Who Made God?

Children often ask this. The quick answer: God wasn’t made, He was always there. Only things that weren’t always there have to be made.

But atheists may still complain about God being used as an explanation because it stops inquiry. We should always look for some other explanation because of this. Saying “God did it” stops science. Sometimes they also insist that to use God as an explanation, we need to explain God first.

I think these complaints are based on a confusion between arguing that and explaining how. When theists use God as an explanation, they are arguing that. That is, they are trying to argue that it is true that God exists and did such and such. Theists have to admit, however, that this does not explain how. It doesn’t provide details about the processes of how the universe was made. Because “God did it” doesn’t explain how, atheists reject God as an explanation.

But we can use explanations for both of the above purposes. We can use an explanation to uncover a mechanism, or we can use an “inference to the best explanation” to argue that a certain event occurred. An example: I can explain why the sky is blue by pointing out different features of light and the absorptive properties of gasses in the atmosphere — that’s explaining how. Or I could argue that my friend was awake late last night because there is an email in my inbox from him with a timestamp of 2:20 am. In the latter case I am not trying to get into the details of how the universe works so much as show that my friend was awake at that time. Notice that I don’t need to have an explanation for why my friend was awake to make the point: what kept him up is a different question from whether he was up.

In the same way, when theists offer arguments for God’s existence involving God as an explanation, they aren’t trying to uncover mechanisms that can be used to further scientific inquiry. They are merely arguing that God exists; they are arguing that, not explaining how. And just like my friend’s email, arguing that God exists isn’t the same as showing how God exists.

So arguing that God did something may not advance scientific goals, but that in itself doesn’t mean that God didn’t do it, or that God isn’t a good explanation. It just means that God doesn’t suit the goals of atheists.


A Prayer

I’m beginning to align myself with something like what reformed epistemologists believe: arguments for (or against) God’s existence are at best inconclusive. I’m not even sure where the burden of proof is, for I don’t know God’s inherent probability (God’s starting probability before any evidence is considered). But if God indeed exists and somehow brings someone to believe in Him, given that rational (warranted?) belief is belief formed in accordance with a person’s design (as given by God), that belief would be rational (if Plantinga is right; he does seem to be about this). That implies the contrapositive: a person being irrational for believing in God would imply that God doesn’t exist. The claim that it’s irrational to believe in God depends on God not existing, and to argue for the former implies that one must argue for the latter: there is no “You shan’t believe in God with no evidence, and I, the atheist, need not show any evidence for God’s non-existence .”

What about prayer? Asking God directly should do something. Maybe not immediately, but it should. I will pray.

Dear God,

I’ve been on the fence for a long time. I pray to You to reach out to me, and to anyone who prays along with me. We cannot reach You. We cannot “discover” You. You are utterly beyond us. But we have faith that You are good, and would respond to a prayer, asked in humility.

Many of us have suffered greatly in our lives, and have a hard time believing that You could exist and be good in spite of this. Sometimes it just seems that reality is an accident (even if orderly), and so are our fates: without any guidance by what is good. I don’t want to believe this, but I can’t help it.

We are helpless. Our epistemlogical reach is too limited to know what ultimate reality is. Our own logic destroys us. I can’t even prove with certainty that I’m in front of this computer right now!! Any such “proof” would have to ignore an infinite number of alternative possibilities. If I can’t even know that, how can I reach You with my own feeble mind?

So I pray that You, out of Your own Goodness, reach out to me and anyone else praying with me. If Jesus is all he said he was, reach out to us about him as well. We ask in all humility.


What about the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

FSM Apologetics

Spaghetti and meatballs: who would have ever thought that it could be divine? Here’s a statement of faith from Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster:

  • We believe pirates, the original Pastafarians, were peaceful explorers and it was due to Christian misinformation that they have an image of outcast criminals today
  • We are fond of beer
  • Every Friday is a Religious Holiday
  • We do not take ourselves too seriously
  • We embrace contradictions (though in that we are hardly unique)

Regarding Creation:

We believe the Flying Spaghetti Monster created the world much as it exists today, but for reasons unknown made it appear that the universe is billions of years old (instead of thousands) and that life evolved into its current state (rather than created in its current form). Every time a researcher carries out an experiment that appears to confirm one of these “scientific theories” supporting an old earth and evolution we can be sure that the FSM is there, modifying the data with his Noodly Appendage. We don’t know why He does this but we believe He does, that is our Faith.

