Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Findings from experimental science that allegedly disconfirm theism

I'm going to comment on some statements that Keith Parsons left at this post:

Parsons grew up in church but left the faith. He's a philosophy prof. with two earned doctorates. He's debated William Lane Craig. So these represent top-of-the-line objections to Christianity: These are "findings of experimental science" that allegedly "disconfirm theism."

Before commenting on the specifics, I'd like to make a general observation:

It depends on your initial frame of reference. If you were raised to believe in geocentrism or Ptolemaic astronomy, then encountering prima facie evidence that that's false might be intellectually traumatic. 

If, however, you were raised in heliocentrism, then you don't have to make any intellectual (or theological) adjustments, since that's what you believed all along. 

Likewise, if you were raised in young-earth creationism, then exposure to prima facie evidence to the contrary might be intellectually traumatic. 

If, however, you were raised in old-earth creationism, then you don't have to make any intellectual adjustments, inasmuch as young-earth creationism was never your frame of reference. Same thing if you were raised with theistic evolution.

My point at the moment is not to say which position is correct. I'm simply noting at that this is only an intellectual or psychological crisis for people who began with one paradigm, only to be confronted with a contrary paradigm. 

But for later generations, that crisis lies in the past. That may have been intellectually traumatic for their forebears, who had to make the transition, but for people who were raised in the new paradigm, the necessary adjustments were already made on their behalf, before they came on the scene. If they didn't read history books, they might not sense a point of tension. 

Each generation doesn't have to adapt to the status quo. For if it was born into the status quo, that seems natural. That's their starting-point. It's only a crisis of faith for people who are going through a transition period. 

Parsons acts as if each generation recapitulates the intellectual turmoil of a former generation, but after the dust settles, that's not the case. It depends on your position in history. It depends on when and where you were born. 

1) The earth is not the center of the cosmos. The theistic religions are anthropocentric and this makes them geocentric, literally in former centuries and in spirit now. All theistic religions see humans as THE purpose of creation, or at least a major part of that purpose. If humanity is the main point of creation, then the complete displacement of the earth, the home of humanity, from the center undermines the notion of human centrality. Indeed, cosmologists assure us that there is no absolute center.

i) To begin with, he equivocates between humans as the singular or primary purpose of creation, and humans as a major part of that purpose. But those are two very different propositions. 

ii) The physical location of the earth is a non sequitur. Suppose you visit young parents. You notice that the nursery is on the side of the house, where the other bedrooms are situated. Would you be right to infer that unless the nursery is in the middle of the house, their affections can't center on their baby? 

iii) In classical theism, God doesn't inhabit the physical universe. God's relationship to humanity has nothing to do with his physical proximity. Nothing to do with where we are in relation to where God is. And this antedates the Copernican revolution. 

iv) In the cosmography of Scripture, the "spatial" relationship between God and man isn't represented in terms of man at the center and God at the circumference, but heaven as "up" and earth as "down."  

2) The earth and the universe are extremely old. A straightforward reading of the chronology of Genesis indicates that the earth and the entire universe are only a few thousand years old. Archbishop Ussher was no fool in putting creation at 4004 BCE. His methods were completely sound, given a literal reading of the Genesis accounts. Young earth creationists are right to see a threat here. If Scripture can be that wrong about plain matters of dates, what else has it gotten wrong?

Young-earth creationists have well-rehearsed responses to that objection, while old-earth creationists reject his exegesis and inferences. 

3) The discovery of exoplanets. Theistic religions tend to be hostile to the idea of extraterrestrials. I once asked some creationists why, and they could only say that they did not like the idea. I think the reason is this: For Christians, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ has to be THE central event in the history of the cosmos. If there are ETs, this raises the difficult question of whether Christ died for them too. The idea that God might have been incarnated many times on many different worlds for the salvation of alien species would seem to create deep theological problems: The savior must be conceived as not only fully God and fully human, but as fully God and fully Rigelian or fully God and fully Arcturan, or whatever.

i) The Incarnation is the central event in human history. A central redemptive event. How would aliens be fallen in Adam? Aliens, if they exist, have a separate planetary history. 

ii) Theologically speaking, it's the Incarnation of God as man that's unrepeatable. But in theory, that doesn't preclude God from incarnating himself as an alien species. 

