Thursday, June 21, 2012

Answers for Jeffery Lowder

An atheist who seems more reasonable than most, Jeffrey Lowder, recently re-posted twenty-five questions for theists.  I'm a theist, and I perversely enjoy essay tests, so let's give it a crack.  If anyone wants to improve my responses -- not all of this is equally interesting to me --  feel free. 

(1) "Why is the physical universe so unimaginably large?"

Why shouldn't it be?  If it were tiny, wouldn't we be asked about the small-mindedness of God?  Besides, given three dimensions of space, it must stretch out either infinitely, or finitely.  If infinitely, the universe would have to be "unimaginably large."  If finitely, one could still wonder what is beyond its borders (as we do wonder what is out past the earliest electromagnetic waves that reach us from the Recombination Epoch, when God said, "Let there be light!"), or if there are other universes (as astronomers have also taken to asking). 

(2) "Why would God desire to create embodied moral agents, as opposed to disembodied minds (such as souls, spirits, or ghosts)? Why is the human mind dependent on the physical brain?"

Is that one question, or two?  Maybe, as C.S. Lewis put it, "God likes matter.  He made the stuff." Maybe certain kinds of problems, and the virtues that they give rise to, can only arise when we share an environment in common, forcing us to choose between love and selfishness.  A baseball bat can be a birthday gift, or a weapon for a mafia crime boss.  In both cases its utility depends on the Pauli exclusion principle, which does not allow protons, neutrons or electrons to occupy the same space, and thus makes the bat crack when it hits either ball or head.  It might not be possible to be a moral agent, without matter as a medium that we can manipulate in competition or cooperation.  We might not even be able to differentiate ourselves from one another, without a common, "hard" medium between us. 

As for why the mind is dependent on the brain, Jeff should debate Gary Habermas on that one. Gary would say, it's not. 

(3) "Did Australopithecus have a soul? What about homo habilis? Homo erectus? Neanderthals? Why or why not? (HT: Keith Parsons)"

Again, is this one question, or five?  And while we're at it, why not also ask, "What flavor candy is most popular in Bode's Galaxy?"   The answers that come to mind are, "Why does Jeff expect me to know if people I've never met have souls?  I'm not even sure what a soul is, or whether my dog has one." 

But the Bible indicates that God gave life of a special kind to the first man and woman.  When exactly Adam and Eve became "living souls," or how, is not I think the essential point of the account. Plainly, there is a vast gap between modern humans, and all non-human animals: that is empirically obvious.  Why Parsons think we need to speculate about various subhuman primates, and the very challenge itself constitutes some kind of a case against theism, it is hard to understand. 

(4) How do souls interact with physical matter? Do you have any answer that is not tantamount to "I don't know?" (HT: Keith Parsons)

What's wrong with "I don't know?"  Those are among the most beautiful words in the English language, and far rarer than they ought to be.  I love Confucius' balanced saying, "To know what you know, and know what you don't know, this is true knowledge." 

In this case, too, I don't mind admitting they are appropriate for me.  Again, why that is supposed to be a problem, is unclear.  We haven't fully figured out how the physical forces themselves work. 

(5) "Why would God use biological evolution as a method for creation? Do you have any answer that is independent of the scientific evidence for evolution?"

Again, two questions for the price of one.

The Bible says God created man from the dust of the Earth.  If, in fact, we also came from rabbits, why should that be more embarrassing?  Of course, the fact that we share most of our biology with other animals is a great advantage when we're looking for something to eat.  Amino acids, proteins, minerals, all that our bodies need, can be found all around us, in other bodies.

Also, I think it's nice that we're not completely alone.  We get along with dogs well, because they are social creatures like ourselves, who hunt in packs.  "No dog is an island.  Ask not for whom the dog whistle thrills, it thrills for thee."  We ride on and enjoy horses, because we understand one another, to some extent -- "man with dog closes a gap in the universe," Lewis again.  The fascination prehistoric artists had with the forms of bison, deer, and other animals, seems in part "the familiar within the unfamiliar," one definition of art.  What child would want there to be fewer animals?  It's part of the fun of life, that an elephant also has a nose, but so strange a nose. 

(6) "Why are pain and pleasure so connected to the biological goals of survival and reproduction, but morally random?"

