physicalism a strike against atheism.

One more note: Draper has a second argument for atheism in that article, his “decisive evidence” argument. This one isn’t really a distinct argument, since its premises basically assert that 1) none of the argument for theism are successful, and 2) there is an argument for atheism that is successful. (There’s more nuance to it than that, but when you really break it down the premises are justified only if those two things are true.)

End aside.

 

So far, I’ve explored two reasons that are often put forward for rejecting theism in favour of atheism: arguments that theism is impossible, and the presumption of atheism as the default epistemic position. And in my honest evaluation, neither of these carry any rational weight whatsoever.

In the next few weeks I will explore some atheistic arguments that I think do have force.

The Historical Argument (I)

While all of the arguments for God’s existence that I have explored so far combine to give us a powerful concept of God, as I said in my last post, they still leave the precise identity of God unknown. But I believe we can know, with even greater specificity, who God is, for he has revealed himself by entering into human history in a unique way.

My contention in this series of posts will be that there is sufficient historical evidence to know that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, and that because of this, it is reasonable to believe in what Jesus taught and proclaimed. This I call the historical argument for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity, but it may also be called the argument from the resurrection.

The basic starting point for this argument is the existence of the Christian faith and certain writings of the New Testament. This argument does not begin by assuming that the writings of the New Testament are scripture and therefore authoritative. Rather, it investigates these writings as one would investigate any other historical documents, and looks for the best explanation for why they exist, why they say what they do, and how the religion of Christianity began.

Overview of the Evidence

There is abundant evidence tracing Christian beliefs back into the first century. Among these key beliefs, of course, are that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person who had a following of disciples, that he was crucified and raised from the dead by God, that he was in fact God incarnate, that after the resurrection his disciples proclaimed that they had seen him, and that they preached the hope of eternal life for those who put their faith in him.

The most obvious examples of the presence of such beliefs in ancient times are the writings which became the New Testament. But we also have abundant writings from early church fathers in the second and third centuries, which quote the New Testament and affirm the same beliefs, for example:

  • Ignatius of Antioch (50 – 117 CE)
  • Polycarp of Smyrna (69 – 155 CE)
  • Justin Martyr (100 – 165 CE)
  • Irenaeus of Lyons (130 – 202 CE)
  • Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215 CE)
  • Tertullian (150 – 225 CE)
  • Hippolytus of Rome (170 – 235 CE)

(The list of church fathers here is taken from this blog post on Stand to Reason.) Some of these men, such as Ignatius and Polycarp, personally knew the apostles, and their writings attest to the origin of Christianity.

From non-Christian sources, there is clear evidence for the existence of Christianity and for Jesus as a historical figure in the histories written by Josephus and Tacitus. There are a number of references to Christianity in other sources, such as the writings of Pliny the Younger, the Roman Emperor Trajan, and Lucian of Samosata, to name a few. Archeological evidence is present for early Christian beliefs as well. Two examples are a mosaic dated to around 230 CE in a third century church which describes Jesus as God, and a piece of Roman graffiti from around 200 CE mocking someone for worshipping a person who was crucified.

As for the New Testament writings themselves, we have enough ancient copies and quotations of them that we can reconstruct what the originals said with 99.5% accuracy. (See here for some information about the textual reliability of the New Testament.) It is also fairly clear that they were, at least for the most part, completed by the end of the first century. The earliest manuscript fragments that we have for the Gospels of John, for example, dates to the middle of the second century. Critical scholars typically date the Gospels to between the 70s and 90s at the latest – and I find there are good reasons to believe they were produced even earlier, from the 40s or 50s to the 60s.

From what I have seen, the arguments for later dates for the Gospels ignore the internal evidence for who wrote them and when they were written (that is, what the text themselves and other early Christian writings say about them), in favour of presuppositions against the supernatural (such as, Jesus’s prophecy of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem could not have been genuine). Since what we are investigating is whether something supernatural happened in the life and death of Jesus, an anti-supernatural presupposition is simply begging the question, and the earlier dates for the Gospels are a live possibility.

But even the later dates for the Gospels are fairly close chronologically to the events they describe, compared to many other ancient sources. This is a very significant point in favour of their historical reliability, since there simply was not enough time for the development of legends. People who remembered the events, or who had been told about the events by those who had experienced them, would have still been around to check the veracity of what was being written.

Further to that, we have other important indications of historical reliability: including evidence that the Gospel accounts are based on eyewitness testimony, the presence of what are called undesigned coincidences in the texts, archeological evidence showing that the accounts get the historical details correct, and more.

Probably the most significant objection to the historical reliability of the Gospels are the supposed contradictions between them. But the vast majority of these can either be easily harmonized, or understood as instances of narrative flexibility. That is to say, if the Gospel writers chose for example to narrate events out of chronological order in order to emphasize certain themes, or to simplify details for the sake of brevity, this is not a mark against their historical reliability. The accounts can still present a faithful portrait of what really happened according to literary standards of that time period.

In addition to the Gospels (and the book of Acts, which is closely tied to the Gospel of Luke), we also find important historical information in the letters of the apostle Paul. These were composed from the mid 40s to the mid 60s in the first century. Though a few are contested, scholars are almost unanimous in accepting seven of the New Testament epistles as authentic letters written by the historical apostle Paul in this time period.

For further reasons to accept the historical reliability of the New Testament, Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and Eddy and Boyd’s The Jesus Legend are all good resources.

Overall, the New Testament writings have every appearance of being generally historically reliable. Setting aside for the moment the question of whether the supernatural elements of these narratives should be taken at face value, it is reasonable to take the accounts of the Gospels and Acts as genuine reports of what people in the mid-first century believed to have happened in the life of Jesus and the origin of the Christian church.

