bookmark_borderAn F-Inductive Argument from Consciousness for Theism, Revisited

Edited on 15-Feb-20
While some theistic arguments are “God of the gaps” arguments, many, including those defended by Christian philosophers, are not “God of the gaps” arguments. Before accusing a theist of trotting out another “God-of-the-gaps” argument, atheists should first verify that the argument actually is a “God-of-the-gaps” argument.
Here is the basic structure of a “God-of-the-gaps” argument:

  1. Some odd or puzzling thing, E, occurs or exists.
  2. Science is unable to offer a plausible, God-free explanation for E.
  3. Therefore, God is the best explanation for E.
  4. Therefore, God exists.

There are many, well-known problems with such arguments. I’ve written on this topic elsewhere, so I won’t repeat those points here. Instead, I want to sketch how a theistic argument can avoid appealing to a gap in scientific knowledge. Here is the structure of an F-inductive argument from consciousness:
Let E=consciousness exists; N=naturalism; T=theism; B=background information; Pr(|H|)=the intrinsic probability of H; and Pr(x|y)=the epistemic probability of x conditional upon y

  1. E is known to be true, i.e., Pr(E) is close to 1.
  2. N is not intrinsically much more probable than T, i.e., Pr(|N|) is not much greater than Pr(|T|).
  3. Pr(E| T & B) > Pr(E | N & B).
  4. Therefore, other evidence held equal, N is probably false, i.e., Pr(T | B & E) > 0.5.

Whatever problems may exist with that argument, being a “God of the gaps” argument isn’t one of them. The present inability of science to explain consciousness plays no role whatsoever in the argument. What’s doing the work in the argument is the fact that theism, as a version of supernaturalism, entails that consciousness exists, whereas naturalism has no such entailment.
Allow me to explain. “Naturalism” is really just short-hand for “source physicalism,” which says that the physical world exists and, if the mental world exists, the physical explains why the mental exists (or, to allow for eliminative materialists, appears to exist). “Supernaturalism” is really just short-hand for “source idealism,” which says that a mental world exists and, if a physical world exists, the mental explains why the physical exists (or, to allow for eliminative idealists, appears to exist). “Theism” is a specific version of supernaturalism; it says that the mental being or entity which explains why the physical exists is a perfect supernatural person.
N.B. While theism does not entail human consciousness exists, theism does entail consciousness exists because theism entails that God exists and God is conscious, by definition. In contrast, naturalism is compatible with the non-existence of consciousness. So the existence of human consciousness, while not entailed by theism, isn’t surprising on theism in the way it is on naturalism. In that sense, human consciousness is evidence favoring theism over naturalism.
Objections to the Argument
Objection to (1): “We have no idea what ‘consciousness’, ‘mental,’ and ‘physical’ mean. Science can’t explain some E if the E is poorly defined.”
Reply: By a “mental world,” I mean the existence of a private, subjective world. By a “physical world,” I mean the existence of a public, objective world. By “consciousness,” I mean sentience.
Objection to (2): “But intrinsic probabilities don’t appeal to the propositions included in our background knowledge, and so ignore prior probabilities.”
Reply: As we say in computer science, that’s a feature, not a bug. Intrinsic probabilities come before prior probabilities. As the name implies, intrinsic probabilities are probabilities determined solely by the intrinsic properties of a proposition. Draper has argued (convincingly, in my opinion) that intrinsic probabilities are determined by scope, modesty, and nothing else. In contrast, prior probabilities are determined by the propositions in our background knowledge, such as “A physical universe exists,” “The universe is life-permitting,” “So much of the physical world is intelligible without appeal to supernatural agency,” and so forth.
Objection to (3): “The claim that Pr(E | T & B) > Pr(E | N & B) is unfounded because generic or mere theism doesn’t contain enough information to predict or demystify E. One would have to appeal to a specific kind of theism to justify something like (3), but a more specific kind of theism would have a lower intrinsic probability than mere theism.”
Reply: This is false for the reason explained above. While theism does not entail human consciousness exists, theism does entail consciousness exists because theism entails that God exists and God is conscious, by definition. In contrast, naturalism is compatible with the non-existence of consciousness. So the existence of human consciousness, while not entailed by theism, isn’t surprising on theism in the way it is on naturalism. In that sense, human consciousness is evidence favoring theism over naturalism.
Objection to (4): “But consciousness depends upon a physical brain. That’s more probable on naturalism than on theism.”
Reply: Correct. We know much more about the mental than the fact that it exists. We also know that it is dependent upon the brain, a fact which is much more likely on naturalism than on theism. So, once the evidence about consciousness is fully stated, it’s clear that there is also evidence favoring naturalism over theism. That fact, however, does nothing to refute this argument, which contains an “other evidence held equal” clause in its conclusion.
Objection to (4): “But the naturalistic evidence of mind-brain dependence outweighs the theistic evidence from consciousness.”
Reply: I am not aware of anyone having offered a successful argument for that claim. It’s not clear to me how such an argument could be adequately defended.
Objection to (4): “But the history of science contains numerous examples of naturalistic explanations replacing supernatural ones and no examples of supernatural explanations replacing naturalistic ones. That gives us reason to expect that science will eventually explain consciousness without God.”
Reply: I agree that gives us some reason to expect that science will eventually explain consciousness without appealing to God. That doesn’t change the fact, pointed out by (3), that the content of “naturalism,” as I have defined it, gives us no antecedent reason to expect consciousness to exist if naturalism is true, whereas “theism,” as I have defined it, does give us an antecedent reason to expect consciousness. This promissory naturalistic ‘atheodicy’ has no logical relevance to the argument anyway.
Objection to (4): “But (4) must be false because theism is false.”
Reply: That would follow only if one assumes that there can never be true evidence for a false proposition, but why assume that? There can be circumstantial evidence that a defendant is innocent of murder, while at the same time there could be other evidence for the defendant’s guilt, such as DNA evidence, which completely outweighs the circumstantial evidence. Similarly, a theist might say, “Suffering, imperfection, poor design, and mind-brain dependence are evidence against God’s existence, but that evidence is completely outweighed by the evidence from the finite age of the universe, the life-permitting conditions of the universe, human consciousness, etc.” Similarly, even if one believes (as I do) that it’s extremely improbable that God exists, one can consistently allow that consciousness is evidence–even strong evidence–favoring theism over naturalism, while simultaneously believing that other evidence outweighs the theistic evidence. People in general need to stop taking a binary, “all-or-nothing” approach to evidence.

