Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Barbara Eden or the Garden of Eden?

John Loftus has replied:

Before I delve into the details, I’ll begin with a couple of preliminary points:

There is more to Calvinism than divine omnipotence. A fixture of Calvinism is a strong doctrine of ordinary providence.

When I distinguish between what is providentially possible and what is miraculously possible, this is not an ad hoc distinction. Rather, that’s an elementary and elemental distinction in Reformed theology.

So when Loftus poses hypotheticals about a better world, the answer depends, in part, on which framework, whether miraculous or hypothetical, is framing the hypothetical.

Second, you’ll notice an evident tension between Daniel Morgan and John Loftus on this issue.

Due to his scientific background, Danny is a little too prudent to indulge in the unscientific speculations that Loftus has gotten so carried away with.

This places him in the awkward position of trying to defend Loftus while putting some distance between himself and Loftus at the same time.

And Loftus isn’t making Danny’s exercise in damage control any easier.

Moving along:

DM: It appears you are referring to the theory that viruses and predation only existed outside the garden here, in response to my comment on them? (Kline)

SH: On my interpretation, predation existence outside of the garden.

Viruses need a host. I assume that unfallen Adam and Eve were originally immune to disease.

DM: I'm not comparing different creatures, but considering the relative suboptimal design intrinsic to each animal's functions and organs and such -- the human spine is always a prime example. Any half-brained engineer could have devised a better bipedal, upright-walking, load-bearing spine. Of course, the apes have a C-curve and do not stand fully upright, whereas we have the same vertebrae, configured into an S-curve, and it leads to multiple problems with slipped discs and herniated discs, etc.

Also, the rib cage supports the organs in animals who are leaned over, and it helps prevent herniated bowels in them. Standing upright, we have no such luxury, and no other attachment points of our internal organs (peritoneal mesothelium anchors in an unfavorable fashion for upright creatures). THat is why it is so easy for human beings to push their internal organs through the muscle wall of their abdomen and get hernias...I could go on and on.

SH: Several issues:

i) Danny, like Dawkins, is fond of “talking” about a better design for this or that.

But I never see them “showing” us a better design. Give us a set of schematics for a more efficient design. Give us a working model. And show how that can be integrated into the preexisting body plan of the suboptimized organism.

It’s one thing to “say” that a better design is possible. It’s another thing entirely to show that a better design is possible.

If a better design is possible, then design it.

The only way of knowing that a better design is possible is by doing it. If you can’t show it, you don’t know it.

The speculations of Danny and Loftus take certain possibilities for granted. But that assumes what they need to prove.

If you’re’ going to propose a hypothetical task for God to perform, then your proposal needs to work out all of the details so that we know what the proposal amounts to.

Absent that level of detailed specification, this is not a genuine hypothetical, but just a form of words—in which words are being used as a substitute for concepts.

ii) Danny may not be interested in the comparative dimension of optimality, but I consider the unit of optimality quite germane to the issue of a better world.

You could optimize a ground squirrel by giving it bite-proof skin, like the honey badger.

This would render the ground squirrel impervious to natural predators like foxes, coyotes, rattlesnakes, bob cats, &c.

At a certain level, that would be better for the ground squirrel. It would be better for the prey, but worse for the predator.

It would be worse for the ecosystem. And in the long-run, it would be worse for the ground squirrel by creating more competition from other ground squirrels.

iii) An upright posture is a perfectly illustration of the incommensurable trade-off between one body-plan and another.

An upright posture carries compensatory advantages as well as certain disadvantages.

For example, you can’t move as fast on two limbs as you can on four. But freeing up one pair of limits enables a degree of specialization (opposable thumbs) which would not be possible if the hands were used for running, like paws or hooves.

So optimality is relative. Optimal relative to what? If speed is the objective, then having a pair of hands with opposable thumbs is a suboptimal design.

If the ability to manipulate one’s physical environment is the objective, then having hands with opposable thumbs is an optimal design.

Is a capacity for flight an optimal or suboptimal design? On the one hand, there are certain survival advantages in being able to fly, in order to exploit that ecological niche.