We all get the joke. Most (though not all, according to the website) of the followers of FSM are atheists: Pastafarianism is a parody of creationism. But FSM is used not to merely against creationism, but theism as well. For FSM is a legitimate member of the world’s pantheon, according to atheists. That is, FSM makes about as much sense as, well, say, Yahweh. If you don’t believe in FSM, an atheist might argue, then you shouldn’t believe in Yahweh either, for the same reasons.

As for the reasons for not believing in FSM, they should be pretty obvious. FSM is a ridiculous being: divine pasta with meatballs creating the world is absurd. In our experience, we have never known pasta to be intelligent, or even to possess consciousness. Furthermore, all the pasta we have known has been made by people. We know of no self-existent pasta. Pasta, as we know it, doesn’t have the ability to act, let alone create. It’s just semolina and tomato paste with some oregano and maybe some cooked meat. And though it might last a couple of weeks in the fridge, it certainly wouldn’t last ages, like the FSM has.

Could the same be said of the God of classic theism? Is that being a pretty close analogy to FSM? Both are self-existent, both created the universe, both possess great power. Both possess eternal minds, are intelligent. Both are omnibenevolent and worthy of worship.

True, these analogies exist, but there are disanalogies too. FSM is made of spaghetti, God isn’t. FSM has meatballs, God doesn’t. FSM has delicious marinara sauce. God doesn’t. FSM is physical, God is a Spirit. It seems to me that it’s the combination of these properties with properties like omnipotence, benevolence, self-existence, etc. that makes FSM ridiculous*. Thus I think the argument from analogy from FSM’s silliness to God’s silliness is weak.

That is, the argument seems to be that because divine attributes, combined with the attributes of spaghetti, are ridiculous, divine attributes are, in themselves, ridiculous. This conclusion clearly doesn’t follow.

So, regarding FSM as an attack on creationism, I really don’t know what to say. But as an attack on theism, it’s just smoke. Its value for atheists is more in the line of the pleasure of teasing theists (An excuse to drink beer and dress up as pirates as well?).

* Atheists have an ad hoc move available here: they may claim that the sauce, pasta, and meatballs are of a very special, divine sort. I think that this move, to rehabilitate FSM, would have to be carried out to the extreme that the pasta, sauce, and meatballs that comprise FSM will be so unlike the ingredients we know as to make the use of ‘pasta’ and the rest deceptive. Their attempts to save FSM will only end up making FSM look less and less like FSM and more and more like God.

One Man’s Modus Ponens is Another Man’s Modus Tollens

Sometimes you hear this expression “one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens” (hereafter MPMT) from philosophers and others. Here’s my understanding of it.

Modus Ponens and Modus Tollens are argument forms. Arguments are attempts to support a claim with reasons or evidence. The reasons/evidence are the premises, the claim being supported is the conclusion. Conclusions are often indicated by the keyword therefore.

Modus Ponens:
(1) If A, then B
(2) A
(3) Therefore, B

If today is Monday, then tomorrow is Tuesday.
Today is Monday.
Therefore, tomorrow is Tuesday.

Modus Tollens:
(1) If A, then B
(2) Not B
(3) Therefore, Not A

If today is Monday, then tomorrow is Tuesday.
Tomorrow is not Tuesday.
Therefore, today is not Monday.

Now for MPMT. It occurs when there are disagreeing parties. The first offers modus ponens. The opponent agrees with the first premise, but disagrees with the conclusion, and therefore, with the second premise.

It’s form:
Modus Ponens
(1) If A, then B
(2) A
(3) Therefore, B

Opposing Modus Tollens
(1) If A, then B
(2′) Not B
(3′) Therefore, Not A

The result is an battle between (2) and (2′). The first thinks that there is more behind A than Not B. The second thinks there is more behind Not B then A.

Here’s more of a real life example:

Conservative Modus Ponens:
(1) If freedom is more valuable than equality, then the government shouldn’t redistribute wealth.
(2) Freedom is more valuable than equality.
(3) Therefore, the government shouldn’t redistribute wealth.

Liberal Modus Tollens:
(1) If freedom is more valuable than equality, then the government shouldn’t redistribute wealth.
(2′) The government should redistribute wealth.
(3′) Therefore, freedom is not more valuable than equality.

These arguments agree on (1). The idea is that freedom and equality conflict at points. (Example, cis-gender women have an unequal share of dating opportunities. To make things equal, we’d have to force men to consider trans-gender women equally. To make everyone equal regarding income, we’d have to prevent some people from earning and keeping more.) They disagree on which of these two have the most behind it: That freedom is more valuable than equality, or that the government should redistribute wealth.

Fine Tuning Argument: Why Atheists Don’t Accept It

18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, a source of the skepticism.