bookmark_borderDissatisfaction with Many Arguments for and Against Dualism

Victor Reppert recently posted on his blog the following quotation of Susan Blackmore:

How can objective things like brain cells produce subjective experiences like the feeling that ‘I’ am striding through the grass? This gap is what David Chalmers calls ‘the hard problem.’ …It is a modern version of the ancient mind/body problem – but it seems to get worse, not better, the more we learn about the brain… The objective world out there, and the subjective experiences in here, seem to be totally different kinds of things. Asking how one produces the other seems to be nonsense. The intractability of this problem suggests to me that we are making a fundamental mistake in the way we think about consciousness – perhaps right at the very beginning.
Susan Blackmore, ‘What is consciousness?’, Big Questions in Science, in Harriet Swain (ed.), Big Questions in Science, (Jonathan Cape, 2002), p. 29-40.

This quotation reminds me of why I am dissatisfied with so many arguments for and against dualism. I am not an authority on the mind/body problem so take what I am about to write with a grain of salt, but in my experience most of the arguments:
a. Amount to a statement of incredulity; or
b. Beg the question.
Now, with all due respect to Susan Blackmore (whose work I have not read), the passage just quoted seems to amount to nothing more than a statement of incredulity, as opposed to an actual argument. If physicalism is true, then the mind just is the brain and, it would seem, there is no subjective experience ‘in here.’ It’s not clear to me how that statement of credulity is supposed to be any more compelling than the following:

The problem of mind/brain interaction seems to get worse, not better, the more we learn about the brain… Nothing mental happens without something physical happening. The idea of mental ‘substance’ existing wholly apart from arrangements of physical matter seems to be nonsense. Even if there were a mental ‘substance’ existing ‘out there’, how, precisely, does it interact with arrangements of physical matter?

Why is Blackmore’s passage supposed to be any more compelling than what I just wrote? What have I missed?
In spite of everything I’ve written above, I still think there is a good evidential argument against naturalism based on consciousness. At the same time, I also think there is a good evidential argument against theism based on mind-brain dependence. This suggests to me that the issue is far more complex than simple quotations of supposed ‘hostile’ authorities would seem to suggest.

bookmark_borderThe VICTIMs of Christian Apologetics

My latest video, “The VICTIMs of Christian Apologetics: The Things Apologists Falsely Say Depend on God, But, if God Exists, God Depends on Them,” is now available on YouTube. It is a narration of some of the many hundreds of PowerPoint slides I created in preparation for my recent debate with Frank Turek on naturalism vs. theism.
This video presentation is a (roughly) 2 hour 30 minute critique of Frank Turek’s latest book, Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case. Turek accuses atheists of stealing from God in order to argue against God. How do atheists steal from God when arguing against God’s existence? According to Turek, this is summed up by the acrostic CRIMES (Causality, Reason, Information and Intentionality, Morality, Evil, and Science). So his argument is that atheists must assume each of those things, but each of those things in turn presuppose God’s existence.
For each letter in CRIMES, atheism can steal these concepts from God if and only if: (a) atheism is logically incompatible with the concept represented by that letter; and (b) positing an all-powerful God explains that concept, not just assumes it. But as I will explain, each letter in CRIMES fails one or both conditions.
Now, since repeatedly accusing an innocent person of a crime harms the accused, I’m going to frame my response as an acrostic of my own: VICTIM (Value, Induction, Causality, Time, Information and Intentionality, and Morality). Instead of talking about crimes, what we instead need to talk about are the VICTIMs of Christian apologetics. The VICTIMs of Christian apologetics are things which Christian apologists falsely claim depend on God, but the truth is that God depends on them.
Since the video is quite long and detailed, the following serves as a handy index:
Counter Apologist went through the effort to list the topics covered and give time-stamps/links for each topic which you can find below:

HT: Counter-Apologist for creating the index

bookmark_borderMoreland on Consciousness

(redated post originally published on 14 November 2011)
There have been some further developments in this discussion. See:
Graham Oppy “Critical Notice of J. P. Moreland’s Consciousness and the Existence of God” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 3, 1, 2011, 193-212
J. P. Moreland “Oppy on the Argument from Consciousness: A Rejoinder” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 3, 1, 2011, 213-226
Graham Oppy “Consciousness in not Evidence for Theism” in C. Meister, J. P. Moreland, and K. Sweis (eds.) Oxford Contemporary Dialogues Oxford: OUP, forthcoming. (Should be out early in the new year. Also contains a chapter by Moreland, defending his argument from consciousness, which I haven’t yet seen.)
Re the above link to Moreland’s blog: In Arguing about Gods, I discuss two arguments from consciousness. First, I (briefly) consider the argument in Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding that is critiqued by Mackie in The Miracle of Theism. Second, I provide a fairly lengthy discussion of the argument in Swinburne’s The Existence of God. I do not think that the main criticism that I make of these argument in Arguing about Gods is that “the theist’s use of personal explanation regarding consciousness is a bogus form of explanation” (cf. the claim in Moreland’s blog). (See p.401 of Arguing about Gods for a summary of five of the criticisms that I make of Swinburne’s argument. The claim that Moreland attributes to me is not among these five criticisms ….)
The most important point to note — vis a vis this discussion — I think, is this: The worst case for the naturalist is one in which ‘conscious state’ is an ideological primitive, with an ideologically primitive connection to ‘neural state’ (or the like). But, for theists like Moreland, ‘conscious state’ is evidently an ideological primitive — for, of course, Moreland thinks that God is conscious, and does not suppose that God’s consciousness is explained in terms of something else — and the connection between consciousness and the rest of God’s ‘state’ is also ideologically primitive. So, on a proper accounting of theoretical costs, the worst case for the naturalist is no worse than par with the view that Moreland defends. (And, of course, if the naturalist can provide a ‘reduction’ of consciousness, then the naturalist has a theoretically more virtuous position.) But, if this is right, the considerations about consciousness cannot possibly favour theism (regardless of the outcome of attempts to provide a naturalistic ‘reduction’ of consciousness).

bookmark_borderWeighing Theistic Evidence Against Naturalistic Evidence

In the next-to-last paragraph of his book, C.S. Lewis’ Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason, Victor Reppert makes a very interesting statement:

However, I contend that the arguments from reason do provide some substantial reasons for preferring theism to naturalism. The “problem of reason” is a huge problem for reason, as serious or, I would say, more serious, than the problem of evil is for theists. (emphasis mine)

