Friday, February 26, 2016

Questions for theists

Jeff Lowder recently reposted his questions for theists:

I'll respond: 

1. 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))

Well, for one thing, science itself is predicated on the operating assumption that contingent entities require causes. If we flip the question on its head, then we can dispense with cosmology, geology, pathology, &c. We can dispense with a science of origins. No need to explain why things happen. 

2. Given that the universe has a finite age, why did the universe begin with time rather than in time?

That depends on your theory of time. If you have a Newtonian conception of absolute time, then time could preexist the universe. That's a container view of time, where time is like an empty container that's independent of what, if anything, might fill it. If, however, you view time as a mode of existence, then you can't have time apart from concrete entities, for on that view, time is an ordered relation between concrete entities (a la Leibniz, Einstein). Doesn't Jeff know that? 

3. Why is so much of our universe intelligible without any appeal to supernatural agency? Why does the history of science contains numerous examples of naturalistic explanations replacing supernatural ones and no examples of supernatural explanations replacing naturalistic ones?

A loaded question. This involves a stereotypical misconception of divine agency, where natural and supernatural explanations are mutually exclusive. Yet that's like saying, if robots can build a car, you don't need humans. Well, you may not need humans to build the car, but you need humans to build the robot. So there's a distinction between direct and indirect agency. Natural causes don't eliminate the need for supernatural agency if supernatural agency is required to establish natural processes in the first place. 

4. Why is the physical universe so unimaginably large?

i) Vast in relation to whom? To God? The universe isn't vast in relation to God. Indeed, the scale of the universe isn't even meaningful in comparison to a God who has no spatial dimensions. If it were bigger or smaller, what difference would that make to God? 

ii) One scientific argument is that a universe requires a certain amount of raw mass to produce the elements necessary for life. 

5. 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) I don't really think of visual beauty as evidence for God, but even if I did, why must the universe be "saturated" with types of sensory beauty? 

ii) The question also depends on whether we classify different types of sensory experience as "beautiful". Something can taste good without tasting "beautiful" (whatever that means). A massage feels good without feeling "beautiful" (whatever that means). Suppose we recast the question in terms of various kinds of sensory goodness as evidence for God.

6. If you believe the universe is fine-tuned for intelligent life, why isn’t our universe teeming with life, including life much more impressive than human life?

i) A loaded question. How would we be in any position to know that our universe isn't teaming with life, including life that's much more impressive than human life? We can barely explore our own solar system. 

ii) For a planet to be in the Goldilocks zone, other celestial bodies in the solar system must be outside the Goldilocks zone. Due to gravity, some celestial bodies will be at a certain distance from others, depending in their mass. Moreover, it all has to balance out at every larger scales. A cosmic butterfly effect. So that limits the number of habitable planets, even in principle.

iii) There's an equivocation in saying the "universe is fine-tuned for life". That doesn't mean the universe is generally hospitable to life, but that, in order for life to exist at all, many conditions must be met, interlocking conditions, and the tolerance is exceedingly narrow. There's almost no margin for variation. Jeff's question seems to draw a false inference from the phrase. 

7. 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?

A loaded question. I reject macroevolution/universal common descent. 

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

i) God has created discarnate minds. They're called angels.

ii) Embodied souls naturally have types of experience that discarnate minds cannot. 

iii) Is the human mind dependent on the brain? That's ambiguous. If, according to interactionist dualism, a soul is coupled with a brain, then, in a sense, the soul is dependent on the brain so long as the two are coupled. If, however, the soul is decoupled from the brain, it can exist and function apart from the brain. 

Take night vision goggles. If you are wearing night vision goggles, then the only way you can see anything is via the goggles. And they enhance your natural visual acuity in one respect. You can see as well at night without them. Conversely, if you wear them in daylight, you can't see at all. The brightness is blinding. It that respect, someone who wears them is dependent on the goggles to see. But, of course, he can see without them if he removes them. 

iv) There's various lines of evidence that the human mind is not inherently dependent on the brain, viz. crisis apparitions, terminal lucidity, the hard problem of consciousness. 

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

i) One question is the point at which "hominids" are human. What's the cut off? Hard to say from fossil remains. 

ii) I think higher animals may well have souls. Animal souls. Souls proper to the nature of a given species. 

