Monthly Archives: May 2012

Twenty Questions Atheists Struggle to Answer?

I don’t usually respond directly to apologists’ blogs, but I’m responding to this post because I believe it’s indicative of the typical tactics apologists employ. Below, you’ll find a list of questions that atheists allegedly struggle to answer, along with my brief responses. First, however, a general comment about the majority of these questions. They’re loaded with assumptions. Thus, the first thing to do is discard many of the mistaken assumptions that stand behind the questions. They’re also almost exclusively ‘God of the gaps’ type questions. They trade on the inability of science (thus far) to explain a given phenomenon and then imply that we’re justified in inferring that God did it. This fallacy is called the appeal to ignorance. Moreover, even if no scientific explanations are forthcoming, this does nothing to overcome the many problematic aspects of theistic explanations. To quote Jan Narveson at length:

“It ought to be regarded as a major embarrassment to natural theology that the very idea of something like the universe’s being ‘created’ by some minded being is sufficiently mind-boggling that any attempt to provide a detailed account of how it might be done is bound to look silly, or mythical, or a vaguely anthropomorphized version of some familiar physical process …. For the fundamental idea is that some infinitely powerful mind simply willed it to be thus, and, as they say, Lo! it was so! If we aren’t ready to accept that as an explanatory description¬† — and we should not be, since it plainly doesn’t explain anything, as distinct from merely asserting it was in fact done — then where do we go from there? On all accounts, we at this point meet up with mystery” (Jan Narveson, “God by Design?” in God and Design: The Teleological Argument and Science, ed. N.A. Manson (London Routledge, 2003) pp. 93 — 94).

This general criticism is applicable to all theistic explanations, including the ones given to the following questions. But without further ado, here are the questions atheists supposedly struggle to answer.

1. What caused the universe to exist?

This is a very naive question. A naive answer would be ‘We don’t know.’ Do we even know if the universe requires a cause? Is the ‘universe’ a concrete thing that requires an explanation? Or is it a catch-all term, an abstract category? One of my frustrations with this discussion is the confusion between these two definitions. Atheists can give straightforward, naturalistic explanations for almost every concrete object (people, penguins, planets, stars, etc.), but then theists say something like, “yes, yes, you can give explanations for all of those things, but I’m talking about an explanation of everything” i.e. the set of all concrete things. But that’s not a ‘thing’ in any relevant sense. Steven Maitzen has done some important work on this problem. However, even if the universe is a concrete thing that requires a cause, unless our universe exhausts all physical reality, there’s no reason to think that the cause could not lie in some temporally prior physical state. Physicists continue to explore this option.

2. What explains the fine tuning of the universe?

I’ve responded to the fine tuning argument at length in a previous post. Quickly, there may be more than one universe. The variables may not be independent of each other; there may be a deeper law that explains the values of the cosmological constants. The probabilities may be inscrutable.

3. Why is the universe rational?

The universe is not rational. I take it he means ‘intelligible.’ There are various responses to this question. Briefly, any universe capable of supporting intelligent life would need to have stable laws of physics (the very point the fine tuning argument makes). As such, there is a self-selecting effect at work. Any universe capable of producing intelligent life would have laws and since we evolved in this environment, natural selection has made us adept at recognizing these regularities. I suspect the theist would then run a version of Lewis’s argument from rationality or Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism. I can’t respond to those at length here, but to merely claim that non-rational matter could not produce rational creatures is to beg all of the important questions in this debate.

4. How did DNA and amino acids arise?

Science is still working on this one. The best current theory for the origin of DNA is called the RNA-world theory. Google it.

5. Where did the genetic code come from?

Once the first replicators are in place (re: question 4) the code develops via copying errors and selective pressures.

6. How do irreducibly complex enzyme chains evolve?

I’m not a scientist, but the assumption behind the question is that enzyme chains are ‘irreducibly complex.’ I suspect the scientific consensus is against enzymes, or anything else for that matter, being irreducibly complex.

7. How do we account for the origin of 116 distinct language families?

Ask a linguist. There’s a lot of work being done on the origin of human language. Should we preempt this scholarship with a “God did it?”