On the other hand, there’s a tradeoff. It requires a high metabolism to fly. You have to eat more often, and eat more relative to your body weight. Consider the Humming bird, to take an extreme example. And that can be a disadvantage.

What we see in the natural world is that no one species is able to capitalize on every advantageous design feature. That wouldn’t even be possible.

Rather, what we see is just about every possible advantageous design feature exemplified in one species or subspecies and another.

DM: I can strongly argue suboptimal design within humans and many other animals, but I made a larger point which you seem not to have responded to:
is there a logical necessity that whatever God makes is the best it could be?
Does suboptimal design necessarily indicate no God exists? Obviously, theistic evolutionists would have little problem with it. Creationists (like yourself) would probably have much more.

SH: Several issues:

i) Teleology and dysteleology are asymmetrical. Dysteleology presupposes teleology.

Without teleology, there would be no ideal standard to even identify a suboptimal design or defective adaptation.

So even if we admit the existence of suboptimal design, that in no way undercuts the existence of a Creator. To the contrary, it assumes the existence of a Creator.

ii) We also need to distinguish between suboptimal design and suboptimal adaptation. Not every adaptation is a design feature.

Rather, the design is what allows for a certain range of adaptive variation. Having that in-built adaptability is advantageous, whether or not any particular adaptation is advantageous.

iii) I’m not at all sure that the best possible world is a coherent proposition. Rather, it seems to be a choice between incommensurable goods.

Not all possible goods are compossible. There may be a trade-off between one good and another. Between a first-order good and a second-order good. Between alternative goods. Between a lesser good and a greater good.

iv) Apropos (iii), assuming, for the sake of argument, that there is a best possible world, it is not incumbent on God to instantiate the best possible world, or any possible world.

But if he is going to instantiate a possible world, then it must be a good world. And it must be good overall.

v) It is easy to speculate about improvements to the existing world.

But this assumes that you can make discrete improvements in isolation from the various adjustments which might be necessary to incorporate your “improvement” into the whole.

Even if your improvement were a local improvement, would it be a global improvement, or would it be less good overall?

vi) For that matter, I don’t know that what we call the real world is the only world that God has instantiated.

DM: Regarding the opposable thumbs bit, check out the feet of an orangutan the next time you go to the zoo.

SH: You’re missing the point. The question at issue is not whether subhuman creatures can have certain features in common with human beings, but whether we can subtract certain features of normal human design and still call it human.

DM: Also consider that a large addition of muscular back and pectoral tissue and ligaments would be necessary to add wings to a human, but that the amount would correlate to the power of flight.

SH: Which would be a drain on the system. What percentage of physiological resources would need to be diverted from the human brain to flight apparatus?

DM: It is not necessary that humans be able to bound upwards at 100 m/s, of course, and many species of birds glide a lot more than they flap.

SH: The problem is that Loftus floats a pseudotask for God to perform. He proposes a hypothetical, but the hypothetical is so low on actual content that it doesn’t amount to a serious proposition. It’s just a form of words.

DM: But are you suggesting that an omniscient and omnipotent God could not have tweaked the fundamental forces of the universe (or added additional ones) such that the parameters of the medium give rise to properties which are more beneficient to us humans?

SH: A question like this is unanswerable because it’s so very vague. One can talk about tweaking the universe, but what, exactly, is involved? Show me a coherent model in which you tweak some feature of the universe, everything balances out, and the end-result is more beneficial for man.

Matthew: I believe that an improvement in engineering living organisms would be to make it so that the respiratory system wasn't connected to the digestive system the way that it is! The passage way leading to our lungs is closed whenever we swallow, allowing for the passage of food.

But think of how many people have died, choked, and have suffocated, even little children because they got something lodged in their throats that blocked the air supply to their lungs. God could've desiged that system better to where the passage to the lungs needn't have to close when food is passing through.

Now Christians will mock skeptics like me and ask how else would God be able to use the respiratory system for speech when the same tools for speech (tounge, teeth, gums, etc) are also used to eat and digest food? Wouldn't it be an easier system if God killed two birds with one stone by designing them so that they fit together?

