Monthly Archives: July 2012

Secularization and Hiddenness

I think J.L. Schellenberg’s atheistic argument from divine hiddenness is profoundly compelling. However, it’s a relatively recent argument; for much of human history, God didn’t seem so hidden. Even today, most people don’t appreciate the force of the argument. After all, billions of people believe in God. To the extent that God is hidden, he’s apparently not that hidden. Thus, in order to appreciate the argument from hiddnness one has to understand it, I think, against the background of secularization.

Secularization is the process whereby religion, at least in its public influence, declines. It has many components, one of which is disenchantment. The term was coined by Max Weber and describes the process by which science erodes belief in the supernatural. In ancient times, the world was enchanted; gods and spirits inhabited the natural world and could, thus, be clearly seen. This carried over also into monotheism. Although God no longer inhabited the natural world in an animistic sense, as St. Paul says in Romans 1, the invisible things of God can be clearly seen by what has been made. No problem of divine hiddenness here! However, once the natural world is disenchanted, it’s no longer as easy to see God in all things. Under conditions of secularization, then, the problem of hiddenness has real teeth.

Another way of putting the point is to say that hiddenness becomes a problem once belief in God becomes optional. When one no longer lives in an enchanted universe belief in God, formerly a necessity, becomes an optional accessory. Charles Taylor makes this point in his monumental book A Secular Age. He says that in the past five hundred years, at least in the West, we’ve gone from a culture in which virtually everybody believed in God, to one in which belief in God is one option among many. This has much to do with the forces driving secularization. One of these forces, though by no means the only one, is disenchantment. The modern person — religious or otherwise — no longer sees the world as a populated by gods, spirits, and demons. For this reason, belief in God can be abandoned. By contrast, in an earlier age, abandoning belief in God was not simply to go it alone in an indifferent, naturalistic universe, but to go it alone in a universe full of spirits, not all benign. Under these cultural conditions, the hiddenness of God simply isn’t felt. Rather, the world is characterized by the ubiquitous presence of God and lesser spirits as well. With secularization, however, comes the disenchantment of the world. The absence of God can be fully experienced. People living under the legacy of modernity — whether they identify as religious or not — can now feel the force of the argument from hiddenness.

Another point Taylor makes is that these secular conditions make it more difficult to have religious experiences, or perhaps more precisely, make it more difficult to experience phenomena as religious phenomena. Most non-theists are acquainted with feelings of awe, wonder, perhaps even what they might call the transcendent or the sublime. The sublime, an important category in 18th century aesthetic philosophy, is the feeling of smallness one experiences when faced with the grandeur of nature. It’s the familiar experience of feeling that one is in the presence of something greater than oneself. Of course, this could be interpreted in various ways. It’s very possible, especially in an enchanted universe, to interpret this as a religious experience. In the modern period, coinciding with the rise of secularism, the preferred interpretation of the sublime is as an aesthetic experience. The disenchantment of the world doesn’t make it impossible to experience the sublime, but it does make it more difficult to experience it as a purely religious phenomenon. And, of course, without religious experience, moderns feel the absence of God more acutely.

Thus, it’s necessary to understand the processes of secularization and disenchantment in order to fully appreciate the force of the argument from hiddenness. Those who still cling to the enchanted worldview will probably not be convinced by the argument. However, that number appears to be in decline, at least in the West. We are all modernists and secularists to some extent, including those who identify as religious. Indeed, I argued in a previous post that pretty much everybody in the contemporary West is a dispositional atheist. What I mean by that, in part, is that when the chips are down we’re all good little modernists. We place our trust in modernity, science, technology, etc. instead of in an enchanted universe. For those who recognize themselves in this description, I suggest that the argument from divine hiddenness has real force.