This one is a bit harder than my resurrection post with a similar title, for there is more than one reason. But I’d like to focus on what I think is the biggest one, one that was made clear by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. It’s an important topic since many think that the fine-tuning argument is the most compelling argument for God’s existence.

What is the argument? Here’s a summary from William Lane Craig taken from his debate with Lawrence Krauss:

In recent decades scientists have been stunned by the discovery that the initial conditions of our universe were fine-tuned for the existence of intelligent agents with a precision and delicacy that literally defy human comprehension. This fine-tuning is of two sorts. First, when the laws of nature are given mathematical expression, you find appearing in them certain constants, like the gravitational constant. These constants are not determined by the laws of nature. Second, in addition to these constants there are certain arbitrary quantities which are just put in as initial conditions on which the laws of nature operate, for example, the amount of entropy in the very early universe.

Now all of these constants and quantities fall into an extraordinarily narrow range of life-permitting values. Were these constants or quantities to be altered by even a hair’s breadth, the life-permitting balance would be destroyed and life would not exist. We now know that life-prohibiting universes are incomprehensibly more probable than any life-permitting universe.

Now there are three possible explanations of this extraordinary fine-tuning: physical necessity, chance, or design.

Now it can’t be due to physical necessity because, as I’ve said, the constants and quantities are independent of the laws of nature.

So maybe the fine-tuning is due to chance. After all, highly improbable events happen every day! But what serves to distinguish purely chance events from design is not simply high improbability but also the presence of an independently given pattern to which the event conforms. For example, in the movie Contact scientists are able to distinguish a signal from outer space from random noise, not simply due to its improbability but because of its conforming to the pattern of the prime numbers. The fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent agents exhibits just that combination of incomprehensible improbability and an independently given pattern that are the earmarks of design.

So, again, God’s existence is clearly more probable given the fine-tuning of the universe than it would have been without it.

What is Dawkins’s reply? He claims that chance can explain it. For he offers the tantalizing speculation popular with physicists like Lee Smolin that there are a huge (perhaps infinite) number of reproducing parallel universes, each with a different combination of initial conditions and physical constants. Those universes with black holes will reproduce more than others — these universes are also more likely to have life-permitting constants. If this is so, some universes are bound to be in the “Goldilocks range”. And Dawkins thinks that this hypothesis, though a bit extravagant and certainly speculative, is less extravagant than saying God did it, for God is an immensely complex being. And Krauss’s own response is completely analogous to the reason skeptics like Ehrman reject the resurrection of Jesus; Hume’s argument against miracles. I think that, at bottom, they are really the same response.

Let’s revisit Bayes’s Theorem:

P(G|E)/P(not-G|E) = P(G)/P(not-G) × P(E|G)/P(E|not-G)

P(G|E) is the probability of God’s existence given the evidence we are considering. P(not-G|E) is the probability of God not existing on the evidence before us. P(G) and P(not-G) is the probability of God existing or not existing just on background information; P(E|G) and P(E|not-G) is the probability of observing the evidence we do on God’s existence and God’s non-existence, that is, how much does G (or not-G) lead us to expect E, or how much does G (or not-G) explain E. What the formula says is that the ratio of the probability of God’s existence to his nonexistence is a combination of how well God leads us to expect the data as opposed to naturalism, and how probable God’s existence is just given our background information compared to naturalism.

What I think Dawkins and Krauss are saying is that even if God’s existence leads us to expect fine-tuning for life (God wants life somewhere in the universe), God’s prior probability P(G) is sooooooo low as to make God a non-starter, due to his complexity. That’s why Krauss thinks saying “God exists” is an “extraordinary claim” which requires “extraordinary evidence.” And that’s why Dawkins thinks even a wacky hypothesis like Smolin’s is better than God’s existence because, again, P(G) is soooooo low due to God’s complexity.

These are exactly the same reasons for rejecting miracles that I considered earlier, including the resurrection!! (See my post on that). So David Hume is at the bottom of all this!

Pretty much any evidence a theist might try to give for God’s existence will fall on deaf ears, for the same reasons evidence for the resurrection of Jesus will; these hypotheses have low prior probabilities.

Craig spends his time in his debates arguing for high values for P(E|G)/P(E|notG), and atheists aren’t buying because of low P(G)!

What to say about this? I think that Plantinga has given good reasons to reject Dawkins’s argument for God’s complexity implying a low P(G). Krauss doesn’t really  argue for it as much as assume it. Maybe he thinks it’s obvious. God is, after all, a rather silly being.