Not morally random, but morally neutral.  Rape is not, in fact, as pleasurable as consensual sex.  And sex with a stranger is not as delightful as sex with a lover.  And sex with a lover alone is not as pleasurable and fulfilling as a successful family life as a whole, mixing uncles and aunts, Christmas dinners, and outings by the beach, exploring tidepools and daring the waves with the wee ones. 

The universe, when tested, proves itself in many ways.  The Bible, when lived, reveals itself as trustworthy.  Lived out even a little, it creates great men and women: St. Francis and Solzhenitsyn, Mary Slessor and King Alfred, Kepler and Kierkegaard, people who change the world for the better, and civilizations that redefine what it means to be human and to be a society in positive ways. This should cause doubts among skeptics.  The real question is, why does the Gospel explain human desires, and how they are best fulfilled to optimal happiness, so much better than secular social science seems to manage? 

(6b-d) "Is there some greater good that logically requires (or logically requires risking) that suffering be used to motivate animals to pursue the biological goal of self-preservation? Does some moral end make it desireable for suffering to continue even when it serves no biological purpose? For example, why do sentient beings, including animals which are not moral agents, experience pain or pleasure that we do not know to be biologically useful?"

Whole books have been written to try to answer such difficult questions.  One of the best is Paul Brand and Phillip Yancey, The Gift of Pain. I refrain from poaching on their territory, recognizing my limits. 

I also recommend Glen Miller's highly informative Does the Savagery of nature show that God either isn't, or at least isn't good-hearted?

(7) "Why do only a fraction of living things, including the majority of sentient beings, thrive? In other words, why do very few living things have an adequate supply of food and water, are able to reproduce, avoid predators, and remain healthy? Why would God create a world in which all sentient beings savagely compete with one another for survival? Why do an even smaller fraction of organisms thrive for most of their lives? Why do almost no organisms thrive for all of their lives?"

Excellent questions, but I think exagerrated.  If a Western hemlock overwhelms a Sitka spruce in a forest in Southeast Alaska, has any evil been done?  I think not.  I think the competition of the forest adds to its beauty, its hardiness, its utility, and therefore to its good.

The vast majority of life consists of non-sentient: bacteria, fungi, plants, insects.  (Miller makes this point.)  It can be questioned whether fish, reptiles, or even most mammals are conscious enough to really suffer (or enjoy), and therefore whether their failtures or successes are morally relevant. They may look like they are suffering, like a worm squirming on the sidewalk, yet lack the cognitive capacity to actually suffer.  In that case, there is no evil in their demise, however it might effect us psychologically. 

Large mammals, having survived the dangers of infancy, often seem happy enough most of the time.  Read Farly Mowat's account of wolves in the Canadian Artic, for instance, Never Cry Wolf.  Most of the animals' time is spent in activity that they clearly enjoy.  The mother wolf stays home to care for the pups, greets her kin with happy barks when they return from the hunt, but pines to "get away from the kids" and hunt, too.  So one of the bachelor wolves watches the pups for a day, and off she goes.  Take a dog for a walk in the woods, and you know how much canines enjoy that sort of activity.  Eating, sex, play, sleep, and "child-care" fill most of their hours.

True, like us, they eventually get sick and die, and there is also pain and hunger.  But on balance, Idon't believe the lives of most intelligent mammals is unhappy.  As a hiker, nothing I have seen of wildlife forces me to that conclusion. 

(8) "Why is there social evil, i.e., instances of pain or suffering that results from the game-theoretic interactions of many individuals?"

So Tolstoy could write War and Peace?  So Homer could write Iliad and Oddessey?  So Tolkien could write Lord of the Rings?  And Shakespeare could write Romeo and Juliet? 

What a bore life would be, if we all got along as swimmingly as rocks in a gully. 

(9) "Why does God allow horrific suffering (and relatively little glorious pleasure)?"

Would you put up with the pains you've suffered, for the wonders you've seen?

I know I would, in a flash. 

(10) "Why does horrific suffering often destroy a person, at least psychologically, and prevent them from growing morally, spiritually, and intellectually?"

I'll leave this question for people who have actually seen this happen.  I have been struck by how sane people sometimes seem who have survived Auschwitz or the Gulag.  But I don't doubt what Jeff says, sometimes also happens.   