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Odds of Dying

The odds of dying, of course, are 1 in 1. A more interesting question is ‘what are the odds of dying in some more specific way?’ For example, what are the odds of death by gun shot? There’s been a lot of gun violence in the news lately, such as the mass shooting in Colorado and the multiple shooting in Toronto. The media reaction to such events is always shock and surprise. Now, of course, these events are tragic and I don’t mean to downplay that for one second. However, it’s curious that death from fire or natural disaster is seldom met with surprise, even though, statistically, the average American is much more likely to die by gun shot than by fire or natural disaster. I was reading Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money and he cites the following statistics in chronicling the rise of the modern insurance business: the odds of the average American dying by gun shot are 1 in 314. That’s much higher than the odds that one will die in a fire (1 in 1,358) or die by natural disaster (1 in 3,288). By the way, the ‘death by gun shot’ statistic does not include suicide. The odds of dying by one’s own hand are even higher at 1 in 119. One is even more likely to die in a road accident (1 in 78) and most likely to die of cancer (1 in 5). The point of all this is not to be morbid. Rather, it’s a nice illustration of how bad we are at making off-the-cuff probability judgments. Our intuitions, due in no small measure to cultural biases (media, etc.), often lead us astray.

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Christians are Better than Their Beliefs

I want to quickly revisit the theme of my last post. I argued that most contemporary Christians in the West are practical atheists. I suggested that Christians — at least those under the influence of modernism — don’t really believe in the power of prayer to heal. This is a negative example of the point that I was making. However, I also think there is an upside to the fact that Christians don’t really believe their doctrines. In some cases, they aren’t being hypocritical; they’re just being better than their beliefs. Take for example, the doctrine of Hell conceived as everlasting torment. Many of the Christians I know are too humane to actually believe this in practice, even though they may profess it in the interests of doctrinal correctness.

I want to share a story that had a profound impact on me when I was growing up. I look back on this moment as key to my religious and intellectual development as a young man. A decade ago, my Uncle George passed away. He was an unbeliever, the only one on my mom’s side of the family; all the rest were what we might aptly call ‘fundamentalist’ Christians. I remember, after the funeral, we gathered together to pray as a family, which we often did. My mom (George’s sister) began to pray her usual evening prayer, but part way through she began to cry and said something like this: “Lord, please remember what a good person George was, and please bring him unto yourself, into a place of peace and light.” I still find this sentiment beautiful even though I am now without faith. In this moment, my mom was better than the beliefs she professed. Her humanity was shining through. She knew this was bad theology from a Christian point of view. We don’t get into heaven because we’re ‘good’ people. But, nevertheless, she said those words. And I’ve never forgotten them.

I don’t hate Christians. I don’t think they’re all a bunch of contemptible hypocrites (though some are). For the most part, I think they’re just people. People like me. Most of them are good, better in fact than the beliefs they profess. Sometimes they act in a way inconsistent with those beliefs. But that’s not always their hypocrisy; sometimes, it’s their humanity.

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Dispositional Atheism

It occurs to me that if one is a dispositionalist or logical behaviorist about beliefs, then just about everybody in the West is an atheist. It might take a while to develop this, so I’ll probably just give a brief sketch. If you don’t care for the fancy terms, we could boil the thesis down to say that almost everybody in the West is a practical atheist, i.e. they act as though there is no God.

I’m not going to defend dispositionalism as a general view but, as I understand it, it’s the view that beliefs are essentially dispositions toward certain types of behavior. Some beliefs, I think, are clearly of this type. For example, the belief that I am thirsty is probably just another way of saying that I’m disposed to act in a certain way, i.e. drinking water. Other beliefs are harder to fit into a dispositionalist framework, i.e. I believe I’m seeing the color blue. I’m not sure what behavior this entails, if any. Still other beliefs seem to be in between. In other words, they may or may not entail certain behaviors. I think one such belief is the belief that God exists. While it is possible to simply intellectually assent to this belief and leave it at that, most religious conceptions of God entail a much thicker web of practices or behaviors associated with that belief. Depending on the religious tradition in question, such practices include behaviors like prayer, fasting, worship, devotions, dietary practices, and abstinence from certain behaviors like sex or consumption of alcohol. In more general terms, such belief entails a faith or trust in God. Some are serious about such practices, but many, especially Christians, in the West are not. I’ll provide some concrete examples below, but first I want to clarify my starting point.