8. Why did cities suddenly appear all over the world between 3,000 and 1,000BC?

I’m puzzled why this question is even on the list. In addition to Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer do we need to add Urban Planner? Nonetheless, the rise of cities wasn’t all that sudden. It followed the rise of agriculture and smaller villages and places of trade.

9. How is independent thought possible in a world ruled by chance and necessity?

This looks like a variation on question 3. I’m not sure what he means by ‘independent thought.’ Does he mean ‘rational’? I’ve dealt with that one. Does he mean independent as in ‘free’? I’ll deal with that one below.

10. How do we account for self-awareness?

A lot of work has been done in philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and psychology that sheds light on this question. It would be reckless to say that we’ve got the answer nailed down, but we’re making progress. My tentative position on this issue is called functionalism. Essentially, once matter reaches a sufficient level of complexity, as in the human brain, those neural patterns create a sort of feedback loop that we call ‘self-awareness’ or ‘consciousness.’ I’m optimistic that this will be reproduced in non-human ‘brains’ in the future. Artificial intelligence research is a young field, but a promising one. If we can reverse engineer consciousness, that will be empirical proof that we needn’t invoke God to explain it.

11. How is free will possible in a material universe?

Maybe it isn’t. Or maybe some form of compatibilism is true. I have no stake in whether or not libertarian, or contra-causal, free will turns out to be true.

12. How do we account for conscience?

I’d like a tighter definition of ‘conscience’ here. If he means how we determine right from wrong, I deal with that in the next question. If he means feelings of guilt or approbation, these can be readily explained in terms of societal taboos and norms. Nothing particularly mysterious here.

13. On what basis can we make moral judgements?

That depends on whether you’re an emotivist, consequentialist, deontologist, etc. There are any number of possible secular bases for moral judgments and these have been discussed and debated at length. Take an introductory philosophy course. I suspect that any of these options are preferable to relying on alleged divine commands in Bronze Age texts to inform our moral judgments.

14. Why does suffering matter?

It’s clear why it matters to the sufferer and to those who care about her. It doesn’t matter to the universe.

15. Why do human beings matter?

Again, we matter to each other. Can we be expected to believe that in the absence of religious faith all of our familial bonds, friendships, and general solidarity with the human race would disappear? Again, we don’t matter to the universe.

16. Why care about justice?

Because we’re not sociopaths. We live in societies and obviously have a stake in whether or not they are just.

17. How do we account for the almost universal belief in the supernatural?

There’s lots of material on this question. Let’s start with the fact that we’re Hyperactive Agent Detection Devices because it aids our survival and reproduction. If we think there’s a tiger in the grass and it turns out that there is no tiger, no harm, no foul. But if we don’t think there’s a tiger in the grass and it turns out that there is a tiger, we’re in trouble. So we tend to detect agents everywhere and this quite naturally leads to animism, then polytheism, etc. A better question for the theist would be ‘How do we account for the fact that theism is not universal?’ If theism is true, and we have a ‘divine sense,’ you’d think it would be more reliable in steering us toward (mono)theism as opposed to animism or polytheism.

18. How do we know the supernatural does not exist?

We don’t. This question is better directed toward the theist since he shoulders the burden of proof. I don’t have to show that the supernatural does not exist. He needs to show that it does.

19. How can we know if there is conscious existence after death?

We can study consciousness and the brain through various disciplines (philosophy of mind, cog sci, neurobiology, computer science, etc,) and come to some conclusions about the dependence of consciousness on the brain. Given current research, I wouldn’t be too optimistic about the prospect of conscious existence after death, but I haven’t completely ruled it out. If my optimism regarding AI turns out to be justified, we may be able to extend our consciousness beyond bodily death. We wouldn’t need God or a soul to do it though.

20.What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church?

This question assumes that the empty tomb is a historical fact, which I’m not willing to concede. The resurrection appearances can be explained by hallucinations interpreted in apocalyptic religious terms. The growth of the church can be explained by a number of factors. The Romans had set the stage nicely by establishing a universal language in which the NT could be written and circulated and building roads to facilitate Paul’s missionary exploits. The church also caught a break when Constantine converted and made Christianity the religion of the Empire. Moreover, the fact that a religion grows is surely no guarantee of its truth. Islam and Mormonism have experienced impressive growth from humble beginnings too.