Of course, this does not by itself prove that Jesus rose from the dead, but it does provide substantial evidence that Christianity began as Christians have always said: with Jesus appearing risen from the dead to his disciples after he had been crucified, and an empty tomb where his body had been laid. In the next few posts, I will explore the evidence for some specific facts in greater detail:

  • Jesus was crucified.
  • His body was buried.
  • His tomb was found empty.
  • The disciples claimed to have seen Jesus resurrected, and they believed it.
  • Paul, persecutor of the early church, was radically changed and became its foremost apostle.
  • James, skeptical brother of Jesus, became a believer and a leader in the church.
  • Before his death, Jesus claimed to have a unique relationship with God.

Then I will explore the possibilities for how these facts may be explained.

The Axiological Argument (III)

In my last two posts, I have defended the two premises of the moral argument: that objective moral values and duties exist, and that if God does not exist, it is reasonable to conclude that objective moral values and duties do not. This justifies belief in the existence of God – as long as the theist can give a satisfactory account of objective morality grounded in God’s existence.

The Euthyphro Dilemma

Perhaps the clearest way to explain the theistic account of morality is to first explain what it is not. And the easiest way to do that is to ask a question: is what is good commanded by God because it is good, or is it good because God commands it? This question is known as the Euthyphro dilemma, from the classic dialogue by Plato from which it is derived.

The first horn of the dilemma, that God commands the good because it is good, fails to ground objective morality in God. What is good is determined by a higher principle which God responds to. Whatever that principle is, God seems to have nothing to do with it. Not only does this fail to explain morality, many take it to impugn God by placing Him under the authority of some external principle.

The second horn, that whatever God commands is good simply because God commanded it, is also problematic. This makes goodness arbitrary and contingent on God’s will, when intuitively it seems that at least some things are necessarily good, and others necessarily evil. This also makes it empty of meaning to say that God is good, since it is just true by definition.

The full answer to the dilemma is nuanced, but it can be summarized by saying that God commands what is good because He is Good. In other words, there is a third option, and the dilemma is a false one.

In more detail, the theistic account of morality says something substantive about God’s nature. God is necessarily loving, just, merciful, wise, holy, and so on. These attributes are an essential component of His nature, and His commands are always an expression of this nature. Therefore, God neither answers to an external moral standard, nor does He arbitrarily invent the moral standard: rather, His own character and nature is the standard for moral values.

Furthermore, the theistic account grounds our moral duties in God by supposing that we have a basic and fundamental obligation towards Him as the foundation of all reality, the highest good, the greatest conceivable being, a being worthy of worship and obedience. This is the crucial normative premise of the theistic account of morality, and it seems to me to be a completely natural axiom, if theism is true – in contrast to the normative premises of naturalistic accounts, which are entirely ad-hoc on naturalism.

So theism provides a coherent and plausible account of the existence of objective moral values and duties. Because God’s nature is metaphysically necessary, it can serve as an objective standard for necessarily existing values. Because God’s nature includes certain attributes and not others, it is meaningful to say that God is good, and His commands are not arbitrary. And because God is both a perfect personal being and the foundation of all reality, it makes sense for all created persons to have a fundamental obligation towards Him.

Of course, a full-fledged theistic theory of morality is going to be more intricate than that. In particular, we do not need to say that God’s commands to us are all and only those He directly reveals to us in fire and lightning from a mountaintop. Many of our moral obligations may be constituted by what He has placed in our conscience and what we can infer from the moral intuitions He has given us. A theistic moral theory can include elements of all of these:

  • divine command theory
  • natural law theory
  • deontological ethics
  • virtue ethics

But the ultimate foundation is God’s nature and our obligation towards Him.

Why Good Rather than Evil?

To further explore this way of grounding morality in God, we may ask if it can be parodied: instead of postulating a God whose character is the standard of goodness, why shouldn’t we postulate an anti-God whose character is the standard of evil? A being who is necessarily hateful, unjust, cruel, and so on? In other words, why does the moral argument allow us to infer that there is a morally perfect God, rather than a perfectly evil anti-God?

For this parody to work, it would have to make just as much sense to view goodness as a departure from a standard of perfect evil as it does to view evil as a departure from a standard of perfect goodness. Intuitively, this does not seem to be the case. Many philosophers and theologians would say (and have been saying for the past 1500 years at least) that evil is not something that exists on its own, but is parasitic on goodness. Evil is an absence of good, just as darkness is the absence of light.

This view of evil can also be illustrated by considering health versus sickness. Many people might give an off-the-cuff definition of health as the absence of sickness. But in order to understand what sickness is, we actually need to first understand how a healthy body should function: without knowing how the body is supposed to work, we would not recognize where sickness was making it go wrong.

So health is the standard, the way things ought to be, and sickness is a deviation from that standard. It simply wouldn’t make any sense to define health as the deviation from some kind of standard of sickness: if there is any such thing as “being as sick as absolutely possible,” it is probably just being dead, or even being dead and completely decomposed – no longer existing at all.

In the same way, it seems to me that evil is best understood as a deviation from a standard of goodness, and that it doesn’t make sense to try to understand good the other way around. While there are some goods that could be defined as absences of certain kinds of evils (peace as the absence of war, for example), those evils are ultimately absences of other kinds of goods (war is a failure of peoples and nations to treat each other as they ought to, or a necessary response to such a failure in the case of a just war). So at the most foundational level of analysis, only good is primitive; evil is all derivative.