My general contention is that most Christians don’t really believe in God, where really means something like ‘their professed belief entails a discernible disposition toward the kind of behavior associated with said belief.’ This is a very abstract way of putting it. Allow me to indulge in a religiously neutral (and somewhat geeky) example of the kind of belief I mean. In Superman II: The Donner Cut (far superior to the theatrical version, by the way) Lois Lane believes that Clark Kent is really Superman. She confronts him with her theory, which he denies. Undaunted, she tells him she’s so sure that he’s Superman that she’s willing to bet her life on it. She then jumps out the window of the Daily Planet building and begins falling toward the sidewalk hundreds of feet below. In other words, she really believes that Clark is Superman! (Clark manages to rescue Lois in a way that doesn’t reveal his superpowers.) Lois, in this example, places so much credence in the belief that Clark is Superman, that she’s willing to risk death. Stated differently, she places a very high epistemic probability on the truth of the proposition Clark Kent is Superman and she acts in a manner consistent with that very strong credence. If she didn’t, I think we’d be justified in saying that she didn’t really believe the truth of that proposition.

Now compare this to the belief in God exhibited by most contemporary Western Christians. Do they really believe in God? Or are they, as I suspect, dispositional, or practical, atheists? I think we need to look at their behavior to answer this question. Rather than point the finger at Christians in general and open myself to the accusation of making the argument from hypocrisy in slightly more sophisticated terms, I’ll use myself as an example. For many years, I was a professing Christian, but I often struggled with the question ‘do I really believe this?’ I had a very difficult time believing that prayer worked, for example. I also noticed that my behavior, and that of my fellow believers, didn’t suggest much credence in the power of prayer. Quite the contrary. In practice, we’d place our trust in just about any other method. This was most obvious in the case of health concerns. I saw people try not only conventional medicine but also various alternative treatments and remedies. These were sometimes talked about as supplements to prayer or methods that God could ‘use’, but at numerous points it seemed as though prayer was the supplement — just another alternative treatment that it ‘wouldn’t hurt’ to try. When it comes to practical concerns, like health, I doubt most contemporary Christians really believe. They are atheists for practical purposes. Of course, occasionally one hears about some ‘true believers’ who don’t seek out conventional medical aid and perish as a result, but these people tend to be denounced even by mainstream Christians.

There are numerous other examples I could mention, but you get the idea. Christians, at least in the contemporary West, don’t act as though they really believe in God. Rather, their actions are consistent with that of any run-of-the-mill unbeliever. If one is a dispositionalist with respect to belief, one would have to conclude that they don’t actually believe in God. Even if one isn’t a dispositionalist, I think one can sensibly question how much credence contemporary Christians place in their belief in God. I suggest, in practice, that it’s less than half. Again, I’m not trying to press the argument from hypocrisy here. I was once one of those professing Christians who didn’t really believe. I don’t think this was so much hypocrisy as genuine doubt.  In my case, I became self-conscious about my disbelief and abandoned the trappings of faith altogether.

Of course, even if everything I’ve said is true, it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist. But I think there is a correlation between a person’s disposition toward action and the epistemic probability that one places in a given belief. If I’m right, that suggests that many professing believers are dispositional, or practical, atheists.

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Responses to Fine Tuning: A Primer

My last post dealt with some technical problems with specifying the probabilities for the fine tuning argument, using part of chapter 7 from Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies as a starting point. Partly due to the technical nature of the material and partly due to lapses of clarity in my writing, the post will likely be opaque to readers new to this topic. A reader suggested that I write an introduction to the subject in layman’s terms. Since I’m probably not the best qualified to do this — I’m a philosophy teacher, not a physicist, Jim — allow me to recommend a few resources for those interested. The book that got it all started is John Barrow and Frank Tipler’s The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. I haven’t read it myself, but it’s cited in just about every other book or article on the subject that I’ve read. Other good books on the subject are: Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees, The Goldilocks Enigma by Paul Davies, and Universes by John Leslie. If you’d prefer to listen to a podcast that summarizes the material well, check out this interview with astronomer Luke Barnes.