(11)  "Why is there nonculpable (reasonable) nonbelief in God? Why are there former believers, i.e., people who, from the perspective of theism, were on the right path when they lost belief? Why are there so many people who gave their lives to God only to discover there is no God? Why are there lifelong seekers? Why are there converts to nontheistic religions and especially nonresistant believers who arrive as a result of honest inquiry at nontheistic experiences and beliefs? Why are there isolated nontheists, i.e., people who have never so much as had the idea of God?"

Here again, Jeff seems to begin with private premises.  Why does he assume we all know that there is such a thing as innocent disbelief?  And even if there is such a thing, what is the question?  When there is no blame attached to disbelief, the obvious answer is that God (knowing all) won't attach blame to it. But that human beings often fool themselves on when blame is, in fact, deserved. 

Personally, I like the fact that human beings seem to have so much freedom, that we have room to wiggle our toes in our boots.  This is one of the great things about Lord of the Rings: Tolkien was a passionate Catholic, and Middle Earth does have a distant theistic presence.  But God is so far in the background of the story, that he is never so much as named.  The closest may be when Gandalf tells Frodo he was "meant" to have the ring, passive voice.  A distant God like that can be "found" in cultures around the world.  Most cultures recognize a Supreme God, but he is often withdrawn, forgotten, ignored -- yet people are generally aware of Him, even when (it often seems, see my article this month in Touchstone Magazine comparing theism in "pantheistic" Taoism and Stoicism), they deny it. (Not available on-line, yet, though.) 

This is also one of the topics of Jesus and the Religions of Man, in which context I quote The Hound of Heaven.   

(12) "Why do some believers feel there is evidence for God's existence on which they may rely, but in which God is not felt as directly present to her experience, and may indeed feel absent?"

I'm not sure I understand this question, or what its force is supposed to be. 

(13) "Why are there such striking geographic differences in the incidence of theistic belief? Why does theistic belief vary dramatically with cultural and national boundaries? For example, why does a population of millions of non-theists persist in Thailand but not in Saudi Arabia? And why has the global incidence of theistic belief varied dramatically over time, i.e., during the existence of the human species?"

It varies less than you would think.

Having surveyed people in supposedly non-theistic countries (Japan, Taiwan, China) and found more belief in a good, Creator God than is predicted by official religions, I wouldn't try to answer the question about Thailand without first doing more research.  But many tribes in the hills of Thailand WERE aware of God, even before missionaries arrived -- Don Richardson' Eternity in Their Hearts tells their often very remarkable stories.

So the real question is, why is awareness of God so pervasive, if it's just a cultural construct, as atheists like Durkheim, Dennett, and Dawkins argue? 

Why do most Saudis believe in God?  Obviously, because Islam teaches that tenet of faith, and if you convert out from Islam, you might get your head cut off, or be tortured by the religious police.  That's an easy one.  But I have heard arguments for God from Muslims that resonate with the reasons, say, many ancient Greek philosophers, and many American evangelicals, give for theistic faith. 

(14) "Why do only some people have religious experiences? In particular, why is it that most of the people who do have religious experiences almost always have a prior belief in God or extensive exposure to a theistic religion?"

That's obviously not true.  I would argue that Richard Dawkins often seems to be having, or remembering, a religious experience when he writes about evolution, for instance.  (And when he writes about the wonder of Nature.)  And polytheists in Taiwan seemed to have their share or more of religious experiences, as I found as a missionary there.

But maybe I'm confusing Jeff's argument -- or maybe it started off confused. 

(15) "For those people who do have religious experiences, why do they pursue a variety of radically different religious paths, none of which bears abundantly more moral fruit than all of the others?"

Again,  I have to question Jeff's premises.  I would argue (and have argued, in print and on this blog) that Christianity has radically transformed this world for the better, in ways no other ideology has done. 

Nor would I even grant that, say, early Confucianism or Mahayana Buddhism, yield no better moral fruit than, say, Aztec polytheism, or Nazi paganism.  Here, again, Jeff is arguing from premises that he assumes we should all accept, but for which he gives no grounds, and the grounds for which are not evident. 

(16) "Why do so many people report not experiencing God's comforting presence in the face of tragedies?"