No, I don't think that it was particularly smart for God to design it this way. There are more efficient plans he couldv'e used. What if, instead, of us having to breathe in air through nasal cavity and, alternatively, the mouth, what if God designed mammals like ourselves to have symbiotic relationships with bacteria that lived in the cells of our skin?

What if, instead of having to rely on air, we supplied nutrients to the bacteria to help the bacteria remain alive while the bacteria generated the necessary oxygen for our blood stream? We wouldn't have to rely on a nasal cavity nor would we have to rely on having the opening to our lungs have to close in our throat every time we swallow food, thereby risking choking or suffocation. Such a symbiotic relationship would be a feat of engineering design on part of any Creator and seems to me to be a lot more sufficent and safer than our current system.

Just my two cents,

SH: It’s overvalued at two cents.

Matthew, instead of talking about a more efficient design, show us a more efficient design. Go ahead and design a more efficient body-plan. Report back to us when you’re done. Let’s see the schematics when you’ve turned your pretty speculations into a working model.

JL: Are you saying that God can’t? Why? Why can’t he? He’s God. Do you really think God is omnipotent or not? Could God have created us so that we could levitate? Yes or no?

SH: As I said before, this is not a yes or no question since the answer depends on the frame of reference.

Loftus is trying to merge two questions into one:

i) Could God make a man levitate?

ii) Could God make a man naturally levitate?

I would answer (i) in the affirmative.

As to (ii), this is unanswerable because it is a deceptively simple question. Whether it’s possible to have a network of second-causes that naturally allow for levitation is an extremely complicated question. Many preliminary questions would need to be investigated and answered before we were in a position to answer that particular question.

I have never designed an alternative possible world, so I don’t know what all is involved. And I don’t know enough to design an alternative possible world.

We only know a fraction of a fraction of what is to be known about the actual world.

You see, what Loftus is doing is to beg the question at every step. He assumes that his hypothetical is possible. He assumes that we know enough to answer his hypothetical.

But his hypothetical is unanswerable since we don’t begin to know enough to answer it. We would need to know all the details, which he hasn’t given us. We would need to be smart enough to assess all the details.

In addition, the burden of proof is on Loftus to demonstrate that his hypothetical is even possible.

JL: Could he have created the laws of the universe such that they allow for levitation or not?

SH: This assumes that levitation and natural law are interrelated.

JL: Is he in charge of the laws of the universe or not?

SH: Yes, God is in charge.

JL: Or is God limited in what he couls create by these laws such that God must create a universe within the bounds of certain laws of creation which he never created?

SH: This is a very confused question. It’s really two questions bundled into one:

i) Is God limited in what type of universe he can create?

ii) Given that God has created a certain type of universe, is God thereby limited in what he can create via the natural laws or second causes proper to that state of affairs?

Apropos (i), a possible world is just that: a possible state of affairs. Not every hypothetical is coherent. Not every hypothetical is possible.

But God has a range from possible worlds from which to choose.

Apropos (ii), the very way in which the hypothetical is framed imposes a limit on God’s field of action.

Mind you, this would be a self-imposed limitation. God did have to create such a world, but having created such a world, it has certain inherent properties.

God can alter or bypass these properties, but in that event, he’s working above natural law rather than via natural law.

JL: Let’s say he cannot do this by natural means because he never created the laws of nature. Then who did? To say God is limited in his creative power by the laws of the physical universe is to say he did not create the laws of the universe. Then who did create them? Where did they originate from?

SH: And why would we want to say that?

1.Once again, Loftus has bundled two questions into one:

i) Can God do x by natural means?

ii) If God cannot do x by natural means, is this because he never created the laws of nature?

But (ii) doesn’t follow from (i).

If the hypothetical is framed in such a way that God would be acting through natural means, then, by definition, what is naturally possible poses a restriction on the divine field of action.

Of course, that’s only as good as the hypothetical.

2.God created the “laws of nature” by creating nature the natural world.