10. How do souls interact with physical matter? Do you have any answer that is not tantamount to “I don’t know?” (HT: Keith Parsons)

A loaded question. How does physical matter interact? Unless you think physical interactions are infinitely divisible, there's comes a point where one thing just does cause another thing. It has to bottom out at direct causation, where there's no intervening medium. So that's no more of a problem for dualism than physicailsm. 

11. 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?

I don't think humans have libertarian freewill. 

12. Why are pain and pleasure so connected to the biological goals of survival and reproduction, but morally random? 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 desirable 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?

i) This makes unargued assumptions about animal suffering. How does Jeff know that animals suffer? What does he know about the pain threshold of animals? 

ii) What does he have in mind when he refers to animal suffering that continues when it no longer serves any biological purpose? In the linked post, he cites a painful terminal illness. If so, that's a level-confusion. In that context, the question isn't whether pain, in itself, is purposeful, but whether disease is purposeful. On a related note, whether mortality is purposeful. In the animal kingdom, mortality maintains the natural balance. And in human affairs, mortality is partly punitive. Death is a punishment for sin. But for Christians, death is a portal to heaven. 

13. 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? 

i) Well, there's an obvious sense in which prey species weren't designed to successfully elude predators every time. That would defeat their function as prey. They must only "thrive" to the degree that they must maintain a replacement rate. 

ii) What makes Jeff assume most organisms lack an adequate supply of food and water? 

iii) To say animals "savagely" compete with one another for survival is an anthropomorphic projection. Animals don't share that human viewpoint. Do animals seem to be unhappy with their lot in life? Not that I can see. 

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

i) I guess Jeff is alluding to something like moral dilemmas (e.g. lifeboat ethics), where there's a conflict between the common good and self-interest. If so, why should we expect God to protect sinners from moral dilemmas?

ii) In addition, moral dilemmas are a test of altruism. Will I sacrifice my self-interest for the benefit of others? That's a virtue. In particular, a second-order good that's contingent on social evils. 

15. Why does God allow horrific suffering (and relatively little glorious pleasure)?

There's infinite "glorious pleasure" for saints in the world to come. 

16. Why does horrific suffering often destroy a person, at least psychologically, and prevent them from growing morally, spiritually, and intellectually?

What a strange question. Why wouldn't horrific suffering be psychologically destructive? 

Perhaps this is Jeff's clumsy way of asking what God would allow that to happen? Or maybe he's shadowboxing with the soul-making theodicy. If so, that's only inconsistent with God's existence if God intends for everyone to "grow morally, spiritually, or intellectually". Conversely, some cases of horrific suffering are divine punishment for sin. 

17. 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?

Begs the question. 

18. 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?

Because both are true. 

19. 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?

Because specific theistic beliefs aren't merely based on natural revelation, but special revelation and/or social conditioning. 

20. Why do only some people have religious experiences? 

Depends on how you define religious experience. For instance, I can have a Bunyanesque experience by meeting John Bunyan in person. But I can also have a Bunyanesque experience by reading Pilgrim's Progress. If I read his novel, I experience his imagination, talent, and Christian values. I can have a Wrightist experience by meeting Frank Lloyd Wright in person. But I can also have a Wrightist experience by living in Falling Water. If I live in a house he designed, I experience his imagination, talent, and aesthetic values. 

Likewise, if God made the world, then living in the world is a religious experience. If God made the human body, then having a body is a religious experience. If God designed human nature, then being human is a religious experience. If the Bible is the word of God, then reading the Bible is a religious experience. 

Perhaps Jeff means something more direct or distinctive, like a divine dream or answered prayer. On that narrow definition, a reason only some people might have religious experience is because God doesn't intend everyone to be religious. 

21. 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?

Begs the question. 

22. 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?

Once again, depends on how you define religious experience (see above). A religious experience can be quite generic. 