The Fine Tuning Data

In what follows, I’ll try to present the fine tuning argument (FTA) and several of the popular responses to it. These responses are not all created equal, so I will deal with them under the headings ‘bad’, ‘better’ and ‘best’. But before we can get the argument on the table, we need to ask ‘what is fine tuning?’ Fine tuning is the term given to the observation that a number of physical constants — basically, the values of features like the strength of gravity and the charge of the electron — need to fall within a narrowly defined range if the universe is to permit life at any point in its history. For example, if the universe had expanded at a different rate, life would not have evolved. According to John Leslie, had the universe’s expansion decreased by one part in a million million, the universe would have collapsed. Had the universe’s expansion increased by one part in a million million, there would be no stars, galaxies, or planets and, thus, no life. Or had the gravitational force been slightly greater, all the stars would be blue giants unable to support life. But had the gravitational force been slightly less, the universe would lack many of the elements necessary for life. Had the charge of the electron been slightly different, stars would either have been unable to burn or wouldn’t have exploded and produced heavy elements necessary for life. Examples like these could be multiplied, but I think that the point has been made. The inference from this data, then, is that it’s highly improbable that these features of the universe would have just the values they do by sheer chance.

The Fine Tuning Argument(s)

We should be careful to distinguish the fine tuning argument from the fine tuning data. The FTA is not the same as the fine tuning data. The data, from what I can tell, is relatively uncontroversial. The fine tuning argument takes the data as a starting point and draws a theological conclusion from it. One of the difficulties with talking about the FTA in the singular is that there are different ways to set-up the argument. I’m going to differentiate two versions of the argument: deductive and inductive. The deductive version is probably the most straightforward. I’ve seen William Lane Craig defend a version like this: P1. The fine tuning of the universe is due to either chance, necessity or design. P2. It’s not due to chance or necessity. C. Therefore, it’s due to design. Of course, a lot more work would have to be done to defend the premises, but if they are true the conclusion follows. The other way one can set up the argument is as an inference to the best explanation. On this interpretation, the fine tuning of the universe confirms theism as a hypothesis. In other words, if we have two hypotheses, theism and atheism, fine tuning is better explained given theism than given atheism. This can be worked out in greater detail, and Robin Collins is probably the best proponent of this version of the argument. The way one responds to the FTA depends in large measure on the type of argument presented, but I want to survey a few general responses. I’ll try to keep them brief. A lot more could be said about each one, but I leave it to interested readers to pursue these discussions by leaving comments.

Bad Responses to the FTA

1. One response to the fine tuning data is to say that they are just coincidences. The idea here is that any values of the physical constants would be equally improbable, so the apparent fine tuning requires no special explanation. Somebody has to win the lottery after all. The problem with this response is that there seem to be too many coincidences. Moreover, as far as we can tell, these values are independent of one another. In order to permit life, the universe would have to win multiple, independent lotteries and many will think the odds against it too high.

2. Another response is to say that although the universe appears to be fine tuned for human life, there may be other forms of life that could have evolved even if the universe had been significantly different than it is. However, this response largely misses the point of fine tuning. Regardless of what form of life one envisions, life needs complex chemistry. You can’t build intelligent life, of any kind, on hydrogen which is the only element the universe would contain if certain parameters were different. Thus, the ‘other forms of life’ response is fundamentally misguided.

3. The final response in this category is to say that the universe, on its face, doesn’t seem that finely tuned for life. There is, after all, a lot of empty space. If God intended the universe to be teeming with life, he clearly did a poor job. Again, this objection largely misses the point. Fine tuning does not mean that the universe contains as much life as it possibly could. Rather, the claim is that certain conditions need to be met in order for the universe to contain any life at all. In fact, the size and age of the universe are part of the fine tuning data, so this response is simply misinformed.