3.As I’ve said many times before, I believe in providence, not in natural law. If an opponent choose to cast the question in terms of natural law, I may play along with his usage, but that is not interchangeable with my own conceptual scheme.

Speaking for myself, I translate “natural law” into providence.

4.” To say God is limited in his creative power by the laws of the physical universe is to say he did not create the laws of the universe.”

This statement fails to distinguish between primary causality and secondary causality.

i) Natural laws do not limit God’s field of action vis-à-vis primary causality, since primary causality is the source of natural law in the first place.

ii) Natural laws do limit God’s field of action vis-à-vis secondary causality if God is operating via second causes.

iii) God is not bound by second causes to thereby limit his sphere of action to the network of second causes.

But if you’re asking us what God can “naturally” do, then (ii) is operative. But the truth of (ii) does nothing to negate the truth of (i) or (iii).

JL: Furthermore, if God cannot create just anything in the natural world because of these laws, then why can’t God merely supercede these laws? Let’s say that God couldn’t create fleshly creatures who could levitate by virtue of the supposed fact that he cannot change the laws of nature. Then why is it that God couldn’t cause us to levitate whenever we thought about levitating, much like Superman flies through the air by thinking of flying without any known propulsion? Why can’t God do this? He can and any Christian who thinks otherwise is just not thinking. He could do anything in the physical world irregardless of whether he can create the laws of the universe or not. He can make human beings who have wings and could fly. He could make us look every bit like we do with operational wings.

SH: Few men are as muddle-headed as John Loftus.

1.There’s a difference between God creating the natural world, and God creating “in” the natural world. God can create something “in” the natural world, either by natural means (second causes) or miraculously.

2.God is indeed able to supersede these “laws.”

3.God is quite able to change the “laws” of nature. But in that event, we are no longer talking about the same world. Rather, what we really have in mind is the potential for God to instantiate a different possible world, with a different set of properties.

4. God could not to anything in the physical world regardless of whether he made the laws of nature. If, ex hypothesi, he didn’t make the laws of nature, then they would be autonomous, and—as such—might well pose a barrier to divine action.

I reject the operating assumption, but given that assumption, God would not be at liberty to do just anything in the physical world.

5.At this juncture we should introduce another refinement. If God is timeless, then, strictly speaking, God does not make things happen by acting within the world. Rather, he makes things happened by enacting a particular world.

JL: God could do this naturally by reducing our body weight like birds if he wanted to.

SH: A couple of problems:

i) If God is doing this by natural means (JL’s original hypothetical), then you cannot reduce body weight without making a number of other correlative adjustments.

ii) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that (i) is even feasible, what happens to the human brain? Must we also downsize the brain?

If so, do we end up with a flying man? Or something subhuman?

JL: or he could just make us fly when we thought about flying.

SH: By natural means, or supernatural means?

JL: Did you know that God could reduce the size of this universe, this whole universe, by 10 times, or 100 times, or a 1000 times and we would not know the difference since everything will look the same size to those who have been reduced in size?

SH: Yes, he could reduce it in size, but would it still be a functioning universe? John acts is if an agent can make a discrete, but radical change which is isolated from other aspects of the universe, or the planet, or the body.

JL: So, if our body weight is too heavy to fly then he could cut our body weight in half or more by merely reducing the whole size of the known universe? Or he could have reduced the size of planet earth (or whole solar system) and the gravitational field would make us lighter in weight (like the gravitational field on the moon). Or he could have just made gravity such that even with the present size of earth it would allow us to fly with wings.

SH: In what sense are these changes doable? Naturally doable? It’s obvious that Loftus doesn’t have the slightest idea of what he’s proposing. Of how or whether it could all hang together.

JL: And if by changing the present force of gravity may cause other unforseeable problems in the universe, then God could fix those things too. Or God could maintain a perpetual miracle at some point, which would fix any problems with a less intense gravitational force.

SH: Yes, you could have a perpetual miracle. What you wouldn’t have is a perpetual miracle in conjunction with a weaker gravitational force.