Technically, the Son is timeless and space. It is not as if the Son can only pair off with one body or soul at a time. The divine nature is illocal. In theory, the Son could be in multiple hypostatic unions with different rational species. Although that's speculative, it's not incoherent. 

4) 99% of all the organisms that have ever existed are extinct. When Baron Cuvier introduced the idea of extinction in the early 19th Century, the orthodox were offended. To them it seemed that the permanent loss of a whole species must indicate a flaw in God's plan. Some therefore suspected that mastodons and mammoths were still alive somewhere in the wilds of Siberia. Whatever the purpose of creation, it is hard to see that it required a plan that would lead to so many dead ends.

If we regard extinct species as the outtakes of a trial and error process in which evolution is a means of achieving a goal, then that is, indeed, inconsistent with planning by an omnipotent, omniscient Creator. That's a groping way to reach the goal. Like shooting arrows blindfolded until you accidentally hit the bull's-eye. 

That, however, assumes that extinct species were transitional to something else. That assumes natural history is progressive. That man was the intended end-point, and extinct hominids were evolutionary pathways aimed at man, but these turned out to be detours or dead ends.

If, though, you view extinct species as ends in themselves, then they aren't dead ends. The process wasn't aiming for something else, but undershot the mark. Rather, it was aiming for each of those species, and hit the mark each time. Variety is good in its own right. The principle of plenitude. 

It would be like saying a Byzantine basilica is a dead end because it fell short of bridging to a Gothic cathedral. But it didn't fall short. There is no intermediate between Byzantine and Gothic church architecture. These represent incommensurable aesthetic designs. You develop each as far as it will go. That's where it ends, because you've exhausted that idiom. 

To switch illustrations, it's like comparing the Bach's B Minor Mass to Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. They have no successors because each represents the culmination of a particular musical idiom. 

5) Organic variation is apparently random with respect to the needs of the organism and with respect to the history of life. Darwin's theistic allies like Asa Gray still wanted to see design in natural selection. The only way to do this was to see organic variation as occasionally planned by God so that the "right" variation would arise in a population at the propitious time. 

It's true that natural history is indifferent to the survival of any particular organism, or even species. But that's like saying a novel was random because the author killed off some characters. Take a war novel in which some characters die in combat. That may be tragic, but that's consistent with the genre. And the death of a particular character has a dramatic function. It may affect the plot. It may affect the way remaining relate to each other. 

Darwin replied that in his extensive observation of both domestic and wild creatures he could find no instance of such designed variation. Rather, the idea seemed absurd to him, like thinking that the shapes of rocks used in building a rock wall must have been planned by some designing intelligence. Of course, he recognized that theists would say that there could still be a plan even though it looked to us as though there were no plan. Darwin sagely observed that to say that there is a plan that looks just like no plan at all is to say something utterly vacuous. This sage observation could be extended to all theistic efforts to see the apparently unplanned as planned.

I don't know what it means to say there's no designed variation in domestic animals. What is domestication if not designed variation? Selective breeding? 

The scale of the universe matters, but I think the loss of centrality is the real issue. I think that Copernicus still rankles. ETs might bother orthodox Jews and Muslims as well. Saying that the Jews are the chosen people would be even harder to maintain if humans are just one of many species of intelligent beings. 

The Chosen People has reference to earth history. A contrast between Jews and Gentiles. And even that's temporary. Gentiles are included in the new covenant. 

Did God choose a particular group on each inhabited planet? Muslims would have to ask whether the Koran was revealed to other beings on other worlds and what it would mean to them. The same would go for the Torah.

To play along with the hypothetical, each alien species would have its own "Bible," reflecting the unique history of God's dealings with them


  1. The problem with argueing with a scientific naturalist is that you are forced to argue from a naturalist position. The universe 'seems' to be billions of years old, therefore you argue from that perceived reality. The truth that God created all that is from nothing is at worst lost and at best belittled and ridiculed. As a Christian do you forget that when Jesus fed the multitude he 'created' enough fish and loaves, out of only a few, to fill several baskets full of leftovers!? He didn't require flour or oil or an oven did he? He simply exercised the same power he used at creation to create loaves and fishes that 'seemed' to go through the natural processes that would normally be required. I don't have any problem believing that God created a universe that 'seemed' to have taken billions of years to form. You concede far too much when you limit your understanding and concede that the universe 'must' have taken billions of years to form. The truth is that no one was there when the universe was created except the one who brought it into being and we either believe what he says about it or we don't. Science is a wonderful tool to help us understand the universe we live in..scientism is a fools playground that gives false hope and promises that will never be realized.