Better Responses to the FTA

1. A better response to the FTA is the so-called Anthropic Principle. This principle is articulated in various ways, but basically it points out that a necessary condition for observing that the universe is life permitting is that the universe is, in fact, life permitting — otherwise, we wouldn’t be here to observe it! This is self-evidently true, but a little more work needs to be done before it can properly be called an objection to the FTA. With the Anthropic Principle in mind, some critics of the FTA (Elliot Sober is probably the best), suspect that there is an observational selection effect (OSE) at play in the argument. Again, we couldn’t possibly observe a universe that does not permit life, so we couldn’t fail to find the evidence that we do. The following analogy, proposed by Arthur Eddington, is sometimes used to elucidate the alleged fallacy of the FTA. Suppose you are fishing with a net which has a very wide mesh such that it only allows you to catch fish over ten inches long. Obviously, you’re going to observe fish over ten inches long, but it would be wrong to conclude on this basis that every fish in the sea is over ten inches long. That’s because your net produces an OSE. Likewise, so it goes, it would be wrong to conclude that the universe is ‘just right’ for us observers who, we may say, just happen to exist because the universe is the way it is. But, as Alvin Plantinga points out, not all OSE’s are fallacious. For example, the claim ‘I am sometimes awake at 3:00 AM’ is true even though I couldn’t observe this if I were not awake. Moreover, the FTA differs from the fishing analogy in an important way. The FTA does not reach a conclusion about what proportion of universes are fine tuned. Rather, the FTA attempts to reach a conclusion about the probability of this particular universe being fine tuned. A more apt analogy is the oft-cited firing squad analogy from John Leslie. Let’s suppose you are facing a firing squad consisting of expert marksmen. They fire at you but, much to your surprise, you have survived unharmed. Now, obviously you wouldn’t be able to observe that you’re alive if you had been killed, but this is hardly relevant. You can still form a judgment about the probability that the expert marksmen accidentally missed or that they missed intentionally. So while I think that we should affirm the self-evident Anthropic Principle and be wary of OSE’s in certain contexts, I’m not convinced that these considerations are enough to constitute a strong objection to the FTA.

2. Another decent response is to say that, for all we know, there is a deeper law of physics that would make the values of these constants physically necessary. In other words, perhaps these constants are not simply independent coincidences — or the product of design — but are bound together by a more fundamental law of nature, perhaps the much sought after ‘theory of everything’ or ‘grand unified field theory.’ If we discover such a law, it may turn out that the constants of nature simply must have the values that they do. Indeed, nobody knows what the future of physics holds, but this speculation by itself is more of a promissory note than an objection to the FTA. Some theistic critics I’ve read have called it ‘naturalism of the gaps.’ Although I think they overstate the point, I take it for what it’s worth. Another potential problem is that a deeper law, even if found, may exhibit fine tuning of its own. In that case, we haven’t really explained away fine tuning, but merely pushed it back.

3. Finally, there is the popular multiple universes, or ‘multiverse’, objection to the FTA. The multiverse objection concedes that the fine tuning data is improbable provided the number of actual universes is 1. However, there may be many, perhaps an infinite number, of actual universes each with different values for the fundamental constants of physics. With a sufficiently large sample size, it no longer seems so improbable that some of these universes would, by chance, have life permitting values. And, of course, we are in one of the lucky universes that permits life. I suspect that this response, in combination with the Anthropic Principle, is the most widely invoked response to the FTA (See Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion). There are advantages and disadvantages to this response. It’s advantageous because it seems to be in vogue in physics at the moment to speak of multiple universes to explain a range of strange phenomena. Thus, it’s more difficult to accuse it of being an ad hoc response to the FTA or an example of the gambler’s fallacy. It’s disadvantageous because there is no direct observational evidence for it, nor does it seem that there could be. As such, theists typically accuse the multiverse of being as metaphysical, and less simple, an explanation than God. I would contest both charges, although to do so in detail would take us far afield. I’m just anticipating the likely course the dialectic will take once one invokes the multiverse response.