Why do so many people say they have?  Why are we supposed to attend to one set of data, and not the other?  Are we stacking the deck?

The wording here, and the facts on which they are presumably based, need to be spelled out in more detail, for this to constitute a coherent challenge of any kind, if it can, even then. 

(17) "Why does the the relatively new discipline of cognitive science of religion support the claim that we have a Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD), which causes human beings to naturally form beliefs about invisible agents? Considering HADD's poor track record of producing true beliefs about invisible agents in general, why should we trust it when it produces a belief about one invisible agent, the God of theism?"

Why do crackpot theories always ingratiate themselves with the word "science" these days?

I say that, having posted critiques of relevant books by Pascal Boyer and Daniel Dennett on Amazon, and critiqued the argument as a whole in The Truth Behind the New Atheism.  Neither gentleman really even tries to explain much of the data, in my opinion.  Much of what they say about the matter looks like simply begging the question, and ignoring a lot of evidence. 

(18) "Why does God allow such confusion or disagreement among people, including theists, about what is morally good or bad and morally right or wrong?"

Maybe the list is too long; I find myself increasingly inclined to answer these questions flippantly.  What, should God zap our brains with a remote and change the other channel, if we begin to justify adultery?  What's wrong with freedom, with exploring moral truth, debating, observing, and coming to conclusions? 

Has Jeff forgotten the biblical story?   Given a choice between obeying God and "seeking to be as gods, knowing good and evil," we chose the latter.  If nothing else, isn't that a true reflection of the choices that go on in human society every day -- and the very reason why we need a Savior who transcends our own petty, god--aping egos?  Jay Budziszewski's What We Can't Not Know is a wonderful challenge from this perspective, throwing the issue resolutely back at the morally-sensitive skeptic. 

God gave us a conscience.  He gave Moses the Ten Commandments.  He sent prophets (I would include people like Confucius and Lao Zi, I'm more ambivalent about Gautama) to preach repentance.  Then he sent his Son, giving us a full example of how to love, the Son of Glory, whom we crucified.  "Confusion" is far too weak a word, but our choice of sin is not because we can't know, or even can not know. 

(19) "If you believe humans have free will, why would humans have free will if God exists? Why are we able to exercise free will in some situations but not others?"

Why are we able to roll stones downhill but not uphill?  I fail to see this, either, as a problem. 

(20) "Why should we believe that, of the innumerable deities worshipped by human beings over the ages, yours is the one that really exists? Why believe in Yahweh rather than Zeus, Odin, Marduk, Ishtar, Osiris, Quetzalcoatl, Madame Pele, Ahura-Mazda, etc., etc., etc.? (HT: Keith Parsons)"

We've covered this ground a bit, already.  (One I've written about in many of my books and articles.) To be more explicit: because God transcends all cultures.  The Greeks spontaneously came to recognize God as one, transcending any image of him in Homer, including many of the greatest Greek philosophers -- Socrates, Plato, Cleanthes, and many others -- and many of those who invented ancient science. 

This was true in hundreds of other cultures on every inhabited continent.  The idea that one could juxtapose Pele (the Supreme God was called Io in Polynesia) or Quetzalcoatl (and we want to worship a god who demands that we cut out human hearts to renew the world because?) with the all-knowing, all-powerful, fully good, Creator God, "he greater than whom one cannot conceive," is just silly. 

People around the world recognized the radical difference between God and the gods quite easily, including in "pagan" cultures.  It seems to be mainly western secular humanists who manage to muddle themselves so badly on the subject. 

(21) "Why is so much of our universe intelligible without any appeal to supernatural agency?"

Is any of it, really?  That is one of the big, interesting questions. 

But it may be that God allows us to think that it is, so we can reject His call on our lives, if we so desire. 

(22) "Why isn't our universe teeming with life, including life much more impressive than human life?"

Again, a befuddling question.  How does Jeff know it isn't?  Hasn't he heard of angels?  If a living being is more impressive than us, won't it be intelligent enough to hide itself, like Federation peoples do from primitive tribes, perhaps for the same reasons? 

And why should it be a problem, if we really are alone?  The surface of our planet is teeming with life; personally, having seen Predator, I'm glad we seem to be Top Dog on this planet, anyway. 

(23) "Why isn't the universe saturated with auditory, tactile, or other sensory beauty?"