I don’t claim that these answers are exhaustive. Feel free to offer your own responses or counter-responses in the comments. The purpose of this exercise was not to be thorough, but to show that it’s relatively easy to at least sketch an answer to these questions that atheists supposedly ‘struggle’ with. I didn’t even break a sweat.


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Why is Death Bad?

Shelly Kagan on the question ‘Is Death Bad for You?’

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The Rhetorical Force of the Modal Ontological Argument

Ontological arguments are fun. I don’t know of anybody who has ever been converted to theism on the basis of an ontological argument (although I had a professor once who was agnostic because he thought that the force of the ontological argument and the problem of evil balanced each other out) but they’re fun intellectual exercises. The modal version of the ontological argument developed by Plantinga is probably the most fun. While I’m not convinced by it, I’ve recently come to appreciate its rhetorical force in theism/atheism debates. Here is the argument:

P1. It is possible that God exists

P2. If it is possible that God exists, God exists in a possible world.

P3. If God exists in a possible world, then he exists in all possible worlds.

P4. If God exists in all possible worlds, then God exists in reality.

P5. Therefore, God exists in reality.

Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.

The crucial premise is premise 1. The other premises follow from axioms of modal logic. Granted, some have argued that an axiom of modal logic called S5 is controversial (it states that ‘if possibly necessarily p, then necessarily p’), but I’m going to avoid this controversy here because I have no expertise in modal logic. So assuming S5, premises 2 – 5 follow. Returning to premise 1, an atheist could deny that God’s existence is a possibility. There are a couple of options: 1) one could argue that the concept of God is logically incoherent, i.e. that some of the divine attributes entail a contradiction; 2) one could argue that the evil in the world makes God’s existence logically impossible. These strategies are possible, but I’m not sure how viable they are. They both seem to have fallen out of fashion lately. That’s not to say that they’re wrongheaded, but it is to say that both theists and atheists in the field have turned their attention to different atheistic arguments, usually probabilistic in structure.

But it is here that I feel the rhetorical force of the ontological argument. By ‘rhetorical force’ I don’t mean that I’m convinced by the argument. The atheist, when pressed, can bite the bullet and deny premise 1. But I think the atheist pays a high price for denying premise one: namely, he shoulders a heavier burden of proof. It’s not enough to show that God probably doesn’t exist; one has to show that God’s existence is logically impossible, impossible in every possible world. So in a rhetorical context, the ontological argument is quite a bit more useful to the theist than it’s often given credit for. It forces the atheist to defend a much stronger position. It makes the atheist ‘get off the fence’ about whether God’s existence is possible or not. One has to adopt a very strong form of atheism, not merely the inductive, probabilistic kind that I tend to favor. So what move should the inductive atheist make when faced with this argument? I’m not sure, which is why I feel the rhetorical force of the argument. Any thoughts?


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Divine Commands and the Divine Right of Kings

Apologists are fond of running the moral argument. The most popular version goes something like this:

P1: Objective moral values exist only if God exists

P2: Objective moral values do exist

Conclusion: Therefore, God exists

The argument doesn’t necessarily commit one to divine command theory, but most theists are divine command theorists. Objective moral values are identical with God’s moral nature and are then embedded in divine commands. This is alleged to be the only viable ontological basis for objective moral values. I am not going to rehearse the familiar responses to divine command theory. Some, such as Robert Adams’, are quite sophisticated and I can’t do justice to them here. However, I think a parallel to divine command theory can be found in the old doctrine of the divine right of kings. Obviously, nobody in the contemporary West believes in the divine right of kings anymore. It’s this fact makes it particularly illustrative for my purposes.

Consider the following argument:

P1: Political legitimacy only exists if God exists

P2: Political legitimacy does exist

Conclusion: Therefore, God exists

This reasoning could be readily used to establish the divine right of kings. Kings derive their authority and political legitimacy from God. However, in the contemporary West, most people, including theists, would reject the first premise. There might be some who claim that all authority ultimately derives from God, but we’re clearly capable of forming legitimate governments regardless of whether or not theism is true. There’s a lot of theory behind this, which I’ll only briefly touch upon. One could go back to Thomas Hobbes who argued for the authority of the sovereign, but did so on secular grounds rather than appeal to divine right. Building on Hobbes, social contract theorists came up with theories whereby political legitimacy comes not from the top down, but from the ground up. Legitimacy is bestowed on the government by the consent of autonomous, rational agents. I think a plausible case can be made that political legitimacy makes sense on purely secular grounds; one does not need to invoke the divine.