We can also see a relevant asymmetry between good and evil in that evil has no intrinsic value, whereas good does. It really makes no sense to choose evil for evil’s sake. I believe it is fairly plausible to say that any time someone does wrong, it is to pursue something that is good, only in the wrong context or using the wrong means. You might have villains in stories say “I just love being evil,” but they don’t actually love it because it is evil – rather, they love it because it allows them to pursue goods that they want. In contrast, it does make sense to choose good simply because it is good.

Finally, we can also point out that there are other goods besides moral goods, and they seem to be related. Beauty, moral goodness, rationality, and even existence itself are all intrinsically positive things, and there are philosophers who would argue that they must go together to some extent. So the anti-God could not just be perfectly evil, but would also have to be perfectly irrational and completely lacking in any quality that could be thought of as beautiful. In fact, just as the opposite of health is not merely some miserable state of sickness but in fact death itself, the opposite of God is not some evil anti-God, but is instead complete non-existence.

So I think we have reasonable intuitions supporting the notion that there is an ontological asymmetry between good and evil, with goodness metaphysically fundamental in a way that evil is not. And because of this, a good God as the standard of moral values is a coherent idea, while an evil anti-God is, in the end, just nonsense.

But is God Truly Good?

There is one more objection related to the moral argument that I will consider briefly and generally here. The reason I will only consider it briefly is that it does not actually go against the moral argument. Rather, combined with the moral argument, it is an objection against certain claims of what God is like. So instead of saying “God does not exist,” this objection merely says “your God does not exist,” or even just “this particular thing you say about God is false.”

I am talking about the objection that God is not good – that the God described by various faiths (such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam) falls short of a perfect being who could serve as the standard of moral values. And that is putting it mildly, according to some atheists, who accuse God of being downright evil, a moral monster.

Construed as an inference to the best explanation, the moral argument gives us reason to believe that there is a transcendent, personal ultimate reality who is morally perfect, and who can therefore be the basis for an objective moral standard. So the objection that someone’s particular concept of God is morally defective does not actually do anything undermine the moral argument’s conclusion.

Of course, theists of particular faiths will want to say that the God they worship is in fact the one revealed by the moral argument. For my own part, I will wait for a later section of my blog to defend the idea that the God of Christianity, specifically, is the morally perfect being who I have been writing about in this post. But on a general level, here are some ways that theists may respond to the objection that God is not good:

First, if the teachings of religion appear to show us a God who is morally imperfect, it may just be that we have misunderstood those teachings. For instance, a correct reading of the scriptural texts in their proper contexts may remove the problem.

Second, if we find ourselves apparently disagreeing with God about right and wrong, it may be because our moral intuitions are flawed. We rely on our intuitions to inform us about morality, and they have led us to the belief that morality is objective and even to the belief that God, as the foundation of morality, exists – but this does not mean that our moral intuitions are infallible. And it may be that our reasons for believing in a particular religion are strong enough to outweigh a specific moral intuition when the teachings of that religion conflict with it.

Third, it may be that our moral intuitions are basically correct, but that we cannot apply them to evaluate God’s actions on the same level as our own. God is not merely another moral agent among many; He is the creator, judge, and the ultimate purpose of all others. Every created person has a basic obligation towards Him, but He himself has no obligations, and is free to act in any way consistent with His nature. And as He is the creator of the entire universe, we cannot really judge any of His individual actions in isolation from His intention for the entire scope of history – and that, for now, is beyond us.

And fourth, when the perturbing portrayals of God are derived from scripture (or really any kind of authoritative religious source), the theist may respond by referencing a more nuanced understanding of what scripture is. For example, the Christian doctrine of biblical inerrancy is rarely defined to mean that every word of the Bible is true in its most literal sense (genre and figurative language must be taken into account); and many Christians recognize that the Bible was written according to ancient literary conventions, rather than modern ones (so it may not be as concerned as we are with technical precision).

For another example, some Christians, while believing that the Bible is divinely inspired, nevertheless claim that this does not imply that the texts are free from error. Whether this is the best way to think about inspiration is a question for another time, but that is a way that some people have responded to objections that God is not good.

The Moral Lawgiver

Based on everything I have written in the last few posts, it seems to me that we are justified in concluding that a morally perfect, necessarily existing being is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral values and duties. When this is combined with the other lines of evidence for a God-like being from the cosmological and teleological arguments, it is reasonable to infer that they are one and the same. So now we have the following concept of God:

  • A personal being with free will,
  • Uncaused and metaphysically necessary,
  • Eternal and without beginning,
  • Immaterial and beyond physical space,
  • Immensely powerful, knowledgeable, and intelligent,
  • The creator and designer of the universe, and
  • A morally perfect being who is worthy of worship and obedience.

In my next post I will explore a slightly different version of the moral argument, and another set of axiological arguments. These will allow us to further conclude that in addition to being morally perfect, God is perfectly rational and the paradigm of beauty, and that he made us to be able to apprehend His truth, goodness, and beauty in the world around us.

The Axiological Argument (II)

In my last post I began exploring the multifaceted axiological argument for God’s existence, beginning with this version of the moral argument:

  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

I explained and defended the second premise there (and also, implicitly, in an earlier post). Now I will give my reasons for believing the first premise.

The Foundation of Objective Morality

The first premise states that if God does not exist, then neither do objective moral values and duties – which is logically equivalent (by contraposition) to the statement that if objective moral values and duties exist, then so does God. This makes it immediately apparent that the above argument is logically valid, and the conclusion is true if the premises are.

To be very clear about what I mean: I am not saying that we can only be motivated to act morally if we believe that God exists. I am not saying that we can only know right and wrong if we believe that God exists. I am not saying that an atheist is incapable of coming up with an ethical theory to explain the objectivity of morality.

