Tag Archives: naturalism

On Fairies and Gardeners

I’ve been revisiting Richard Dawkins’ best-seller The God Delusion in preparation for an apologetics class I’ll be teaching next week. On opening it up, I fell upon the dedication “In Memoriam” to Douglas Adams, accompanied by the following quotation (presumably from Adams):

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?

I suppose Dawkins considered this a pithy critique of theistic beliefs and in keeping with the thrust of his book. It does at least give us some insight into how Dawkins and his ilk think about theism, i.e., that it’s epistemically on a par with belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden. But it also reflects just how shallow that thinking is.

Flower Garden

Of course it’s enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it, because the former doesn’t depend on the latter in any plausible way. Fairies have no explanatory role to play in one’s appreciation of a beautiful garden. But theists have long contended that God has a significant explanatory role to play in our understanding of the world and our place in it; indeed, a necessary explanatory role.

So a more fitting question would be:

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there is a gardener who made it beautiful?

To which the answer isn’t obviously a self-congratulatory “Yes!” but rather (at a minimum) “Well, it depends on exactly what we see in the garden.” If the garden we see is an orderly, cultivated one then the answer is clearly, “No, it’s not enough; a rational person ought to believe both.”

In fact, an even more probing question would be:

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without considering not only whether there is a gardener who made it beautiful, but also how it is that we came to possess reliable cognitive faculties which allow us to see gardens, to conceive of them as gardens, and to make meaningful objective aesthetic judgments about them?

But that doesn’t sound nearly so witty, which I guess goes to show that cleverness and profundity don’t always coincide.

Some Thoughts on the Lowder-Turek Debate

I recently watched (or rather listened to) the debate last December between Jeffrey Jay Lowder and Frank Turek on whether naturalism or theism “better explains reality”:

Overall it was one of the better theist-atheist debates I’ve encountered, and I would recommend watching it. The two opponents were intelligent, well-spoken, respectful, experienced, and focused on the issues. I’m not going to evaluate all the arguments in the debate or make a judgment about who ‘won’ the debate (it depends which criteria you apply). I’m just going to make some very general comments about the strengths and weaknesses of the presentations.

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Atheism, Amoralism, and Arationalism

Atheism and Amoralism

On April 1, 2010, ethicist Joel Marks sat at his computer and wrote a confession to the readers of his column “Moral Moments” which had been a regular feature in the magazine Philosophy Now for a decade. His confession was not that he had done something immoral. No, his confession was that he could not have done anything immoral, at any time, because it turns out that there really is no such thing as morality. Or so he had come to conclude. The author of “Moral Moments” had come out of the closet as an ‘amoralist’. As he puts it in the first part of his “Amoral Manifesto”:

[T]his philosopher has long been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t.

Marks immediately proceeds to explain the reasoning behind his “shocking epiphany” (bold added):

The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. I call the premise of this argument ‘hard atheism’ because it is analogous to a thesis in philosophy known as ‘hard determinism.’ The latter holds that if metaphysical determinism is true, then there is no such thing as free will. Thus, a ‘soft determinist’ believes that, even if your reading of this column right now has followed by causal necessity from the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, you can still meaningfully be said to have freely chosen to read it. Analogously, a ‘soft atheist’ would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality. And indeed, the whole crop of ‘New Atheists’ … are softies of this kind. So was I, until I experienced my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.

You get the point: the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, are “soft atheists” because they deny God yet still want to affirm moral realism. The problem is that their position isn’t a coherent, stable one, because it seeks to affirm some phenomenon — in this case, objective moral norms — while denying the one metaphysical framework that could plausibly account for that phenomenon. Marks summarizes how he reasoned his way from “soft atheism” to “hard atheism”:

Why do I now accept hard atheism? I was struck by salient parallels between religion and morality, especially that both avail themselves of imperatives or commands, which are intended to apply universally. In the case of religion, and most obviously theism, these commands emanate from a Commander; “and this all people call God,” as Aquinas might have put it. The problem with theism is of course the shaky grounds for believing in God. But the problem with morality, I now maintain, is that it is in even worse shape than religion in this regard; for if there were a God, His issuing commands would make some kind of sense. But if there is no God, as of course atheists assert, then what sense could be made of there being commands of this sort? In sum, while theists take the obvious existence of moral commands to be a kind of proof of the existence of a Commander, i.e., God, I now take the non-existence of a Commander as a kind of proof that there are no Commands, i.e., morality.

In some respects, Marks’ confession shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, theists have been making the same kind of argument — no God, no morality — for aeons. Moreover, a number of influential atheists have already “made the good confession”: Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, J. L. Mackie, and (more recently) Alex Rosenberg.