The Best Responses to the FTA

The best responses to the FTA, in my judgment, are those that question the way that FTA proponents assess the relevant probabilities. Unlike some of the responses above, this tack does not attempt to offer an alternative explanation of the fine tuning data. Rather, the object is to show that the FTA doesn’t succeed in establishing its conclusion. Although the atheist might like to have an explanation, all he really needs to do is show that the argument doesn’t work (or, in the case of the inductive version, doesn’t work as well as the FTA proponent thinks). Because of the focus on probability, this approach tends to be rather technical, but I’ll do my best to stick to layman’s terms.

1. The Infinite Probability Space Response (IPSR) is the term I will use for what’s called the normalizability objection. I think IPSR captures the idea better for most people. This objection says that the FTA cannot be formally stated because the probability that, say, the gravitational force would have just the value it does, doesn’t add up to 1. In probability theory, probabilities, in order to be meaningfully stated, must add up to 1. For example, if you roll a six sided die, the probability that you’ll roll a 2 is 1 in 6. But, the probability that you’ll roll a number between 1 and 6 is 1 in 1. In other words, it’s certain that you’ll roll a number between 1 and 6 because all of the probabilities add up to 1 (1/6 x 6 = 1). So in probability terms 1 just means certainty. With respect to the FTA, the IPSR claims that the probability of gravity having the specific value it does cannot add up to 1 because the probability space is infinite. In other words, there is an infinite range of values that gravity could have taken. As such, we can’t say what the probability of its actual value is, which is just to say that we can’t meaningfully state the probability of the fine tuning data.

2. There is another way that one could argue that the probabilities are inscrutable. One could set up the FTA  in Bayesian terms (Bayes’ Theorem is the standard way to calculate probabilities). The first step in constructing a Bayesian version of the FTA is to determine the antecedent probabilities of both theism and fine tuning. This simply means that we ask ourselves “what’s the probability of theism prior to the evidence of fine tuning?” and “what’s the probability of fine tuning prior to the evidence that the universe is in fact fine tuned?” The problem, of course, is how to estimate these probabilities. The theist and atheist are going to disagree about the prior probability of theism. And what’s the prior probability of fine tuning (again, independent of the evidence for fine tuning)? How could we know? I think the best we can say is that the probabilities are inscrutable.

3. Some proponents of the FTA realize this problem and propose a likelihood version of the argument. In this version, we disregard the antecedent probabilities and simply ask, “is fine tuning more likely given theism or given atheism?” In this case, we take the fine tuning data for granted and ask which hypothesis explains it best. This approach sounds intuitive, but it has problems of its own. First, it takes the fine tuning data as a given and then projects it onto our expectations about what God would or wouldn’t do. Assume that theism entails that God wants there to be life. How do we know that God wouldn’t create a universe with very wide life permitting parameters? Why wouldn’t we expect “coarse tuning” given theism? Second, if we take our background knowledge of fine tuning for granted, it implies that God couldn’t have created life any other way. In this case, the probability of fine tuning given theism is 1. It’s not just likely, it’s certain. But surely the theist doesn’t want to make so strong a claim. Moreover, if we can help ourselves to our background knowledge about fine tuning, what’s to stop us from helping ourselves to other background knowledge, namely the fact that we exist? Once we include this data, the probability that our universe would be fine tuned becomes 1 on either theism or atheism. This presumably isn’t the conclusion the theist wants. To clarify, I don’t think the probability is 1 on either hypothesis. I’m saying the probability is nearly impossible to calculate. The above is just an illustration that you can play around with probabilities to reach counter-intuitive conclusions.