I think this is a very interesting statement for two reasons. First, Reppert acknowledges that the so-called “problem of evil” — which is probably misnamed (see here) — is an evidential problem for theism. All by itself, that is a significant concession that is all too rare among theistic philosophers. But second (and more important), Reppert claims that naturalism’s ‘problem of reason’ is as big of a problem, if not a bigger problem, for naturalism as the ‘problem of evil’ is for theism. I want to focus on this second feature of interest about Reppert’s statement.
I recently asked, “Why Do So Many People Have a “Winner Takes All” Approach to Evidence about Gods?” Suppose you agree with my conclusion that there can be evidence for false propositions, so there can be evidence for atheism if God exists, and so there can be evidence for theism if God does not exist.
As soon as you admit that possibility, you have to be prepared to confront another possibility. How do you weigh competing items of evidence, especially when we don’t have numerical probability values (or likelihoods or Bayes’ factors) to work with? Here are two versions of this problem.
(1) Weighing Two Individual Items of Evidence
Suppose you have two items of evidence, E1 and E2, and two rival hypotheses, H1 and H2. E1 is evidence favoring H1 over H2, i.e., Pr(E1 | H1)  > Pr(E1 | H2). Let B1 the “Bayes’ factor” for E1 , i.e., the ratio of Pr(E1 | H1)  to Pr(E1 | H2). E2 is evidence favoring H2 over H1, i.e. Pr(E2 | H2) > Pr(E2 | H1). Let B2 be the Bayes’ factor for E2, i.e., the ratio of Pr(E2 | H1) to Pr(E2 | H2). If E1 is stronger evidence for H1 than E2 is evidence for H2, then B1 > 1/B2. Likewise, if E2 is stronger evidence for H2 than E1 is evidence for H1, then 1/B2 > B1. But how do you show that?
In some cases, it may be possible to show this is true by definition. For example, in my F-inductive argument from consciousness, I argue that Pr(consciousness | theism) =1 because theism entails the existence of consciousness. Now compare that result to a very weak argument against theism, the argument from scale. I have argued before that, as an argument against mere theism, the evidence of scale provides very weak evidence favoring naturalism over theism. So it seems obvious that if Pr(consciousness | theism) = 1, then consciousness is much stronger evidence for theism than scale is against it.
Or consider Paul Draper’s evidential argument from biological evolution. The key insight to understanding that argument is this. It is really an argument against special creationism, combined with a rigorous argument that special creationism is a viable auxiliary hypothesis to theism. In other words, theism provides a significant antecedent reason to expect that special creationism is true conditional upon the assumption that theism is true, where “antecedent” emphasizes the idea that we are abstracting away all of our evidence from biology. Draper’s evidential argument from biological evolution argues that Pr(special creationism | naturalism) = 0, whereas Pr(special creationism | theism) >= 1/2. Now suppose you have some extremely weak argument for theism, such as the argument from beauty. I don’t think beauty provides any evidence for theism, but for the sake of argument let’s pretend that it does. In that case, it would be obvious that the falsity of creationism is much stronger evidence against theism than beauty is evidence for it.
Not all comparisons of evidence will involve cases where at least one hypothesis entails neither the evidence to be explained nor the denial of the evidence to be explained. In those cases, it seems to me it will be more difficult, possibly impossible, to justify an objective comparison of evidential strength. (Whether it is impossible or merely difficult will have to be determined on a case-by-case basis.)
(2) Weighing Cumulative Cases Against One Another
Suppose now you have two “real” cumulative cases done the right way. In favor of H1, you have items of evidence E1 through E5. In favor of H2, you have items of evidence E6-E10. For example, let H1 be theism and H2 be naturalism. Then let our items of evidence be:
E1: the contingency of the universe
E2: the beginning of the universe
E3: the life-permitting conditions of the universe
E4: consciousness
E5: intentionality
E6: the hostility of the universe to life
E7: biological role of pain and pleasure
E8: falsity of special creationism
E9: mind-brain dependence
E10: psychopathy
You believe that E1-E5 are individually and collectively evidence favoring theism over naturalism. Likewise, you believe that E6-E10 are individually and collectively evidence favoring naturalism over theism.
As before, we’ll use “B” to represent the Bayes’ factor. Let B1-5 represent the ratio of Pr(E1 & E2 & E3 & E4 & E5 |T) to Pr(E1 & E2 & E3 & E4 & E5 |N). Let B6-10 represent the ratio of Pr(E6 & E7 & E8 & E9 & E10 | T) to Pr(E6 & E7 & E8 & E9 & E10 | N).
How in the world are you supposed to show that B1-5 > 1/B6-10?
(3) Is Naturalism’s ‘Problem of Reason’ as Big or Bigger than Theism’s ‘Problem of Evil’?
Let us now return to Reppert’s statement I quoted at the beginning of this post:

However, I contend that the arguments from reason do provide some substantial reasons for preferring theism to naturalism. The “problem of reason” is a huge problem for reason, as serious or, I would say, more serious, than the problem of evil is for theists. (emphasis mine)

Reppert does not attempt to defend this claim in his book, but in fairness we should note the argument from reason is a neglected topic in the philosophy of religion. It seems reasonable to devote an entire book just to (re-?)introducing the argument and defending it. But it would be a major accomplishment in the philosophy of religion, I think, if Reppert were able to successfully defend this claim. Perhaps he can devote his considerable philosophical talents to this task in a future book.

bookmark_borderWhen are Theistic Arguments “God-of-the-Gaps” Arguments?

In a recent post, Victor Reppert asks:

Is there any theistic argument [from/in natural theology] that can’t be accused of being a god-of-the-gaps argument? Is this an all-purpose reply to all natural theology?

My answers are “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second question.
I think it would helpful if everyone would agree upon or stipulate what it means for an argument to be a “God-of-the-gaps” argument.
Here’s my proposal: “God-of-the-gaps” arguments have the following logical form.

(1) There is some puzzling phenomenon P which science cannot at present explain.
(2) Theism does explain P.
(3) Therefore, P is more likely on the assumption that God exists than on the assumption God does not exist.

The key feature of this argument–and what makes it a “God-of-the-gaps” argument–is premise (1). The focus is on science’s present inability to explain P.
For example, here’s a God-of-the-gaps argument from consciousness.

(1) Science cannot explain consciousness.
(2) Theism does explain consciousness.
(3) Therefore, consciousness is more likely on the assumption that God exists than on the assumption God does not exist.

But not all arguments in/from natural theology need have this logical structure. For example, they could be presented as what I have called “F-inductive arguments.” If we let B be our background information, E be the evidence to be explained, and H1 and H2 be rival explanatory hypotheses, then F-inductive arguments have the following structure.