    1. Actually, there's nothing wrong with responding to an unbeliever on his own grounds. That's a standard rebuttal strategy. You accept his position for the sake of argument, then mount an internal critique. That's because his position doesn't hang together.

      That can be complemented by challenging his operating assumptions. By mounting an external critique. It's a pincers maneuver.

  2. Darwin sagely observed that to say that there is a plan that looks just like no plan at all is to say something utterly vacuous. This sage observation could be extended to all theistic efforts to see the apparently unplanned as planned.

    It may be useless for theists to try to see planning and design in what we can't detect from our finite intellectual perception, but that doesn't make it impossible that there is design were were can't see it. A goldfish might not be able to detect the planning and design that went into its aquarium, but the five year old girl who cleans it and feeds the goldfish does understand the planning, design and upkeep of the environment. In fact, from the Calvinist point of view there is a sense in which everything is designed in that it has its proper place and time in the providence of God. Even in the falling of a single snowflake that fell millennia ago. Chaos theory experts understand how a single seemingly insignificant initial condition can have huge ramifications in the distant future. Who is the atheist to say that God isn't omniscient, omnipotent and sovereign enough to have planningly directed the fluttering of a butterfly wing to prevent a hurricane that would have killed thousands of people 3 years down the line? If true, that's not less designed than an automobile, but even more designed. We just can't see the big picture as God does. So, what appears to the atheist to be no design (and certainly to him less design than a toaster), would in fact be so immensely designed that if he could see it he would hide in shame for having suggested otherwise.

    The scale of the universe matters, but I think the loss of centrality is the real issue. I think that Copernicus still rankles. ETs might bother orthodox Jews and Muslims as well. Saying that the Jews are the chosen people would be even harder to maintain if humans are just one of many species of intelligent beings.

    The scale of the universe? From a Christian perspective God made the universe incomprehensibly large so that we could have some sense of the greatness and grandeur of God's wisdom, majesty, glory and power. To say it's a waste of space is to assume God is like us with limited time and resources which require efficient designs and solutions. It's precisely because God has infinite resources and isn't limited to time that He can be extravagant. When it comes to his argument about the centrality of Earth, he's committing an anachronism. In ages past the centrality of Earth in Christian tradition wasn't an indication of the importance of humanity, but rather it's inferior nature to the higher, nobler and purer realities above Earth like that of the angels and ultimately of the most high God Himself.

    When it comes to other intelligent species in our universe or in other universes that shouldn't threaten Christianity at all. Since Christianity itself posits a species of intelligent beings beside humans and God, namely the angels (who inhabit a different dimension or dimensions). From the Bible we know there are not only different ranks of angels, but also different kinds (even species?) of angels. In which case, it shouldn't surprise us if there are other intelligent physical species in our universe or other universes which God may have created.

    It seems Parsons' arguments haven't improved since he debated Craig. Parsons' confidence and boldness in that debate is almost as memorable as his defeat against Craig.

  3. "99% of all the organisms that have ever existed are extinct."

    1. Neo-Darwinists often tout this figure, but what's its basis? What methodology was used to calculate this number (e.g. extrapolated computer models)?

    2. If Christianity is true, then there will be a new heavens and a new earth someday. If so, would this mean our current heavens and earth were somehow "a flaw in God's plan"?

    3. Why couldn't one turn the "permanent loss of a whole species must indicate a flaw in God's plan" argument around to argue the Earth is a privileged planet? That life is such a tenuous prospect that the likelihood it arose by chance is infinitesimally small? That a theory like Intelligent Design is far less improbable? Indeed, not that he'd ultimately agree by any means, but atheist and mass extinction expert Peter Ward argues along these lines in Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe.

    There's a lot more to say. I'll try to say more later if I have some time.

  4. "So these represent top-of-the-line objections to Christianity."

    I'm not worried!