This premise is not about how belief in God relates to moral motivation or knowledge, but how the existence of God relates to the existence of objective moral values and duties. It is not about whether an atheist can formulate a system of morality, but about whether any such system is plausibly true, given their atheism.

Basic Naturalism

With that out of the way, here is why I believe the first premise. If God (a transcendent, personal ultimate reality who created the universe) does not exist, then the alternatives are either naturalism (which says there is no supernatural ultimate reality) or something like pantheism or panentheism (which say that the supernatural ultimate reality is impersonal or not distinct from the universe). Most people these days find naturalism the more plausible of those alternatives.

But if naturalism is true, there is no transcendent reality, and everything that exists reduces to the basic entities of physics operating according to natural laws. The explanatory merit of naturalism is in this reduction to things that can be studied by science: but science is entirely silent on the subject of morality. The laws of physics do not care for right or wrong. Objective moral values and duties are an ad-hoc addition to the basic naturalistic worldview.

To put it another way, we cannot derive “ought” from “is”. No amount of mere description of the way the world is can tell us about the way it ought to be. Trying to infer a normative conclusion from non-normative premises is a widely regarded as a logical fallacy, called the naturalistic fallacy.

Moreover, if naturalism is true, then humans and our moral beliefs are just accidental by-products of evolution. We have no reason to take our moral intuitions as referring to any objective reality – they are nothing more than biological impulses, now obsolete, that we are free to ignore. Humans are just another kind of animal, and animals don’t have any moral duties.

So if naturalism is true, any reason we have to believe in objective morality is undermined, and we have a positive reason to believe that objective morality does not exist: since objective moral values and duties cannot be inferred from the fundamental laws of nature, they are a spurious addition to naturalism. It is reasonable to conclude, on naturalism, that objective moral values and duties do not exist.

Inferring Ought from Is?

There have been many attempts to infer morality from nature. Most often, these come down to different forms of utilitarianism: such as humanism (utility = human flourishing) or hedonism (utility = pleasure minus pain), or the slightly more abstract theory of desirism (utility = desire fulfillment). However, none of these can really get around the problem of inferring ought from is: they all must include an implicit normative premise, that human flourishing, or pleasure, or desire fulfillment is what is good, and is where all good derives from.

But then if naturalism is true, what reason do we have to believe this crucial normative premise? Human flourishing is a completely arbitrary stopping point, given that we are just the result of innumerable evolutionary accidents. Even the pleasure or desire of sentient life is somewhat arbitrary: if nature is all there is, why is life the focus of what is good, rather than black holes or galaxies or electromagnetic fields? What reason do we have to say that any state of affairs is better than any other?

Is it just because that is what we want? But then why ought we follow a utilitarian theory in considering the collective sum of human flourishing or pleasure or desire, rather than becoming egoists and only considering our own? Moreover, if we are calling something good simply because we want it, then we no longer have a real moral theory: just a pragmatic decision theory that we can discard if we so choose. That is not objective morality.

If you say that these things are just obviously good, I agree with that. But the point here is that we are trying to accommodate our basic belief in their goodness into a coherent worldview, and naturalism is not being very accommodating.

I think there is an obvious explanation for why we should consider things like human flourishing as good: namely, that human persons have objective moral worth. Mark Linville, in the second of these two essays, argues that this assignment of moral worth is a fundamental intuition which any satisfactory moral theory must incorporate. But that brings us back to the problem that naturalism does not provide any grounds for singling out persons as special and valuable compared to any other natural system: persons, if there even are such things, are nothing more than configurations of fundamental physical fields, just like everything else.

(It is also worth noting that utilitarian theories strip human persons of intrinsic moral worth, and instead place ultimate value on subjective mental states or more abstract states of affairs. People are only valuable on these theories in that they serve as “containers” for what actually matters, the utility: they can be broken or thrown away if that will get you more utility in other containers. Thus, the intuition that people are intrinsically valuable is a good reason to reject utilitarianism in many of its forms.)

Supervenience

In light of the failure to derive “ought” from “is”, naturalism has to say that the normative premise of the kind of theory discussed above is just necessarily true, with no explanation. For example, it is just necessarily the case that desire fulfillment is good. Perhaps you could even say that desire fulfillment is what good is, but I feel that runs the risk of defining morality away by reducing normative claims to non-normative ones.

If moral claims are to retain their normative force, this view seems to require that natural states of affairs spontaneously and inexplicably exhibit moral properties. But this is a very non-natural amendment to naturalism. Nature doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing that can include transcendent moral values: these values are even less at home in naturalism than consciousness is. So bare supervenience of moral values is highly implausible.

Moral Platonism

This leads to a last-ditch attempt to retain something like naturalism while accounting for objective moral values: moral platonism. This is the belief that moral values exist necessarily as platonic abstract objects. Then the fact that natural states of affairs exhibit moral properties can be explained by their relation to these abstract objects.

There are a few things about moral platonism that I believe count strongly against it. First, the claim that platonic abstract objects exist at all is an implausible metaphysical claim in light of viable nominalistic views of abstract objects, such as figuralism.

In other words, if we can say that abstract objects are just conceptual metaphors that we use to describe reality, then it is wildly unparsimonious to assert that they really exist. Abstract objects are so different from concrete objects – belonging to an entirely separate realm of reality, isolated from the cause-and-effect relationships that all concrete objects partake in – that it is a major move to include them in one’s ontology. Occam’s razor favours theories that avoid such a move.

Second, it is unclear that moral platonism is truly intelligible. Moral values like goodness, justice, and so on appear to be properties of persons or the actions of persons: what then does it mean for Goodness to just exist all by itself? Similarly, for moral duties, it makes sense to have obligations towards persons. But what does it mean for Obligation to just exist? Or why would we have obligations towards abstract objects?