It is.  "The Music of the Spheres."   

(24) "Given that the universe has a finite age, why did the universe begin with time rather than in time?"

You mean, as Augustine recognized, 1400 years ago?  Why is this supposed to be a problem, rather than yet another "reason to believe?"

(25) "The question "Why is there something rather than nothing" presupposes "nothing" as being the normal state of affairs. Why believe that? Why can't we flip the question on its head? In other words, why can't it be the case that the normal state of affairs is for things to actually exist and nothingness itself would be weird?" (HT: Thy Kingdom Come (Undone))
Tell that to the bank, when you make your next withdrawal.  "Instead of saying my account is overdrawn, why not assume that an infinity of wealth can be conjured out of nothing, through imaginary numbers, in my account?"

I confess, again, I have nothing to say about "actual infinites."  The fact that God sometimes does miracles in this world, makes such theoretical points moot, in my opinion.


BillT said...

"Why is the physical universe so unimaginably large?"

Actually, it isn't. What physics tells is is that in order for the universe to be able to support itself, that is, to create stars, planets and galaxies and the elements of life, it's just about the right size. If it were much smaller or much larger it would not be able to sustain itself given the laws of physics that govern it. In other words, the universe is just about the size it should be.

Jason Pratt said...

Incidentally, this list is sort of a preliminary summary of Jeff's list of evidential arguments for naturalistic atheism.

The index (or rather Table of Contents) for his series can be found here.

It's somewhat less long (and less extensive) than another detailed argument of which I have some familiarity {g}, so I'm thinking of working up some replies to it.

Anyway, Jeff's a good guy to correspond with. Now that J'oftus has retired to do something more profitable with his time, I hope you'll be able to strike up a friendly opposition there!


David B Marshall said...

Bill: I'm not sure we know how large the universe is, yet. And I certainly have a hard time imagining 10^200 galaxies, each with 10^100 stars, each separated by the space it would take a bullet 4 million years to cover. Seems mind-blowing enough to me!

David B Marshall said...

Jason: Good to hear from you, as always, and thanks for the links. Of course John hasn't retired; as Ahnold showed, there's always a sequel.

BillT said...


I didn't say it wan't mind blowing. It is. I said that given the laws of physics it's (at least speculated) to be about the size it would take to be what it is.

BillT said...

"Why isn't the universe saturated with auditory, tactile, or other sensory beauty?"

Does the questioner live in a different universe than we do?

Just in case.

David B Marshall said...

One of those cases in which a picture is worth a thousand words.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

JRP -- Thanks for the kind words.

BillT --

"Why is the physical universe so unimaginably large?"

Actually, it isn't. What physics tells is is that in order for the universe to be able to support itself, that is, to create stars, planets and galaxies and the elements of life, it's just about the right size. If it were much smaller or much larger it would not be able to sustain itself given the laws of physics that govern it. In other words, the universe is just about the size it should be.

I discuss this here: The Argument from Scale (AS) Revisited, Part 4 -- skip down to the objections

"Why isn't the universe saturated with auditory, tactile, or other sensory beauty?"

Does the questioner live in a different universe than we do?

I guess I deserved that, since I wasn't very clear in my question. I've clarified / revised the question as follows:

"If you believe that visual beauty is evidence of God, why isn't the universe saturated with auditory, tactile, or other non-visual types of sensory beauty?"

Crude said...

"If you believe that visual beauty is evidence of God, why isn't the universe saturated with auditory, tactile, or other non-visual types of sensory beauty?"

I think the response "Does the questioner live in a different universe than we do?" flies here again as well.

As to the rest of the post you referred to, without going into detail, it's just not that impressive. The 'center of the universe as a place of privilege' question in particular is a play off a mangled understanding of the history of that idea. "Humans did not exist right at the start of the universe" in particular is ridiculous, since even by the most literal interpretation of Genesis, humans were not "around at the start" either. (And this would run contrary to older claims, such as the eternality of species.)

So, I guess humans 'not being around right at the start' is confirming evidence for Christian theism.

David B Marshall said...

Well, it may be that Jeff is like a prosecuting attorney, who is asking a bunch of seemingly random questions here, in order to elicit answers that he intends to weave into the thread of his own (as yet, unrevealed) argument. But a lot of the questions do seem peculiar.