23. Why do so many people report not experiencing God’s comforting presence in the face of tragedies?

i) Short answer: because they don't experience his comforting presence in the face of tragedies. 

ii) Perhaps, in his clumsy way, Jeff is asking why, if God exists, he doesn't give everyone a sense of his comforting presence in the face of tragedies? Well, if everyone is a sinner, living in religious rebellion, then they don't deserve a sense of his comforting presence in the face of tragedies.

iii) Now, it's true that many Christians may not feel a sense of God's comforting presence in the face of tragedies. Why that's the case, God only knows. I will say that it's hardly unexpected. The Bible contains many passages in which believers lament their feeling of divine abandonment in time of need. So that's not contrary to Biblical theism. It can be puzzling and aggravating, but that's not evidence against God's existence. 

24. 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?

i) To begin with, that's just a hypothesis. And it's in tension with Jeff's claim that many people don't have religious experiences. For if the human brain is hardwired to naturally form beliefs in the existence of godlike agents, then we'd expect religious experience to be universal.

ii) Moreover, if God exists, it would not be surprising if he built a God-detector into our psychological makeup. 

iii) Finally, many kinds of experience cause us to form a variety of spontaneous beliefs. Whether or not the belief is warranted depends on confirmatory evidence. 

25. Why does God allow such confusion or disagreement among people, including theists, about what is morally good or bad and morally right or wrong?

Because a world in which people disagree is a different kind of world than a world in which everyone agrees. Although disagreement can be a source of evil, it can also be a source of second-order goods. Goods that are unobtainable in a world without disagreements. 

26. 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)

Because we have evidence for Yahweh's existence, but we don't have evidence for the others. According to the NT, Jesus is Yahweh Incarnate, and there's evidence for Jesus. 


  1. Another great post addressing atheism and atheists. Steve, if you don't mind I think people should start referring to you as the Skepticutioner or "Steve of Destruction" (pun on "eve of destruction").

  2. 4. Why is the physical universe so unimaginably large?

    It's easy to imagine that if the universe were very small we would be more inclinded to think there was no God. Or if there were, not a very great or impressive God. Imagine if after his creation Adam became conscious inside a 20 x 20 feet room. Would he naturally think a great God created him? As a matter of fact the Bible teaches that the vastness of the universe is meant to display the awesome power, wisdom, greatness, glory and transcendence of God (cf. Ps. 19:1-6). Some estimates claim that with the naked eye alone we can see from about 2,500 or 10,000 stars surrounding earth. The fact that modern science now thinks there might be 100 to 500 billion galaxies (each galaxy having a hundred and often hundredS of thousands of stars) in the physical universe should cause us to be at awe all the more.

    6. If you believe the universe is fine-tuned for intelligent life, why isn’t our universe teeming with life, including life much more impressive than human life?

    If the universe were absolutely and unambiguously teeming with life, then that could lead people to conclude life is so natural that it either has been around forever or that it's inevitable for life to evolve without divine intervention. As Steve said, the universe may be teeming with life, but the fact that the universe is (superficially) so hostile to life and life nevertheless exists (no matter how much or less) cries out for explanation (especially when it includes embodied conscious agents). That's precisely why the argument for fine-tuning of the universe for life and specifically intelligent life is so very strong. Why not more impressive life? Impressive in what way/sense? Maybe more impressive life would entail non-physicality. In which case, angels are more impressive forms of life than physical animals. The genius of humanity is that humans are both physical AND spiritual. Whereas angels are only spiritual, and animals only physical. Humanity's great destiny was to have God himself be incarnated (in Christ) and so lift up humanity's dignity. Hence the passage in Hebrews 2:7-9 which states humans are (at present) lower than the angels, but that in Christ redeemed humanity will one day be exalted above the angels as Christ Himself was raised above the angels after His resurrection. To the place of Godhood which He (Christ) had before his incarnation and kenosis of sorts. Also why Paul says Christians will judge angels and why the book of Revelation teaches believers will sit in Christ's throne of authority to rule along with Him (Rev. 3:21; 2:26-27). And so redeemed humanity will at once remain finite creatures yet, by God's grace and gifting share in some sense the authority of God. Even the "nature" of God (so to speak) according to 2 Pet. 1:4.

    Steve wrote: ii) I think higher animals may well have souls. Animal souls. Souls proper to the nature of a given species.

    It would surprise many modern Christians if they were told that it's really a recent phenomenon for Christians to think only humans have souls. Christians in past ages often believed some animals had souls. Animals having souls doesn't entail they have an afterlife. Whether they can "go to heaven" or enter the future Kingdom of God is a separate issue.