Third, if naturalism is true, it is an enormous coincidence that our evolved morality happens to correspond to these abstract objects. Since abstract objects are usually taken by definition to be excluded from cause-and-effect relationships, there is no way for the abstract object Goodness, for example, to influence the evolutionary process so that we humans come out with a correct conception of what Goodness is. This makes moral knowledge incredibly implausible.

For these reasons, I don’t believe moral platonism provides a satisfactory account of objective morality. But now I have basically exhausted the options for naturalism: naturalism cannot account for objective moral values and duties.

Non-Theistic Supernaturalism

Finally, it does not appear that a retreat to pantheism or panentheism will provide any better of an explanation. In these worldviews, the ultimate reality is either impersonal or indefinite (and is not even really transcendent). Since it is not personal, it is similarly mysterious what it means to apply moral values to it, or how it grounds our moral duties. Even worse, since the distinction between the ultimate reality and the universe is blurred, there does not seem to be any basis for differentiating good from evil: the ultimate reality contains both.

So it seems completely reasonable to me to conclude that we cannot ground objective moral values or duties in reality if either naturalism or some non-theistic form of supernaturalism is true. In other words, if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.

Concluding the Argument

There is one last avenue available to the opponent of the moral argument, and that is to argue that theism does not provide any better foundation for objective morality than atheism. I will explore that in my next post.

Further reading: I came across this article by Peter S. Williams on bethinking.org while writing this post, and thought it worth linking here. (i.e. it is clearly higher quality than my own attempts to describe this argument.) So if you want to read about the moral argument from a slightly different angle, check it out.

The Noetic Argument

Where do our minds come from? Why is there consciousness attached to certain complex physical systems? Mental phenomena are so utterly unlike physical phenomena that many people have found it strange that they exist in such a close relationship as the one we observe between our minds and our bodies. How can this be explained?

What I call the noetic argument for God’s existence, also called the argument from consciousness, says that the best explanation for the existence and embodiment of our minds is found in the creative design of God. This argument has been growing in popularity over the last few decades, and variations of it have been advanced by philosophers such as Richard Swinburne, Robert Adams, and J.P. Moreland.

(You can find a lengthy and pretty technical article defending the argument from consciousness by Moreland here, if you’re interested. I will try to make my presentation of it a little more accessible.)

Here is a basic way of formulating the noetic argument:

  1. Consciousness exists and is correlated with certain physical phenomena.
  2. If consciousness exists and is thus correlated, it either has a natural scientific explanation or a supernatural explanation.
  3. It does not have a natural scientific explanation.
  4. If consciousness has a supernatural explanation, then God exists.
  5. Therefore, God exists.

The conclusion follows logically from the four premises. So as usual, if the premises are true (or more plausibly true than false), then the conclusion is as well.

Consciousness Exists

By consciousness I mean the various sorts of mental experiences we have, understood as irreducibly non-physical phenomena. Generally speaking, there are three options for accommodating the fact of our conscious experience in one’s worldview. Either:

  • consciousness exists irreducibly (property or substance dualism), or
  • it can be reduced to physical phenomena (reductive physicalism), or
  • it simply does not exist at all (eliminativism).

I have written about the existence and non-physicality of mental phenomena at length in a previous series of posts, so here I want to look at things from a slightly different angle by considering the alternatives to dualism.

Eliminativism is the view that there actually are no such things as mental phenomena, and that we are all deluded into thinking that there are by antiquated attempts to explain human behaviour. Honestly, I cannot evaluate it as anything other than absurd. It is the belief that there are no beliefs. I think it represents the pinnacle of human capacity for self-delusion.

Consciousness and qualia exist. To say that they we are merely fooled into thinking that they exist when they do not, that the mental phenomena we experience are illusions, is simply incoherent. An illusion is itself a subjective experience. There can be no illusion if there is no one to experience the illusion and nothing there to be experienced in the first place.

So consciousness exists, and it must therefore exist either reducibly or irreducibly. There are differing definitions of what it means to reduce mental phenomena to physical phenomena. I construe reductive physicalism broadly as any theory which effectively says that mental phenomena are really just physical phenomena (arranged appropriately), whether or not they can provide necessary and sufficient conditions for when a mental state is realized. This encompasses functionalism, as well as type and token mind-brain identity theories.

Reductive physicalism is little better than eliminativism, however – it simply fails to accommodate the evidence that mental phenomena really are non-physical. Our conscious experiences have essential properties, such as their first-person privileged access and subjective quality, which simply cannot be construed as “physical” by any reasonable definition of that word. These theories have other problems, but they can generally be traced back to this one.

The failures of reductive physicalism are what have led philosophers of mind to the position of eliminativism. John Searle, commenting on the trend towards this extreme position, said this:

“Earlier materialists argued that there aren’t any such things as separate mental phenomena, because mental phenomena are identical with brain states. More recent materialists argue that there aren’t any such things as separate mental phenomena because they are not identical with brain states. I find this pattern very revealing, and what it reveals is an urge to get rid of mental phenomena at any cost.” – John Searle

The decline of reductive physicalism is also now leading to an increase in the popularity of non-reductive variants. Usually these are formulated in terms of emergence. The idea is that mental phenomena emerge as a new kind of behaviour in complex physical systems. Weak emergence denies that this process involves any genuinely novel properties: it seems to me that this is just a form of reductive physicalism that doesn’t even bother giving an explanation for how the reduction occurs.