While this reasoning is relatively uncontroversial (excepting theocrats on the lunatic fringe), parallel reasoning is controversial in the domain of ethics. I’m not sure why this is the case, because the historical development of political philosophy and moral philosophy are similar. For example, Kant’s moral theory depends on the rationality of the autonomous agent rather than on God’s commands. Again, we have a secular account of objective moral values that does not invoke the divine. One could also look at Contractarianism and Utilitarianism for other modern secular accounts of how we ground morality. These seem to me to be just as plausible as the secular rationales for modern political theory. Why, then, is it taken for granted that political legitimacy doesn’t depend on theism and the divine right of kings, but it’s controversial whether or not objective moral values depend on theism and divine commands? Is it because modern moral theories are much less successful or much less plausible than modern political theories? I don’t see any prima facie reason to think so. Granted, none of these moral theories is perfect, but neither is divine command theory without its problems.

So I’m at a loss to explain this asymmetry. I do believe in objective moral values and political legitimacy. I just see no more reason to invoke God in the first instance than in the second.¬† I reject divine command theory for the same reason I reject the divine right of kings: modern philosophy has plausibly shown that we can ground both objective morality and political legitimacy in secular terms.

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A Rigorous Formulation of “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence”

I came across this rigorous formulation of the free thought mantra ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’ I’ve always taken the phrase to mean something like this, but I’ve never worked out those intuitions with any precision. Thanks to Mr McIntosh — a Christian theist no less– for doing what the free thought community should have done but hasn’t: offer a formalized statement of their well-worn slogan.

To summarize, an ‘extraordinary claim’ is defined as ‘a claim with a very low intrinsic probability.’ Another way of saying this is that the prior probability of the claim being true based on our background knowledge is very low (but presumably not zero). So the evidence for this claim must be strong enough to bring the posterior probability of the claim up to .5 or better. This is indeed the strategy adopted by people like Richard Swinburne and Lydia and Timothy McGrew in their Bayesian arguments for the Resurrection of Jesus. They argue that even if the initial probability is low, this antecedent improbability can be counterbalanced by the specific evidence in this case. When one considers this evidence, the probability of the claim’s being true goes up well over .5 (I think both Swinburne and the McGrew put it at over .9).

If this is what the mantra basically means, then it is relatively uncontroversial. Theists, at least in the cases I mentioned, believe that they can meet their burden of proof here; non-theists will disagree. The non-theists will simply deny that the amount or kind of specific evidence in this case is sufficient to overcome the very low prior probability. But here is where the issue gets a bit complicated. What evidence could overcome this low intrinsic probability? As Mr McIntosh asks, ‘Would it be a lot of evidence that cumulatively confirms c (ignoring the problem of dwindling probabilities), or just one piece of evidence that highly confirms c, or possibly a combination?’ The answer here is not clear.

Another problem: theists and non-theists are unlikely to agree on what constitutes ‘background knowledge.’ Some theists say that if God exists, then we have to start with higher priors than we otherwise would. If the existence of God is one of our background beliefs, so it goes, the prior probability of the claim goes up. The claim would no longer be so extraordinary, nor would it need extraordinary evidence. Perhaps good evidence — testimonial evidence of the kind we would accept in mundane matters — would suffice. This seems to be the way William Lane Craig argues. I’ve heard him say in the context of debates that the free thought mantra is demonstrably false. I think he takes it to mean, following Hume, that the only relevant factor to consider when assessing a miracle claim is the prior intrinsic probability. However, we also have to consider our background beliefs and the posterior probability on the evidence that we have. Obviously we do have to consider those factors as McIntosh’s formulation notes.