1. E is known to be true, i.e., Pr(E) is close to 1.
2. H1 is not intrinsically much more probable than H2, i.e., Pr(|H1|) is not much greater than Pr(|H2|).
3. Pr(E | H2 & B) > Pr(E | H1 & B).
4. Other evidence held equal, H1 is probably false, i.e., Pr(H1 | B & E) < 0.5.

The key feature of this argument is premise 2, which does not make reference to science’s inability to explain P.
To make this more concrete, here’s a non-God-of-the-gaps, F-inductive version of the argument from consciousness. E is the existence of human consciousness; T is theism; and N is naturalism.

1. E is known to be true, i.e., Pr(E) is close to 1.
2. N is not intrinsically much more probable than T, i.e., Pr(|N|) is not much greater than Pr(|T|).
3. Pr(E | T & B) =1 > Pr(E | N & B).
4. Other evidence held equal, N is probably false, i.e., Pr(N | B & E) < 1/2.

Whatever problems may exist with that argument, being a God-of-the-gaps argument clearly isn’t one of them.

bookmark_borderMy Recent Call-In Segment with Trent Horn on Catholic Answers Live

A few weeks ago Catholic Answers had a two hour radio show devoted to taking calls from nontheists only. I was the last caller. I had the privilege of having a brief, but very enjoyable and intellectually stimulating conversation with Trent Horn. A fan recently made me aware of a YouTube recording of it.

Trent, if you’re reading this, thanks again for being such a gracious host. I look forward to talking with you again in the future!

bookmark_borderLowder-Vandergriff Debate on God’s Existence Now Out!

I’m pleased to announce that my debate on God’s existence with Mr. Kevin Vandergriff is now out! Here are the options for accessing the debate.

Topic and Format
The topic and format for our debate was as follows.
Topic: Naturalism vs. Christian Theism: Where Does the Evidence Point?
Mr. Lowder’s Opening Statement: 20 minutes
Mr. Vandergriff’s Opening Statement: 20 minutes
Mr. Lowder’s First Rebuttal: 15 minutes
Mr. Vandergriff’s First Rebuttal: 15 minutes
Mr. Lowder’s Second Rebuttal: 10 minutes
Mr. Vandergriff’s Second Rebuttal: 10 minutes
Mr. Lowder’s Closing Statement: 5 minutes
Mr. Vandergriff’s Closing Statement: 5 minutes
This debate was not a live debate but was instead recorded over a series of many weeks. Once I recorded my initial opening statement, each speech was due within a week of the previous one being available to the other debater. Once all of the speeches were complete, the crew at Reasonable Doubts merged all of the files together into a single file for the podcast. As an added bonus, both Vandergriff and I provided PowerPoint slides for each and every speech, which should make it that much easier to follow the debate.
Summary of Mr. Lowder’s Case for Naturalism:
First Contention. Naturalism is a much simpler explanation than Christian theism (where simplicity is defined in terms of modesty and coherence).
Second Contention. Naturalism is a more accurate explanation than Christian theism.
2.1. Physical Matter
2.2. Intelligibility of Universe without Appeal to Supernatural Agency
2.3. Cosmic Hostility
2.4. Biological Evolution
2.5. Biological Role of Pain and Pleasure
2.6. Flourishing and Languishing
2.7. Triumph and Tragedy
2.8. Mind-Brain Dependence
2.9. Types and Distribution of Moral Agents
2.10. Limitations on Human Freedom
2.11. Nonresistant Nonbelief
2.12. Ethical Disagreement
Note: some of these lines of evidence were not mentioned until after Mr. Lowder’s opening statement, specifically, 2.2, 2.9, 2.10, 2.12, and 2.14.
Summary of Mr. Vandergriff’s Case for Christian Theism:
First Contention: Naturalism is not significantly more simple than Christian theism.
Second Contention: Even if naturalism is significantly more simple than Christian theism, it doesn’t matter because God exists necessarily.
2.1. Origin of the Universe
2.2. Why There is Something Physical Rather than Nothing
Third Contention: Christian theism is a more accurate explanation than naturalism.
3.1. Discoverability of the Universe
3.2. Applicability of Mathematics
3.3. Evolution
3.4. Formational Economy of the Universe
3.5. Self-Aware Beings
3.6. Embodied Moral Agents plus Fine-Tuning
3.7. The Connection between Moral Beliefs and Necessary Moral Truths
3.8. The Connection between Necessary Moral Truths and Flourishing
3.9. Worthwhileness of Life
3.10. Resurrection of Jesus
Note: some of these lines of evidence were not mentioned until after Mr. Vandergriff’s opening statement, specifically, 3.3 and 3.4.
Related Topics Discussed in This Debate
1. The differences between metaphysical naturalism and the “hypothesis of indifference”
2. The Anti-Creation Ex Nihilo Argument
3. Neo-Aristotelian Ethical Naturalism, namely, Larry Arnhart’s version as defended in his book, Darwinian Natural Right
4. The Bayesian Interpretation of “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence” (ECREE) and the Bayesian Anti-Resurrection Argument
5. Physical cosmology, including the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin (BGV) Theorem and quantum indeterminacy
6. God’s relationship with time
7. Animal pain
Major Selling Points and Drawbacks for this Debate
I think this debate is fairly unusual, if not unique, for theism and atheism debates for a number of reasons.
Selling Points