David B Marshall said...

Jeffrey: Good to hear from you. My OP was addressed to one particular post, but as I recognized, this seemed to be shorthand for longer arguments I supposed you must have made elsewhere.

In the post you link, which unfortunately (from my POV) is written largely in the language of mathematics rather than plain English, one of your stated assumptions is that:

"God's purpose(s) include the creation of embodied moral agents."

But your argument seems to render this, in effect:

"God's sole or overriding purpose is the creation of those embodied moral agents called human beings."

Anyway, the argument doesn't seem to get far, otherwise.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

As to the rest of the post you referred to, without going into detail, it's just not that impressive.

If by "that impressive" you mean weak evidence, in the sense that it doesn't significantly raise the ratio of the probability of naturalism to the probability of theism, then I agree. In fact, I said either in that post or in the comments that theists should not feel threatened by it.

So, I guess humans 'not being around right at the start' is confirming evidence for Christian theism.

Since Christian theism entails theism, it cannot be more probable than (generic) theism. If B entails A and A is improbable, then B or any other set of beliefs which entail A are necessarily improbable.

Jason Pratt said...

Jeff: {{Since Christian theism entails theism, it cannot be more probable than (generic) theism. If B entails A and A is improbable, then B or any other set of beliefs which entail A are necessarily improbable.}}

That seems like saying neo-Darwinian gradualism entails evolutionary theory, so it cannot be more probable than generic ET (and maybe less so, proportionate to the number of details thanks to multiplication of probabilities).

Isn't there room for more detailed variants being more probable than less detailed variants if the details solve problems the basic variant is incapable of sufficiently addressing? Because I'm pretty sure that there are occasions when multiplication of fractional probabilities don't apply.

(Seems like a good topic for a Cadre article, now that I think about it. {g})


Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Jason: I have to admit I had to think about this for a while before it sank in. But... if you don't believe me, check the math.

And yes, for the same reason, I think your counter-example is correct: neo-Darwinian gradualism entails evolutionary theory, so it cannot be more probable than generic ET.

I think I've been thinking about BT too long. My brain is now seriously fried! ;-)

David B Marshall said...

For the sake of other readers, let me copy Jeff's response to my post on his sight:

"Hi David -- Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I skimmed your response but haven't read it in detail yet. I do think you missed the point of some of the questions, which is very understandable since some of the questions were not as clear as they could be.

"Also, FYI, most of these questions are intended to simply introduce my evidential case for naturalism, which is still very much a work in progress. For each question, the 'meta-question' (if you will) is this: "Does naturalism or theism enjoy the greatest overall balance of prior probability and explanatory power (with respect to the item of evidence at hand)?" For details, see "Basic Structure of My Evidential Arguments." That page lays out the schema for all of my evidential arguments.

"Finally, FYI, I apologize in advance for the inconvenience, but I just re-ordered the questions into a more logical sequence. You may want to update your post to reflect the new order. (I also tweaked the wording of a few questions, so you may want to validate that you are still quoting the latest version.)"

Jason Pratt said...


I think "checking the math" per se is where the problem comes in; but I'll talk about that in the Cadre article. (Along with why I and most other people, especially neo-Darwinian gradualists--among whom I still sort of count myself {g}--think neoDargrad is more probable than generic b.e.t.)


Crude said...

Since Christian theism entails theism, it cannot be more probable than (generic) theism. If B entails A and A is improbable, then B or any other set of beliefs which entail A are necessarily improbable.

I made no statements about Christian theism "being more probable than generic theism". I said - rather flippantly - that humans were 'not around at the start' according to Genesis itself. If some incongruity between Genesis and science is taking as disconfirming evidence, congruity would be confirming evidence.

Jason Pratt said...

And lo, I wrote around 11 pages of article on it eventually! {g}

The short conclusion is that my mind still boggles at how anyone could say that neo-Darwinian gradualism is (in any significant way) necessarily no more probable than generic biological evolutionary theory. I mean, a creationist apologist might try to make that argument to score points with his audience, but I'd thwap him upside the head for doing so if I could reach him. {g}

(Not that I would thwap Jeff, but... dang? Maybe there's a way that's trivially true, but so what?)


WHU4ever said...

Specifically on 4 what don't we know?