So let’s take the issue of prior probability on our background beliefs. The legitimacy of granting a claim, like the Resurrection, a higher antecedent probability depends on the theist’s dialectical strategy. In Craig’s case, he argues for the Resurrection only after he believes he’s made a good case for the existence of God from natural theology. He then thinks it’s not overwhelmingly improbable that God would raise Jesus from the dead. Swinburne seems to argue similarly. The McGrews, however, are arguing for the existence of God from this particular miracle claim. As such, they can’t help themselves to higher priors. They assume low priors, but contend that the evidence brings the posterior probability up. They also argue that we can use this evidence to retroactively update our priors. The non-theist will remain unimpressed by this, I think. Obviously theists and non-theists in this debate disagree about the success of natural theology and the quality and/or amount of evidence we have in this particular case. There is also the problem of dwindling probabilities that Plantinga points out. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that it’s very probable, say .9, that God exists, that probability dwindles the more claims we add. Thus, the probability that God exists might be high, but the probability that he’d become incarnate is necessarily lower and the probability that he would die and rise again lower still, until we’re below .5. Both Swinburne and the McGrews have responded to Plantinga. Because of the technical nature of these replies, I can’t comment in detail. In any case, it’s a bit of a moot point. The non-theist is not going to grant the claim ‘God exists’ a probability exceeding .5. So agreeing on the background beliefs seems like a non-starter.

What about the quality or quantity of evidence in the case of the Resurrection? Again, the theist and non-theist are going to disagree about it’s strength. The theist will say that it succeeds in overcoming the antecedent improbability — and is thus ‘extraordinary’ — while the non-theist is going to deny this. So it seems we’re stuck with a stalemate. We’re left with the question of the merit of the slogan ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’ Provided the terms are rigorously defined, the slogan is admissible. However, I still doubt that it will be dialectically useful. It seems to me that we’re unlikely to reach consensus on what beliefs should form our background knowledge and, therefore, how to assign the priors. However, it seems to me that we have to assign low priors, even if we’re willing to concede for the sake of argument that God exists. After all, God, if he exists, is stingy with resurrections, as I think even the theist will have to admit. Therefore, on their alleged frequency alone, we should assign a low prior probability. The theist and non-theist will also disagree about whether the evidence is ‘extraordinary’ enough to overcome the low antecedent probability and raise the posterior probability above .5.

Nonetheless, a more rigorous formulation of this mantra is valuable. It helps us avoid semantic dead ends and focus on the argument in more detail. It also suggests that theists (at least evidentialist ones) and non-theists might be able to agree in principle that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ even while disagreeing in practice when it comes to a particular claim like the Resurrection. However, such agreement on methodology is no small matter. Indeed, it might be the best we can hope for in theist/non-theist debate.

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Fine Tuning Argument vs Other Design Arguments

I regard the Fine Tuning Argument (FTA) as one of the more cogent arguments for the existence of God. I still don’t find it convincing, but I take it seriously. Examples of fine tuning can be readily found online, but the idea in general terms is that modern physics has discovered that the values of the fundamental constants of the universe (i.e. the expansion rate of the big bang, the speed of light, the mass of the electron, etc.) have to fall within an exceedingly narrow range if the universe is to permit life at any point in its history. Physicists also point out that the chances that these constants would have just the value that they have is astronomically improbable. Proponents of the FTA infer that this is evidence that these constants have been fine tuned by an intelligence, namely God.

Now, one could raise several objections to the FTA. The most powerful in my estimation are the multiverse objection and the normalizability objection. It’s unclear, however, whether both objections can be employed simultaneously for reasons I shall touch on below. First, the multiverse objection is popular. I suspect it is the weaker of the two because it essentially concedes the point that the ‘fine tuning’ is improbable; it simply tries to mitigate its improbability by increasing the sample size. The alleged fine tuning, the multiverse objection goes, is improbable only if the number of actual universes is one. However, if there are an infinite, or near infinite, number of universes, the fact that our universe won the cosmic lottery is no longer so surprising. After all, some universe or other had to have life permitting characteristics.