  • I think both debaters were pretty evenly matched in terms of speaking ability or, at the very least, the delayed audio format gives that appearance. (That is, in fact, a major point of the delayed audio format.)
  • Both debaters treated their opponents with respect. Anyone who was watched or listened to a number of these debates knows that this does not always happen, which is unfortunate.
  • Both debaters approach the question, “Does God exist?”, as an empirical question. This means that, for the most part (but not entirely), they avoided a priori, deductive arguments and instead gave evidential arguments. (Thomistic scholars like Ed Feser and other critics of “theistic personalism” won’t be happy.) Furthermore, they both adopt a Bayesian approach to evidence.
  • The naturalist debater actually attempted to present a positive case for metaphysical naturalism. Mr. Lowder provided nine (9) lines of evidence for naturalism in his opening statement, and five additional lines of (understated) evidence in later speeches.
  • As mentioned above, the theist debater actually attempted to provide theistic explanations for (alleged) naturalistic facts, rather than appeal to so-called “skeptical theism.” In other words, the theist actually attempted to defend a theodicy.
  • In fact, for the most part, I think both sides defended their position using arguments and objections which are representative of the best scholarship on both sides. I think both debaters avoided the typical blunders we see from both sides in these debates. (Mr. Lowder in particular is proud of the fact that he pretty much ignored every piece of the horrible debating advice offered by the late Victor Stenger.) For example, both debaters avoided making positive arguments which many, if not most, philosophers of religion would say have been discredited: the naturalist debater did not use the Lack of Evidence Argument (LEA) for atheism and the theist debater didn’t defend an ontological version of the moral argument (which claims that God is required as the ontological foundation for moral values and duties). Along the same lines, both debaters avoided using some more of the dubious objections to their opponent’s arguments: the naturalist debater didn’t respond to alleged cosmic ‘fine-tuning’ by appealing to the multiverse hypothesis and did not respond to the Resurrection argument using simplistic arguments for Jesus mythicism. The theist debater did not respond to the argument from biological evolution by denying the fact of common ancestry and he did not respond to various arguments from evil by appealing to so-called “skeptical theism.”[1]

On the other hand, I think this debate has one, maybe two, major drawbacks.
First, Vandergriff and I discuss a large number of arguments. If you didn’t like the number of arguments in my opening statement for my debate with Phil Fernandes, then you’re probably going to be very unhappy with the number of arguments in this debate. (I think the grand total by the end of the debater was somewhere around 23-25.) I don’t think this ever would have worked in a live debate but, given the unique “audio swap” format, we mutually decided beforehand to debate more, rather than less, arguments on each side. I hope that the PowerPoint slides will make the debate comprehensible.
Second, both debaters spoke faster towards the end of the debate and our speaking rates probably pushed the limits of what is reasonable. For people who listen only to the audio (as opposed to watching the YouTube version), this will make it hard to follow.
Vandergriff Did Not Cheat
Several people on the web noticed that Vandergriff used audio editing software to artificially speed up his speaking rate and to edit out the natural pauses in at least some of his speeches, in order to cram more content into his speeches. Based on that, they have accused Vandergriff of cheating.
I can see why listeners might reach that conclusion, but Vandergriff did not cheat and I want those accusations to stop.  Not only did he not cheat, but  I fully believe that Vandergriff neither had any intention to cheat nor did he believe at any point that he was doing so. Why? The rules for the debate did not impose a limit on the words per minute (WPM) ratio for each speech. They definitely did not prohibit the use of audio editing software. I have no doubt that Vandergriff chose to speaker at a higher WPM ratio because of his collegiate debate background, where it absolutely the norm for debaters to exceed 300 WPM in their speeches. (This convention is the primary reason I decided against participating in undergraduate debate, despite my university debate team’s attempt to recruit me.)
The problem, in my opinion, is that there is a huge disconnect between the way competitive debaters do debates and the way the general public thinks about debates. I believe that speaking faster than 190 WPM is a huge turn off for the general public, whether for a podcast or in a live debate. Even if Vandergriff had not edited the audio file and instead chose to speak (naturally) as fast as possible, I predict that many listeners still would have complained about the fast delivery. I can see how the use of audio editing software might lead people to think Kevin had cheated, but that conclusion is mistaken. He did not.
Operating from a collegiate debate perspective, Vandergriff opted to increase his WPM ratio as needed in order to address every single in the point in every single speech. Some people call that the “Gish Gallop” approach but, as anyone with high school or college debating experience can confirm, that’s the way they do it in that style of debating.
In contrast, my approach was to speak at a more comfortable pace (< 190 WPM). Of course, that meant I could not include as much content into my speeches as Vandergriff included in his. Instead of simply “dropping” arguments, however, my strategy was to “group” various arguments together in a way so that one objection could apply to many of his arguments at the same time. If our debate were judged by collegiate debate judges using collegiate rules, it’s quite possible they may have voted for Vandergriff as the winner. Since this wasn’t a collegiate debate, however, and since I did respond to all of his points at least indirectly (through grouping), I don’t care how a collegiate debate judge might vote. My courtroom was the court of public opinion and my intended “judge” was the judgment of the general public.
The real risk is that, once transcripts of the debate are made available, they may give Vandergriff an unfair advantage insofar as it will be much easier for readers to understand a written transcript of his speed talking than it is for listeners to understand an audio recording of his speed talking. I think that we can manage risk that by putting some sort of note at the beginning of the transcript which explicitly addresses the WPM issue.
Lessons Learned
In my opinion, this debate is a “lesson learned” for all parties involved. If I could go back in time, I would have proposed the following:
(1) No cap on the number of arguments because I think the only way to truly test both worldviews in a debate is to actually debate this large number of arguments.
(2) A modified time limit structure, such as 25 minute openings, 20 minute first and second rebuttals, and 15 minute closings. These longer speeches would provide both debaters more time to address the points raised by their opponents.
(3) A strict cap on the maximum allowed WPM, which I would probably set at 190.
(4) The use of audio editing software to manipulate WPM would be allowed, but rendered irrelevant by rules 2 and 3.
Vandergriff and I have already talked about the possibility of having a re-match in the future using the above proposal or something similar. I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we both hope this re-match happens. For my part, I greatly appreciate his informed, thoughtful, and novel approach and think it deserves a fair hearing by everyone interested in pursuing a deeper understanding of these topics.
We’d love to know your reaction to this debate; please feel free to leave your reviews of the debate and/or debate the arguments yourself in the combox!
[1] I recognize that several of the claims in this paragraph will be controversial. For example, some theists deny the truth of common ancestry. Even more important, in my opinion, is the fact some theistic philosophers believe that God is required as the ontological foundation for morality and that skeptical theism is a good response to arguments from evil. I obviously disagree, but I’m not going to attempt to defend my perspective in this blog post.