I have written in this post about God’s alleged low prior probability. Suffice it to say that if P(G) isn’t low, the case for God is a serious one.

Why Historians Reject the Resurrection of Jesus: It’s a Miracle

David Hume, a pillar of skepticism
David Hume, a pillar of skepticism

For a little background, check out this debate between Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig and the skeptical historian Bart Ehrman. Craig argues that Jesus rose from the dead, claiming that God raising Jesus from the dead is the best explanation for these facts:

1. Jesus’ burial
2. the discovery of the empty tomb
3. his postmortem appearances (at least in the minds of the disciples)
4. the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection

What is interesting is that in the debates against Craig, the core of the response of Craig’s opponents isn’t about disputing these facts. Their main argument is that God’s raising Jesus from the dead (call this the Resurrection Hypothesis, or RH) is not historical because it is a miracle claim.

One might think that this is just anti-religious prejudice. But they do offer a philosophical argument for the prejudice. It’s the 18th century philosopher David Hume’s argument against belief in miracles (Ehrman in the above debate denies this, but his argument is pretty much a simplified version of Hume’s argument).

What is Hume’s argument? Here’s a quote:

When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion. (Hume 1748/2000: 87–88)

There is much dispute between Hume scholars about what this argument amounts to (see this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). But let’s consider this question using probability theory.

I have two versions of what follows, hard, and easy. Here’s hard (skip if you don’t want to go through the math):

Consider one formulation of Bayes’ Theorem:

P(RH|E) = P(RH) × P(E|RH)/P(E)

I’ll describe what this means. RH = God raised Jesus from the dead. E is the evidence now under consideration (background information understood to be always there and is not included in the formula). P(RH) is the probability of RH just in itself, without considering the evidence at hand (This is called the “prior probability”). P(RH|E) is the probability of RH given E (the probability of RH given the evidence). P(E|RH) is the probability of the evidence occurring if RH is true. This term is about the explanatory power of RH — RH accounts for E if RH gives one reason to expect E. That is, if RH gives us reason to expect E, then E’s occurring is evidence for RH. Finally, P(E) is the probability of E just given the background information. It is to normalize the equation. There is also the intuition that P(E|RH), even if high, wouldn’t mean much if we would expect E to happen anyway. Thus we divide P(E|RH) by P(E).

My own view is that Hume’s argument amounts to this: P(RH) is extremely low. That is, the probability of a miracle occurring, given our background information (including all of science), is low, for miracles are, by definition, a violation of the regularities of experience. Thus all of experience stands against them. If that’s true, then P(E|RH)/P(E) would have to be extraordinarily high to compensate if the Resurrection is to have any real probability of happening. In the real world no one could supply such evidence.

Here’s easy:

Two main things go into how probable some statement is given the evidence. The first is how inherently likely the statement is, without considering evidence. Let’s call this the prior probability. The second is how much does the evidence support the statement. With miracles, skeptics, like Hume, argue that their prior probability is sooooo low that no amount of evidence can make them reasonable to accept. The Resurrection of Jesus is no exception. We could grant that the evidence does give some support for the claim, but still reject the claim because it’s so inherently unlikely. It’s like trying to prove that someone saw an alien. The evidence that would be enough for an ordinary event wouldn’t be enough for something extraordinary like the appearance of an alien. As atheists and skeptics often say, “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.”

Back to the main topic:

Though skeptics might admit that natural alternative explanations of the data surrounding Jesus’ resurrection have so far been disappointing, they would insist that even the worst of these is better than the Resurrection (Ehrman was explicit about this), presumably because of the Resurrection’s low prior probability.

Craig admits that, just by itself, the Resurrection is very improbable. Craig asserts, however, that he isn’t arguing merely that Jesus rose from the dead, but that God raised Jesus from the dead.1 This latter statement, at first, seems to have a higher prior probability: God would have the power to do something that has no precedent in experience. A skeptic, however, could reply that adding God into the hypothesis makes it more complex, lowering the prior probability. The more ad hoc additions we make to a theory, the worse it is in terms of prior probability.

Notwithstanding, Craig spends most of his time arguing for a high value for P(E|RH)/P(E) (arguing that the evidence is well explained by the hypothesis) — he argues that the evidence given above is far more probable on the Resurrection than on any natural hypothesis. But all this falls on deaf ears because of the low value of P(RH) (low prior probability).