Either gravity or a miracle. Not both operating at the same place and the same time.

JL: For those who say God must create and maintain a natural universe with no perpetual miracles I wonder why that must be the case. Does this God ever get weary? Would maintaining a perpetual miracle make him tired somehow? Then how can he truly be omnipotent?

SH: You can strike a balance between natural and miracle. What you cannot have is a parallel system of efficient causality whereby a natural cause and a miraculous cause are both the necessary and sufficient condition of the very same effect.

JL: But my critic has further objected to what I argued for in this way: “If you modify a man, at what point does he cease to be a man?” What can be made of this? This presupposes that God must make a man.

SH: No, what it presupposes is an answer which was responsive to the way in which Loftus originally chose to frame his hypothetical.

JL: Is this because God must make man in his physical image or something? Hardly. If the English word “man” only applies to presently existing human beings, then with a major winged change that English word no longer applies to us, of course. But we would still be able to redefine the English word “man” to include a human being with wings.

SH: The question at issue is not redefining the word, but redefining human nature, at which point it ceases to be human.

JL: What is essential to the Christian for there to be free willed creatures who decide their destiny apart from God’s directly felt presense, anyway?

SH: The question is what is essential to human creatures.

JL: Why do we have to be warm blooded creatures who can’t fly? Why? I see nothing about such creatures that requires that we must necessarily be warm blooded creatures who cannot fly? Nothing. All that’s necessary is that we are thinking creatures who have free will, from the Christian perspective.


i) The creature posing this question is a human being. If the creature posing this question were cold-blooded, it would not be a human being. It might be a rational or moral agent, but it would not be a human agent.

ii) Can a cold-blooded creature have the nervous system of a warm-blooded creature?

JL: And if God created us with a stronger immune system, then what?

SH: Actually, I assume that Adam and Eve were created with a stronger immune system. But sin takes its toll.

JL: And if God created us as cold blooded beings, then what?


i) Why should I grant the premise?

ii) Even assuming the premise, I have no experience with being a cold-blooded animal, so the concluding question is unanswerable.

Since, however, John Loftus is on the payroll of the Old Serpent, perhaps he can fill us in on the details.

JL: And if God created all creatures as vegetarians, then what?

SH: Then the local Black Angus eatery would go out of business. Then I’d have to reformulate my theodicy to accommodate the horrendous evil of life without steak and lobster.

Loftus’ basic problem is that he’s getting his theology from I Dream of Jeannie. He’s confusing the Garden of Eden with Barbara Eden.

But omnipotence is not a genie in a bottle. Omnipotence is not an all-purpose substitute for ordinary providence.

Yet this may explain why Loftus is an atheist. He’s a disillusioned Ali Babist. He gave up believing in God when he discovered that God didn’t correspond to his adolescent fantasy of an omnipotent belly dancer.

Come of think of it, many apostates and other unbelievers suffer from Ali Babist withdrawal symptoms.


  1. Second, you’ll notice an evident tension between Daniel Morgan and John Loftus on this issue.

    I think you exaggerate with the word "tension". I already admitted that I don't seen suboptimal design as a defeater for believers, and asked you to elaborate as to whether or not you would consider it even a defeater for creationism (something I implicitly concurred with your assessment of in my reluctance to use "bad design" as an atheistic or anti-creationism argument).

    Simply put, there is a certain amount of logic in seeing why acquired characters throughout lineages will not be optimal, for example our S-curve spine from the C-curve of earlier great apes. John's major point, from a scientific point of view, is that there is no specific necessity on the part of a God to apply a homology which restricts the "best features" from each lineage from being packaged into one, but I think taking the next step and saying, "therefore" is a little much.

    I've never held that evolutionary biology disproves God's existence. It just disproves creationism.

  2. Since, however, John Loftus is on the payroll of the Old Serpent, perhaps he can fill us in on the details.

    That was funny! What was also funny is how you did a little dance around whether or not God can do what I asked. I call what you did logical gerrymandering. People who take the time to read what you've said in response will see it at it's best. But of course, Calvinists are known for this way of reasoning, so it doesn't surprise me in the least.