bookmark_borderOne Problem with Swinburne’s Case for God – Part 2

In a previous post I pointed out three different problems related to the third argument in Richard Swinburne’s systematic case for the existence of God.  The third argument is the final argument of his arguments from the nature of the universe.  It is his Teleological Argument from Spatial Order (hereafter: TASO):
(e3) There is a complex physical universe that is governed by simple natural laws and the values of the constants of the laws and of the variables of the universe’s initial conditions make it probable that human bodies will evolve in that universe.
(g) God exists.
The first problem is that the premise might well be false.  The fact that human bodies did evolve several billions of years after the Big Bang, does NOT imply that this event was probable or likely.  In fact, it seems rather improbable that HUMAN bodies would evolve just the way that they did.  However, Swinburne does not really mean “human bodies” literally here.  He means any sort of body that would be suitable for a ‘humanly free agent’, so that leaves open a wide variety of possibilities in addition to the kind of human bodies that actually exist.  Nevertheless, it is not clear to me that it was probable that bodies suitable for ‘humanly free agents’ would evolve in our universe;  the evolution of such bodies could be a lucky accident.
The second problem is that it seems IMPROBABLE that God would use the slow and (literally) painful process of evolution to bring about animals and human bodies, when God could have designed and created millions or billions of animals and humans in the blink of an eye.  God had no need to use the natural biological process of evolution, and no need to build such a process into the fabric of the universe.    Most importantly, instantaneous creation would have bypassed hundreds of millions of years of animals suffering and dying from disease and parasites and predation and injury.  A huge amount of animal suffering was involved in the natural process of evolution, so a perfectly morally good person clearly would NOT have used evolution to produce human bodies when there was a much better solution ready at hand.  So, it seems clear to me that contrary to Swinburne’s view, (e3) does not provide evidence in support of the existence of God, even assuming (e3) to be true; rather it provides evidence AGAINST the existence of God.
The third problem is the most serious, because it affects his whole systematic case for the existence of God. Unlike the premises of his first two arguments for God, the premise of TASO requires a great deal of background knowledge.  In order to know that (e3) is true, one must first know, at least, that the theory of evolution is the correct theory of human origins.
In order to know that the theory of evolution is true, one must know a significant number of scientific concepts, facts, and theories from a variety of scientific disciplines (chemistry, biology, physics, geology, paleontology, anthropology, and astronomy) plus one must have some awareness of philosophy of science and the history of science.  For all practical intents and purposes, Swinburne has sucked in most of modern scientific knowledge (at least at the level of high school biology, chemistry, etc.) into the background knowledge of TASO and thus into the background knowledge in all the remaining arguments in his case for God.
One big problem is that knowledge of evolution clearly involves knowledge of the problem of evil, at least knowledge of the problem of natural evil.  In order to know that evolution has occurred one must be aware of the fact of natural death, predation, disease, accidental injury, and natural disasters.  Thus, in order to evaluate the success or failure of TASO, one must deal with the problem of evil, at least with the problem of natural evil.
One option Swinburne has would be to simply dump TASO, to completely remove it from his sequence of arguments, and move on to the first argument in the next phase of arguments (that are based on human life).  That is probably his best option.  But if Swinburne insisted on retaining TASO as the third argument in his sequence of arguments for God, then he would have to deal with the problem of natural evil as part of the evaluation of TASO.
On the face of it, the problem of natural evil sinks TASO; that is to say, if we add (e3) and the required background knowledge to the previous information from his first two arguments, then TASO would REDUCE rather than increase the probability that God exists.  In order to avoid TASO reducing the probability of God, Swinburne would have to engage his theodicy for explaining natural evil, and he would have to do so as a part of his evaluation of TASO.
Swinburne explains natural evil or justifies the perfect goodness of God in view of natural evil by making a few basic points:

  • Natural death provides a limitation on the amount of suffering that one animal or human must endure.
  • The vulnerability of animals and humans to being killed provides many opportunities for humans to make significant choices between good and evil.
  • The existence of evil desires (that cannot be helped) in humans makes it possible for humans to have freedom of choice between good and evil.
  • The frequent occurrence of suffering and need that results from accidents, diseases, and natural dangers and disasters provides humans with opportunities to help and comfort animals and humans.
  • The frequent occurrence of suffering and need that results from accidents, diseases, and natural dangers and disasters provides humans with opportunities to investigate and learn about nature (or to choose lazy indifference and ignorance) and with choices in the use of such knowledge either to cause more suffering and need or to help reduce suffering and need or to simply not make use of the knowledge.

It appears to me that in explaining or justifying natural evil, Swinburne focuses in on human beings, and especially on the fact that human beings have freedom to make significant choices for good or evil.  In other words, in order to justify God in the face of natural evil, Swinburne must now pull the problem of moral evil into the picture.  That means, that in order to evaluate TASO and to avoid the conclusion that TASO actually REDUCES the probability that God exists, Swinburne must deal with the whole problem of evil, both natural evil and moral evil.
Furthermore, in order to deal with the problem of moral evil, Swinburne must assume that humans have conscious awareness and moral awareness.  But the next two arguments in Swinburne’s sequence of arguments are based on the premises that humans have conscious awareness and moral awareness.  Thus, in order to evaluate TASO, Swinburne must incorporate not only his response to the problem of evil (which was supposed to be argument number seven in his sequence) but also he must incorporate his argument from consciousness and his argument from moral awareness.  That means that at least three other arguments in his carefully constructed sequence of arguments must be dealt with all at once and summed up all together, in order to evaluate the success or failure of TASO.
Some of the points justifying natural evil (listed above) come from Swinburne’s argument from Providence, so it is hard to see how he could avoid pulling in that argument as well.  Thus, it appears that four out of five of Swinburne’s arguments from the nature of human life must be dealt with in order to evaluate TASO.
This makes a complete mess of his careful sequence of arguments, and destroys the logical neatness of his whole strategy, which is to add facts one at a time, and to analyze the impact of those facts one at a time.  But TASO requires that most of his remaining arguments must be examined all at once, or evaluated all together and not as separate bits of evidence added one bit at a time.
If I am correct in this analysis, then I think Swinburne really has no other option but to toss out TASO completely, and he must simply jump from his second argument from the nature of the universe to his first argument from the nature of human life (the argument from consciousness).  Otherwise, he is forced to abandon his basic strategy of adding facts one at a time, and to evaluate the significance of these facts one at at time.

bookmark_borderEvan Fales: Deepak Chopra’s $1M Prize is a Publicity Stunt

(This is a guest post by Evan Fales about Deepak Chopra’s recent challenge to the new atheists.)
This is a publicity stunt.  He’s smart enough to have picked what may be the biggest unsolved puzzle for naturalism.  At the same time, his challenge is seriously vague in its wording.  What exactly does he mean by ‘biological basis’?  Would an invariant neurological correlate of a mental event-type do?  A neurological cause?  Does he need identity?  Supervenience?  What counts as a “valid” scientific explanation?  True?  Serious contender?  He’s got goal-posts he can move backwards, sideways, up-side down.
I actually have a possible solution for the qualia problem.  But it depends upon a solution to what I think is really the most fundamental (and hard) problem of consciousness:  the problem of (original) intentionality.  (Computers have imputed, or derived intentionality:  their operations “mean” what they do because we assign a semantics – and interpretation – to their syntactic operations.  But our mental states intend what content they have originally – not because it’s assigned to our minds by some other mind.)  I have no idea how to understand this physicalistically.  On the other hand, I have no idea how to understand it theistically either.  God could make a brain (I suppose), and impute semantic content to its operations (just as we can do for a computer), but how would he insert original intentionality into the thing?  I’m sure Chopra has no better explanation of that than I do.