Strong emergence, on the other hand, admits that the new level of phenomena involves new properties which are not reducible to the lower-level properties of the complex system. This, of course, is just an acceptance of property dualism.

Given that the alternatives are to accept, reduce, or eliminate, I find the only tenable position is to accept that consciousness exists and is irreducibly non-physical. Since the fact that our mental phenomena are correlated with certain physical phenomena is not contested, this justifies the first premise of the noetic argument.

Explanations of Consciousness

The way that consciousness is correlated with physical states of affairs in our embodied existence is not plausibly taken to be a necessary fact. We can easily imagine inverted qualia worlds (possible worlds where people experience blue where we would experience red and vice versa, for example) and even absent qualia worlds (possible worlds containing David Chalmer’s philosophical zombies).

Because physics makes no reference to the subjective qualities of consciousness, any of these worlds is on par with ours as far as the physical realm goes. Therefore, it is arbitrary and ad-hoc to assert that the mental-physical correlations in our world are metaphysically necessary: there would be just as much justification for claiming that different correlations were necessary, if they happened to be true. So consciousness attached to biological life is a contingent feature of reality.

Now the principle of sufficient reason steps in, requiring an explanation for these contingent mental phenomena. Since I have argued for the PSR and its corollaries in a couple different posts now, I will just restate the cost of denying it: one must also deny the validity of all abductive and inductive reasoning, a highly anti-scientific and irrational move. So consciousness must have an explanation.

My claim in the second premise of the noetic argument is that this must be either a natural scientific explanation or a supernatural explanation. By natural I mean the opposite of supernatural: involving only entities within our spatiotemporal material universe, as opposed to entities transcending our universe.

Since science is the rational and empirical study of nature, it seems to me that the only satisfactory natural explanation will be a scientific one, an explanation in terms of the laws of nature. Anything else would be to admit that consciousness is a mysterious and unfathomable aspect of nature which does not operate according to regularities, as the rest of nature does. (Indeed, if we follow C.S. Lewis’s insightful characterization of nature in his work Miracles, this would exclude consciousness from being part of nature by definition.)

So if the only natural explanation was non-scientific, this would be a serious concession of deficiency on the part of the natural explanation, and inference to the best explanation would then favour the supernatural one. And since the explanation must be either natural or not (that is, supernatural) – those are the only options – this justifies the second premise.

Natural Scientific Explanation of Consciousness

Philosophical naturalism is the belief that there is nothing beyond the universe. Everything that exists is either a part of our spatiotemporal material universe, or if not, it is completely dependent on entities that are. The explanatory appeal of naturalism comes from what J.P. Moreland calls its Grand Story, its sweeping account of how everything came to be from the basic principles of nature.

The Grand Story of naturalism is this: from the hot, dense matter and energy present in the early universe, quarks and electrons formed into atoms, resulting in a thin gas of mostly hydrogen as the universe expanded; under the influence of gravity this gas collapsed into stars and formed galaxies; nuclear fusion in stars produced heavier elements allowing the formation of planets and simple organic compounds. And all of this happened according to the laws of physics.

Then on at least one planet, some prebiotic organic compounds happened to form into some kind of primitive self-replicating molecule or system, and life began. But there is no life force, no special principles governing living things: biology is just chemistry, and chemistry is just physics. The mechanisms of evolution led to an increase in biological complexity over billions of years, which eventually led to where we are today. And again, all of this happened according to the laws of physics.

The great explanatory power and scope of the Grand Story makes it a compelling view for many people in modern society. But despite its appeal, it doesn’t work. It does nothing to explain consciousness. Every form of reductive physicalism has failed – indeed, it seems evident to me that attempts to reduce the mental realm to the physical can never succeed, even in principle – and that leaves us with genuine non-physical phenomena that are not found anywhere in the Grand Story.

In the article that I linked above, Moreland argues convincingly that any move to amend the Grand Story to include these non-physical phenomena is somewhat ad-hoc. The whole point of the Grand Story is that everything can be reduced to a few basic physical principles, and consciousness can’t. Consciousness is not at home in naturalism; it doesn’t fit in. And this is a problem for naturalism, because consciousness is at home in the best alternative explanation, theism.

To maintain a claim on explanatory superiority, naturalism wants to be able to explain consciousness while retaining the theme of reducing everything to a few fundamental natural laws. Ideally, in order to do that, it should have the following features:

1. Mental phenomena are necessitated by and entirely dependent on physical phenomena.

2. Because they are entirely dependent on macroscopic physical phenomena, mental phenomena have a discernible spatial location and extent.

3. Physics is causally closed; physical phenomena are not affected by mental phenomena.

4. Failing that, at least mental phenomena operate according to passive cause-and-effect; they have no active power to cause events of their own volition.

5. Mental phenomena, like physical, should be built up from basic units into more complex ones, and the natural laws governing their behaviour should operate on the basic units of both the mental and the physical realm.

However:

1. It isn’t at all plausible to think that the mental-physical correlations we observe are necessitated by the laws of physics. The correlations seem entirely contingent, and within naturalism they have to be postulated as arbitrary brute facts. Moreover, it is not clear that mental phenomena are entirely dependent on the physical realm – some features of our conscious experience are especially difficult to explain that way.

(For a clear explication of one such feature, see the section “Intentional states and rational inference” in this article by Victor Reppert, especially regarding the indeterminacy of meaning if naturalism is true.)

2. It is also not clear that mental phenomena can be properly said to have a spatial location or extent. They may be correlated with physical phenomena that are located in this way, but that is not the same thing as being located themselves.