    As far as Daniel Morgan goes, he's a scientifically minded person and I learn from him. I am a philosophically minded person and he learns from me.

    DM John's major point, from a scientific point of view, is that there is no specific necessity on the part of a God to apply a homology which restricts the "best features" from each lineage from being packaged into one, but I think taking the next step and saying, "therefore" is a little much.

    What is the "therefore" there for? :-) I'll tell ya. While I have singled out just one feature that could've been different (wings), my real point is about how there is unneccesary suffering in our world that could have been averted had God changed certain features (wings being but one example). I have over a dozen things God could've done differently to avert a great amount of human suffering. I'm just arguing for this one at this time.

    Together I think Daniel and I are like a good one two punch, and I like it. You are down for the count....10,9,8...

    What really surprizes me here is that Steve prefers to opt for the "Omnipotence isn't like a genie in a bottle" defense. What an amazing concession to my argument, coming as it does from someone who believes God creates the laws of nature with the universe, especially when I'm asking about why God created such a universe with these laws in the first place. Steve's defense is that God just couldn't do it, and that's utterly amazing to me. That's right. God couldn't do it. Hmmmm. I thought the word "omnipotence" meant something. But I guess not.

    So once again, in order to defend God's purported creation, Steve resorts to the God cannot do it response.

    There is a much more thoughful and better answer than that from the Christian perspective, and I'm ready for it whenever you think of it. But why Stev continues to say God couldn't do it amazes really does.

    Steve, just what can your God do? :-)

  3. Daniel Morgan said, "It just disproves creationism."

    This is absurd. Your still living in the post-Puritan, rationalist Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries. There is nothing in the Bible that necessitates that biological designs be perfect or even optimal. I'll repost one of my previous comments:

    "Such theological/philosophical speculation may impress Darwinists and convince them that their theory must be true despite the rest of the evidence [and if anyone doesn't believe me, just read Gould's The Pandas Thumb], but it doesn't impress those Christians who don't hold to 19th century, Victorian era, Anglican theology.

    "For creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope." (Romans 8:20)

    I could also bring up the passage in Job which says that God purposefully created the ostrich "stupid", but the point is that...God's plans for His creation are His own."

    Again, creation is not just analogous to a work of visible art. It is also analogous to a novel in which some of the characters are imperfect and sometimes suffer. It is the end that is also planned, not just the beginning (Romans 9:9-23).

  4. Steve,

    Now that I've totally made you look stupid, I suggest you just stop gerrymandering your logic and admit defeat. Since you basically admit that God cannot do what I asked you have to abandon your faith and join us. C'mon, it's not so bad. I'll let you sit in my Barcalounger. You'll get a corner office with a wonderful view at our headquarters. C'mon Steve, pleeeeease! Then you and I can think of others things God should have done if He existed. You don't have to answer me now, just think about it over the weekend....

  5. Saint and Sinner,

    Note that I said evolutionary biology disproves creationism, not maladaptation/"bad design".

    In general, the biological aspect of creationism is defined as the a set of belief systems in which the Judeo-Christian God miraculously and supernaturally forms animals/humans, rather than a natural and unmiraculous process of physics and chemistry.

    In that sense, creationism is just as falsified by evolutionary biology as combustion has falsified phlogistonism. You can still believe either if you so desire, esp if you're a scientific anti-realist (poke poke, Steve-o).

  6. Daniel Morgan said, "Note that I said evolutionary biology disproves creationism, not maladaptation/"bad design"."

    The problem with this is that, in many popular Darwinist books, (Darwinian) evolution is founded on the "bad design in nature" or "nature has too much evil in it" arguments. These arguments assume a theology that was only particular to 19th cent., Victorian era, Anglicanism (though it was somewhat popular on the continent too).

  7. "Irregardless" isn't a word. Even if it were (it is considered non-standard), it would not mean what you think it means. It would be a double negation, and would mean not without regard, which would mean with regard.

    That doesn't negate your entire point, it just makes you look foolish.