Proponents of the FTA typically respond by saying that such an objection commits the ‘gambler’s fallacy.’ If you were playing poker, and one player was consistently dealt improbably good hands, you might suspect the game was rigged. What if the ‘lucky’ player responded by saying, “There are an infinite number of universes with an infinite number of poker games being played, so the fact that I’m dealt winning hands is not very improbable after all”? As Alvin Plantinga humorously asks ‘Would that argument fly in Dodge City or Tombstone?’ I think there is something to the gambler’s fallacy. If the multiverse hypothesis were employed in an ad hoc way to explain away apparent fine tuning, the FTA proponent’s objection would have some real force. However, it’s my understanding that physicists employ the multiverse hypothesis to explain phenomena quite independent from the fine tuning data. I’m not a physicist, but it seems as though M theory, which entails the multiverse hypothesis, is favored in physics today because it stands the best chance of reconciling quantum mechanics and general relativity. If this is the case, it’s not merely an ad hoc hypothesis invoked to rebut the FTA.

Another response to the multiverse objection asserts that there is no empirical evidence in its favor and, thus, it’s no less metaphysical than belief in God. Granted, the multiverse hypothesis currently rests on educated guesswork and mathematical models that may or may not match reality. But it’s more than mere speculation. Time will tell whether or not it remains a viable theory. FTA proponents also contend that a multiverse is less simple an explanation than a single God. The question of simplicity is a difficult one. Generally speaking, simplicity is a virtue of scientific hypotheses, but it’s difficult, at least for me, to determine which hypothesis has the upper hand in this case. Some theologians say that God is metaphysically simple; a mind with powers of agency, even infinite powers, is more simple than a bloated multiverse. Of course, non-theists have difficulty seeing an omnipotent, omniscient agent as anything but highly complicated. I can’t do justice to this debate here. I’ll simply note in passing that there may be different understandings of simplicity that are relevant to this debate. We could talk about the number of entities invoked in a given hypothesis. We might call this quantitative simplicity. We could also talk about the nature of the entities invoked. We might call this qualitative simplicity. It seems that theism has the advantage with respect to quantitative simplicity whereas multiverse theories have the advantage with respect to qualitative simplicity. To elaborate briefly, theism only postulates the existence of one more entity, God, whereas multiverse theories postulate an infinite number of universes. However, these universes are of the same physical nature as the universe with which we’re familiar. God, by contrast, is a non-physical, supernatural being, very different in kind from the universe. Which definition of simplicity is most relevant in deciding which hypothesis to favor is a tricky question.

However, a better objection to the FTA, in my judgment, is what’s called the normalizability objection (it really needs a sexier moniker). Ironically, this objection was raised by theistic philosophers Timothy and Lydia McGrew and Eric Vestrup. For a good, somewhat technical, summary of the argument and replies to it, click here. I’ll try to summarize it in as non-technical a way as possible. Essentially, the McGrews and Vestrup claim that the probabilities assumed by the FTA cannot be formally stated. In other words, probability calculations are only meaningful if the relevant probabilities add up to 1. For example, the odds that I’ll roll a number between 1 and 6 on a six-sided die are 1 in 1 (1/6 x 6 = 1). However, we can calculate the odds in this case because the range of outcomes is finite. In the case of the fundamental constants of the universe, there seem to be no logical limits on their values. The speed of light could have been anything. Since the range of possible values is infinite, there’s no way to make the range of probabilities add up to 1. In other words, we can’t meaningfully state that it’s highly improbable that the universe has just these values and not others. In an infinite probability space, the odds cannot be calculated because we can’t specify in advance the likelihood of one value over another. Incidentally, the reason it might be inconsistent to appeal to both the normalizability and the multiverse objection is that the latter also depends upon there being an infinite range of values; it just happens that these are all actually instantiated. Nonetheless, the problems attending the probability calculations remain.

There are various responses to this objection (see link). One objection says that it proves too much. That is to say, it would rule out even an obvious example of design. Plantinga imagines stars arranged to spell out a message that affirms God’s existence. Even most skeptics would recognize this to be an instance of divine design. However, the same problems that attend the FTA attend this hypothetical case. The distances between the stars would have to fall into a message permitting range to be visible and intelligible to us. But there’s an infinite number of values the distances between the stars could take, so we can’t make a probability judgment here either. Plantinga takes this to be a reductio of the normalizability objection. Robin Collins, a prominent defender of the FTA, also raises a counter-intuitive consequence that would follow if the objection were sound. As the range of possible values grows larger, approaching infinity, the improbability of these constants having exactly the values they do also grows. However, once the range of values reaches infinity, we must say that these values are no longer improbable. This seems counter-intuitive. However, infinity is a very counter-intuitive notion and our intuitions might not be a reliable guide in this case.