3. If consciousness is epiphenomenal (which is required for physics to be causally closed) then it cannot influence the fitness of an organism for natural selection in any way. This means that any conscious experiences produced by evolution are entirely accidental, and it is very unlikely that they form into a coherent and understandable picture of the external world. Even if consciousness is not epiphenomenal, since evolution orients our consciousness for survivability and not truth, our experiences and knowledge of the external world are suspect.

4. If on naturalism there is no active causation, then we have no free will, rationality is an illusion, and the justification for all of our beliefs (including the belief in naturalism) is undermined.

5. By all appearances, the reduction of consciousness to more basic units cannot be carried out very far, and consciousness needs fundamental causal relations between complex physical systems and various mental phenomena in order to be explained. The laws of consciousness are going to be far more complex than the laws of physics, and not at all similar to them.

So in order to adequately explain consciousness, a naturalistic account has to make a number of adjustments to the Grand Story that significantly harm its elegance, simplicity, and internal consistency. In fact, it seems likely to me that any addition of laws of consciousness to the fundamental structure of nature will create a further fine-tuning problem, greatly increasing the weight of the teleological argument for God’s existence. Naturalism looks increasingly implausible in light of consciousness.

Now, in the next section, I will argue that there is a good alternative explanation of consciousness provided by theism. Given an available alternative, abductive reasoning makes it rational to disbelieve the natural scientific explanation, supporting the third premise of the noetic argument.

Supernatural Explanation of Consciousness

The fourth premise in the noetic argument is that a supernatural explanation of consciousness entails the existence of God. My justification for this premise is again an inference to the best explanation: out of all supernatural explanations for our experience of consciousness, the best one is that it has been created and designed by God.

We can consider a few different supernatural explanations for consciousness. One is panpsychism, essentially the belief that everything is a little bit conscious, and that our consciousness is somehow built up out of all of the little bits of consciousness in the matter that composes our bodies.

Panpsychism, however, is completely deficient as an explanation. I simply cannot conceive of any way that consciousness itself could be built up from smaller units. Even most of my conscious experiences and thoughts cannot be broken down very far into more basic sensations or meanings. And it is completely left as a mystery why, if everything has a little piece of consciousness, those pieces combine into a unified consciousness like our own, rather than remaining as disjoint sensations diffuse throughout the universe, or combining further into larger conscious systems.

Others might turn to explanations such as pantheism, the belief that the universe just is God (or more usually, the universe is the impersonal Absolute Being, and All is One), or panentheism, the belief that the universe is a part of God or that God is like the soul of the universe.

I don’t think these beliefs offer that much better of an explanation for consciousness than panpsychism, as they just assert that our consciousnesses are in some mysterious way part of the cosmic consciousness. Furthermore, they have numerous other problems, among which are: i) they fail to answer to the cosmological, teleological, axiological, and ontological arguments for theism, ii) they do not well account for the clear distinctions that there seem to be between the many different things that exist, and iii) there does not seem to be any reason that God should exist in such a mode.

But theism, the belief that there is a personal and transcendent God who is distinct from the universe he created, offers a clear and powerful explanation for the existence and embodiment of finite consciousnesses. Because God exists prior to and independently of anything else, he can create and design the universe, along with any conscious minds that he wishes to embody as living biological creatures within that universe. Moreover, as I discussed in the previous post, he has perfectly good reasons to do so: a universe containing embodied conscious life allows for the realization of many different forms of goodness and beauty.

The explanatory superiority of theism is in its ability to invoke the intention and volition of God to design consciousnesses distinct from himself. None of the other explanations can do this. It seems fairly obvious to me that God is the best supernatural explanation of consciousness (as well as the best explanation overall), supporting the fourth premise.

Conclusion

So my conclusion is that the existence of our finite consciousnesses provides strong justification for belief in a powerful transcendent consciousness, one who through his creative intent is the source of all of the capabilities of our own immaterial minds. In a way, this makes the noetic argument and the teleological argument very similar: both ultimately are inferences to a transcendent designer. When you consider them together, I think they provide very potent evidence for belief in God.

In my next series of posts I will explore the axiological arguments for God’s existence: inferences to God as the ground of all objective values, and the origin of our ability to know them.

The Teleological Argument (V)

Over the last few posts I have been defending the teleological argument for God’s existence – specifically, the argument from the fine-tuning of the universe. Here are the premises and conclusion of the argument, once more:

  1. The universe is fine-tuned for the existence of life. (And also for discoverability.)
  2. If the universe is fine-tuned, this is explained either by necessity, chance, or design.
  3. It is not explained by necessity or chance.
  4. If the fine-tuning of the universe is explained by design, then God exists.
  5. Therefore, God exists.

I have shown that there is copious evidence for the first premise, and that the second premise is a very reasonable belief (based in part on the principle of sufficient reason, and the fact that those are the only available options). In support of the third premise, I evaluated the necessity and chance hypotheses, and found both of them significantly lacking in plausibility and explanatory power.

To complete the support for the third premise, I now need to evaluate the design hypothesis and show that it does provide a satisfactory explanation for fine-tuning, in contrast to the other two options. While doing that, I will give my reasons for thinking that theism provides the best version of the design hypothesis, in support of the fourth premise.

The Design Hypothesis

If design is to provide an explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe, then what could that explanation be? What kind of being could design the universe?

First, I think we safely rule out any kind of embodied agent as a designer. For such an agent to exist, a universe would already need to exist in order to contain them. And we have already seen that any universe that can support embodied conscious agents most probably has to be fine-tuned. So a hypothesis such as that our universe is the creation of material beings in another universe, or that ours is merely a computer simulation generated in another universe, only kicks the fine-tuning argument up one level.

Second, Occam’s razor suggests that the entity that designed the universe is the same as the entity that caused its existence – the immaterial transcendent being revealed by cosmological argument.