What can be said? I think that P(RH) (the Resurrection’s prior probability) is low given naturalism. Adding God to the hypothesis seems ad hoc. But what if we had independent evidence for God’s existence? If God exists, then, given His goodness and the evil in the world, we might expect some sort of action on his part to address this evil. In particular, we could expect some sort of revelation. And for us to know the revelation was from God, we might expect some sort of miracle to validate the revelation. So we would be expecting something like RH (the Resurrection Hypotheis).2 This wouldn’t show that Jesus rose from the dead, but it would mitigate the low prior probability for RH: God wouldn’t just be some add on, but something independently supported. Then evidence for the Resurrection could be taken more seriously.

Thus I think that the case for Jesus’ resurrection by God needs to be made as part of a comprehensive case for Christianity. This would include a case for God’s existence as the best way to account for all the data of our experience (including our apprehension of a realm of value, our experience of ourselves as immaterial beings, the existence and fine-tuning of the universe, etc). This is, of course, what Craig does in God debates. However, I don’t think it appropriate to use Jesus’ resurrection as evidence for God (as Craig does) simply because Jesus’ resurrection would only be the best explanation for the facts he presents as evidence if we already knew that God exits. It would be a circular (or pretty close to circular) argument. I would instead try to argue for God’s existence, then, if successful, use evidence for the Resurrection to support the truth of Christianity.

  1. Craig also denies that Bayes’ theorem is applicable to historical analysis, as these probabilities cannot be determined. See his debate with Greg Cavin here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rmxi9o_xqkc.
  2. Similar ideas are worked out in Richard Swinburne’s Revelation.

The Presumption of Atheism: The Best Policy?

The philosopher Anthony Flew made the case for it (“The Presumption of Atheism,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 2 (1972). Also available here). What is meant by the presumption is that a-theism, non-belief in God, should be the default, unless evidence is produced for God’s existence. Atheism is innocent until proven guilty. Likewise, theism is guilty until proven innocent.

Flew rejected the usual arguments for the presumption (see his paper). Instead he said this:

. . .  to accept such a presumption is to adopt a policy. And policies have to be assessed by reference to the aims of those for whom they are suggested. . . . What then are the aims by reference to which an atheist presumption might be justified? One key word in the answer, if not the key word, must be ‘knowledge’. The context for which such a policy is proposed is that of inquiry about the existence of God; and the object of the exercise is, presumably, to discover whether it is possible to establish that the word ‘God’ does in fact have application. Now to establish must here be either to show that you know or to come to know. . . If a true belief is to achieve this more elevated status, then the believer has to be properly warranted so to believe. He must, that is, be in a position to know.

So basically his case is that placing a burden of proof on theists is the best policy given our goal of knowledge. Knowledge requires evidence.

Two things can be said here. One is that knowledge may not always require evidence. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga has argued for his notion of basic beliefs; beliefs that are warranted because any properly functioning mind would automatically believe them (other basic beliefs: the belief that our senses and reason are generally reliable).

But here is another: what if the goal of belief isn’t always knowledge? Consider the context of personal relationships, we trust our spouses and friends, typically. Have they always produced evidence for their trustworthiness? I submit that this isn’t always the case. Many times there are gaps in our knowledge of our friends and relatives that permit their wrong doing without our knowing. Still, we give them the benefit of the doubt — we trust them unless they do something to violate our trust.

William James argued for so much in his Will to Believe. There he responded to W.K. Clifford’s claim that one shouldn’t ever believe anything on insufficient evidence. Part of his response was that this approach might work well for things on which we have the luxury to wait and gather evidence; scientific beliefs are usually like this. Science is a great place, given its goals, to be an evidentialist like Clifford. But not all situations are scientific situations. Personal relationships involve contexts where one cannot wait on or demand evidence for belief. We have to take risks to have relationships. I figure most people would agree with James that the contexts involving belief in God are more like personal relationships than scientific investigations.

A clarification: belief could mean what philosophers mean by it — a willingness to assert that a proposition is true, and act on it. But Christianity doesn’t have such a flat notion of belief. It’s more like the trust found in personal relationships. Maybe the philosopher’s (and scientist’s) belief is geared toward knowledge. But that’s not the only kind of belief. Knowledge, on the philosopher’s view, is justified true belief (pardon some of the bizarre exceptions). But maybe there is another sort of knowledge found in personal relationships; an intimacy perhaps. It’s no accident that the ol’ King James Version refers to sex as ‘knowing’ someone.

So maybe the best policy isn’t to adopt a presumption of atheism if one’s goals are to have a relationship with God, and not the increase of the philosopher’s (and scientist’s) notion of knowledge. If we want to be friends and lovers of God (as opposed to mere examiners of God), maybe we need to give Him the benefit of the doubt regarding His goodness, or even His existence.