There’s a further objection to the FTA entailed by the normalizability objection known as the ‘coarse tuning argument.’ If we consider the range of cosmic constants to be infinite, we would have to conclude that even if the life permitting range were much larger than it in fact is, that the universe was still designed. After all, the odds against the particular life permitting range obtaining is infinite. However, this suggests that a so-called coarsely tuned universe would be just as improbable as a finely tuned universe. Consequently, a coarse tuning argument should be just as sound as a fine tuning argument. However, this certainly seems counter-intuitive. Surely, a coarsely tuned universe would not favor theism as decisively as a finely tuned universe. In fact, theists and non-theists seem to presuppose this point; it’s the shared assumption that gives the FTA force. Although a coarse tuning argument might not favor theism as decisively as a fine tuning argument, Plantinga thinks that a coarse tuning argument would still lend some support to theism. Thus, the coarse tuning argument does not work as a reductio of the FTA.

The FTA, despite the objections to it, is still probably the best version of the design argument. If one is a theist, there are interesting consequences to accepting or rejecting it. The McGrews are theists, but don’t accept the FTA. They do, however, hint at other types of design arguments that escape their objection. These would be appeals to design within the universe, as it were, for which we could specify the probabilities. Such examples would include planetary design arguments of the kind made by Gonzalez and Richards in Privileged Planet to the effect that Earth is finely tuned for life. Other examples would include biological design arguments such as those found in Meyer’s Signature in the Cell or Behe’s The Edge of Evolution. One could make such intelligent design (ID) arguments even if the normalizability objection to the FTA succeeds.

However, there may well be another consequence: if, unlike the McGrews and Vestrup, a theist already accepts the FTA, should he then a fortiori accept the planetary and biological design arguments because the probabilities in these cases are much easier to ascertain? I have commended Plantinga for his consistency in accepting ID arguments in addition to the FTA. I have also criticized as inconsistent theists who accept the FTA but reject ID arguments. However, recently I have begun to rethink the relation between the FTA and other versions of the argument from design. Although I think that the FTA is the most promising tack for theists to pursue, I no longer think consistency compels them to also endorse ID arguments. Some theists have pointed out to me that the opposite might be true. In other words, the FTA, if sound, should make us skeptical that there are any good ID arguments to be had. The reasoning goes something like this: if God set up the universe for intelligent life at the beginning, we should expect life to evolve without subsequent interventions. Indeed, such interventions would be beneath God. It would reduce him to a god of the gaps. I’m not entirely convinced by this move, because it seems like deism rather than theism. But it is not inconsistent to say that while the FTA is a good argument, ID arguments are not. In fact, if the FTA argument is cogent, we might very well expect ID arguments not to be. Thus, the success of the FTA might come at the expense of ID arguments. Rather than insist that theists endorse both, a better strategy might be to pit the arguments against each other and force the theist to choose between them.


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The Dilemma of Worship

This question occurred to me recently: If God exists, would we have an obligation to worship such a being? Most, if not all, religious persons would say ‘yes.’ However, I’m not sure this answer is obvious. Define ‘God’ as ‘a being worthy of worship.’ We could further elaborate what ‘worthy of worship’ entails by invoking the Anselmian conception of God as a being with every conceivable perfection. However, it seems to me that it’s plausibly true that such a being would have neither need of nor desire for human worship. It seems that a being with every conceivable perfection — a being that lacked nothing — would have no need of human adoration. Furthermore, a morally perfect being would not desire human worship. A morally perfect being lacks a petty, human-like ego that would need to be stroked by worshipers. So the dilemma here is that the only being worthy of worship is also the sort of being that would neither need nor desire to be worshiped. Granted, we might still feel that we have an obligation to worship such a being due to its greatness relative to us. But if such a being neither needs nor desires our worship, and thus, doesn’t command us to worship it, do we have such an obligation? Any thoughts?

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