In my earlier post we saw that this being is either impersonal, or personal. If they are impersonal, then in order to design the universe, they must have some kind of intrinsic telos, a built-in goal or purpose that constrains the kind of universe they can create. This intrinsic telos is entirely arbitrary and unexplained, making an impersonal design hypothesis ad-hoc and implausible.

But if the cause of the universe were a personal being, they could choose a purpose for the universe of their own free will. Furthermore, they could design the universe to fulfill that purpose – if they had the vast knowledge and intelligence required to survey all of the possible laws of physics and initial conditions they could create, and predict their outcomes. Therefore, if the designer of the universe is a powerful, intelligent mind who has good reasons to create a universe satisfying the fine-tuning constraints that we observe, then it seems to me that the design hypothesis provides a satisfactory explanation for fine-tuning.

Who Designed the Designer?

A very common objection to the design hypothesis is that any kind of designer must be at least as complex as the thing that they design. Therefore, they require some kind of explanation as well – and if they are complex enough to create a fine-tuned universe, they must themselves be fine-tuned, leading to an infinite regress of designers.

Atheists like Richard Dawkins like to trumpet this objection triumphantly, but there is really very little weight behind it. There is no reason to believe that a designer must be at least as complex as what they design. The creation of artificial intelligences more complex than ourselves is a common trope in science fiction, and I see no reason to think that such a scenario is metaphysically impossible.

Furthermore, theists have long believed that, in a sense, God is an incredibly simple being. He has complex properties, but he himself is a unified immaterial entity and is not composed of any parts. And we have good reason to believe (from the ontological argument, which I will write about in future posts) that none of his properties are arbitrary. Since he has no substantial complexity and no arbitrary properties, God is not fine-tuned. So he has no need for a designer.

Finally, since we have independent reasons to believe that God exists by metaphysical necessity (reasons provided by the cosmological argument, the axiological argument, and the ontological argument), the principle of sufficient reason does not require any further explanation for his existence. God is a very different kind of entity from the universe, so the considerations that lead us to believe that the universe has a creator and designer simply do not apply in his case.

Bad Design?

Another common objection to the design hypothesis is that certain aspects of the universe do not appear to be designed well (at least, to some people’s intuitions about what a well-designed universe looks like). The forms of this objection that I have seen are often not much more than a somewhat egocentric complaint: “Well, if I had designed the universe, I wouldn’t have done it this way – so there can’t be any good reasons for God to have done it this way.” Obviously, this is fallacious.

A typical example that comes up in discussion of fine-tuning is the scope of the universe relative to our existence within it. The universe is incredibly vast and we occupy only a tiny part of it. Some people see this and think, “How wasteful! This couldn’t have been designed by anyone with intelligence!” Never mind that efficiency (making the most of your limited time and resources) just isn’t a concept that applies to a completely self-sufficient, eternal, and omnipotent being (who does not need anything and who has unlimited time and resources). And never mind that, if God desires to create a universe that for the most part follows consistent laws of physics (something I believe has great aesthetic value), then those vast reaches of empty space are simply a necessary requirement for there to be any habitable planets like our own.

We are not God, and he can have good reasons for creating the universe in a certain way even if we do not immediately see them from our perspective.

The Designer’s Reason

Bringing all of this together, my belief is that the theistic design hypothesis – the hypothesis that God designed and created the universe – is the best explanation for the fine-tuning evidence, so long as it is reasonable to believe that God is the kind of being who would have good reasons for designing and creating the universe in this way. (If there were no good reasons for God to create our universe, then the design hypothesis would suffer from being ad-hoc, and so wouldn’t exceed the chance and necessity hypotheses as much as it would otherwise.)

This, as it turns out, is pretty much the exact question that we face when we deal with the problem of evil, though from another perspective: why would God create a universe like ours?

Since I will answer that question in much more detail when I address the problem of evil, I will be brief here. The short answer is this: a universe capable of supporting complex life provides a setting in which free agents can interact, develop in moral character, and enter into relationship with each other and with God. Having consistent natural laws govern the universe allows those agents to make rational decisions and reliably predict the outcomes of their actions.

Furthermore, do I need to point out that our universe is awesome, full of wonderful and beautiful and mysterious things, from galaxies and solar systems, to living beings, to molecules? So we can see that such a universe enables the realization of great moral and aesthetic values.

And there you have God’s reason for designing a fine-tuned universe: the goodness and beauty that results from it. Whether that goodness and beauty outweighs the evils that have also resulted, well, you’ll have to come back to read my future posts on that subject. (I think that, in fact, it does.)

Conclusion

In evaluating the design hypothesis, I believe I have now presented sufficient reasons to think both that theism provides the best explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe among explanations from design, and that the design hypothesis succeeds in providing a satisfactory explanation for fine-tuning. This is in contrast to the hypotheses of chance and necessity, neither of which are very good explanations for fine-tuning. Inference to the best explanation then disfavours these unsatisfactory explanations, since a better one is available.

So I find it is very reasonable to believe both the third and fourth premises of my teleological argument for the existence of God. Combined with my earlier posts defending the first two premises, I conclude that belief in God has firm rational justification.

Combining the cosmological and teleological arguments, we can infer the existence of a creator and designer of the universe who is:

  • A personal being with free will,
  • Uncaused and metaphysically necessary,
  • Eternal and without beginning,
  • Immaterial and beyond physical space,
  • Immensely powerful, knowledgeable, and intelligent, and
  • Someone who desires to create embodied conscious life.

This is already quite a strong concept of God. In future posts, I will explore some arguments for God’s existence that allow us to strengthen this concept even further.