So I’m not going to dwell here on what I think should be reasonably evident to those who reflect on the metaphysical foundations of morality. Instead, I want to focus on some comments Marks makes in the second part of his “Amoral Manifesto” which, while tangential to his concerns, I find to be quite revealing and hugely significant. For what Marks hints at in these later remarks is that a consistent atheist ought to be not only an amoralist who denies objective moral norms but also an arationalist who denies objective rational norms.
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Plantinga Drains Russell’s Teapot

Alvin Plantinga on Russell’s teapot, from a 2014 interview by Gary Gutting:

G.G.: You say atheism requires evidence to support it. Many atheists deny this, saying that all they need to do is point out the lack of any good evidence for theism. You compare atheism to the denial that there are an even number of stars, which obviously would need evidence. But atheists say (using an example from Bertrand Russell) that you should rather compare atheism to the denial that there’s a teapot in orbit around the sun. Why prefer your comparison to Russell’s?

A.P.: Russell’s idea, I take it, is we don’t really have any evidence against teapotism, but we don’t need any; the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, and is enough to support a-teapotism. We don’t need any positive evidence against it to be justified in a-teapotism; and perhaps the same is true of theism.

I disagree: Clearly we have a great deal of evidence against teapotism. For example, as far as we know, the only way a teapot could have gotten into orbit around the sun would be if some country with sufficiently developed space-shot capabilities had shot this pot into orbit. No country with such capabilities is sufficiently frivolous to waste its resources by trying to send a teapot into orbit. Furthermore, if some country had done so, it would have been all over the news; we would certainly have heard about it. But we haven’t. And so on. There is plenty of evidence against teapotism. So if, à la Russell, theism is like teapotism, the atheist, to be justified, would (like the a-teapotist) have to have powerful evidence against theism.

Plantinga goes on to discuss whether there is such evidence, whether there are any good arguments for or against atheism, and whether theistic beliefs need to be justified by philosophical arguments. He concludes with a nice summary of his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.

A Reductio of Naturalism

Keep Calm and Study PhysicsLet’s define Naturalism as the view that everything is either physical or causally dependent on the physical. On this definition, Naturalism encompasses both “hard naturalism” (strict reductive physicalism) and “soft naturalism” (which allows for some non-physical things such as minds, provided those non-physical things are causally dependent on physical things).

For completeness, let’s also define physical as a catch-all term for those entities and properties recognized by modern physics (subatomic particles, forces, etc.) or any reasonable refinement thereof (i.e., any refinement that doesn’t introduce radically different ontological categories). On this view, whatever is physical must be spatiotemporal.

I now offer a reductio ad absurdum of Naturalism, as defined above, which deduces the non-truth of Naturalism from its truth.

  1.  Naturalism is true. [assumption for reductio]
  2. If Naturalism is true, then Naturalism is possibly true.
  3. If Naturalism is possibly true, then, necessarily, Naturalism is possibly true.
  4. Necessarily, Naturalism is possibly true. [from 1, 2, 3]
  5. There is at least one necessary truth. [from 4]
  6. There is at least one necessarily true proposition. [from 5]
  7. Necessarily, if some proposition P is true, then P exists.
  8. If some proposition P is necessarily true, then P necessarily exists. [from 7]
  9. There is at least one necessarily existent proposition. [from 6, 8]
  10. There is something that does not exist contingently. [from 9]
  11. If Naturalism is true, then everything that exists, exists contingently.
  12. Not everything that exists, exists contingently. [from 10]
  13. Naturalism is not true. [from 11, 12]

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Mind and Cosmos

My review of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos has been posted on the Reformation 21 website.

Also check out:

The Atheist’s Guide to Reality

The following is the unabridged version of a review published in the Christian Research Journal 36:3 (2013). Thanks to CRI for permission to post it here.

Christian philosophers have been developing and refining arguments for the existence of God since the earliest times, but it’s not often one comes across a convinced atheist making a powerful philosophical case for the existence of God. Yet that’s precisely what we find—quite contrary to the author’s intent—in Alex Rosenberg’s book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.

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Pomo Marriage Revisited

A spike in my otherwise flatlined traffic alerts me to the fact that Bill Vallicella has breathed some new life into an old post of mine which connects the same-sex marriage debate with postmodernist anti-realism. Check out Bill’s commentary and then consider the following:

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Stephen Hawking Versus God

The news outlets are abuzz with reports of some provocative claims made in Stephen Hawking’s latest book, The Grand Design, which is due for release on Tuesday. For obvious reasons I haven’t yet read the book, so I don’t know the broader context of his claims or how he supports them. However, since the claims in question have been widely quoted, and several folk have already asked me about them, I’ll offer a few tentative comments (with all the necessary caveats assumed).

Here are Hawking’s statements as reported by the Telegraph (and by numerous other outlets):

Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.

It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.

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