Another problem with the likelihood version is that it produces an “arms race” with respect to competing hypotheses. Alvin Plantinga makes this point in his most recent book. Essentially, the theist needs to say that theism (at a minimum) entails that there is such a person as God and he wants there to be life. The atheist can say that there is no such person as God, but the universe has an intrinsic impulse toward life. The theist can add that God ‘really, really’ wants life. The atheist can respond in turn, and so on. If this looks silly, that’s because it is. Once you throw out the Bayesian interpretation and disregard antecedent probabilities, there is nothing to constrain this arms race of hypotheses. Normally, on a Bayesian interpretation, the antecedent probability that you assign to a given hypothesis would constrain this kind of unchecked modification of the hypothesis. But on the likelihood version, you can’t do that. As a result, you get a very weak argument, both probabilistically and rhetorically.


I think the FTA is a fascinating argument and one of the better weapons in the apologist’s arsenal. Unfortunately, its strength is often overstated. Hopefully, I’ve given a fairly lucid account of my reasons for questioning the argument’s power. There are a range of responses (some bad, some better, some best) that the non-theist can give as counter-arguments. The most promising tack, in my judgment, is to ask the theist to state the argument rigorously in probabilistic terms. I think once such a version is on the table, we can make some progress critiquing the argument.


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Problems with Fine Tuning the Fine Tuning Argument

I’ve been looking at Alvin Plantinga’s book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism and I appreciate his modest assessment of the fine tuning argument (FTA). It’s refreshing to see a Christian philosopher give a sober assessment of this argument instead of jumping on the apologist’s bandwagon. I’ve come to think that the FTA depends upon the ‘wow’ factor of dizzying numbers and stupefying ‘improbabilities.’ Human beings, however, are notoriously bad at making off-the-cuff probability judgments. When one tries to rigorously determine the probability of fine tuning, it becomes a lot less clear cut. Disclaimer: I’m no expert in probability theory or Bayes’ Theorem. I do, however, try to consult the relevant experts when forming my opinion about such matters.

With that in mind, I want to take a look at some puzzling features of the FTA when one tries to formally state the relevant probabilities. For the purposes of this post I will disregard the popular multiverse objection to the FTA. The probabilities I discuss all assume a single universe. First, there is the question of whether the probability space is normalizable. I’ve dealt with this question before, so I won’t belabor the point now. Briefly, the idea behind this objection is that in order to meaningfully assign probability, the ‘probability space’ must add up to 1. For example, the probability of rolling a number between 1 and 6 on a six-sided die is 1 (1/6 x 6 = 1). But in the case of the fundamental constants of physics, there doesn’t seem to be a way to make the relevant probabilities add up to 1 because the probability space is infinite. There appear to be no logical limits on the possible values of these constants.

But let’s assume that this objection can be overcome. Second, there is the Bayesian approach to the FTA. Plantinga sets it up as follows: P(T/F) = P(T) x P(F/T)/P(F) where T is theism and F is the proposition that the universe is fine tuned. P(T) and P(F) are the antecedent probabilities of theism and fine tuning. This is an important point. The antecedent probability of theism is the probability of theism prior to the evidence of fine tuning. The antecedent probability of fine tuning is the probability of fine tuning prior to the discovery of evidence that the universe is in fact finely tuned. But how does one estimate these antecedent probabilities? There seems to be no objective answer to this question.

This problem leads Elliot Sober (atheist) and Robin Collins (theist) to propose a likelihood version of the FTA. In this version, no reference is made to antecedent probabilities. Rather, we simply compare P(F/T) with P(F/A) where A is atheism. As Plantinga puts it: “If fine tuning is more to be expected given theism than given atheism, then the existence of fine tuning confirms theism over atheism” (WTCRL, 220). But how does the theist know what to expect of an omnipotent God? Is it not possible that God would create a universe with a very wide range of life permitting variables so as to make the existence of intelligent life a near certainty? The factual premise of the FTA — that the variables are balanced on a razor’s edge — seems to severely limit God’s creative freedom. Given fine tuning, if God wanted intelligent life, he had no choice but to create the universe the way he did. In this sense, the probability of the universe being fine tuned is 1. Perhaps we’re smuggling in our background knowledge here, although I don’t see any way to avoid doing so. But if we do this with P(F/A) we get the same result because part of our background knowledge is the fact that there is intelligent life in the universe. Therefore, the probability that the universe would be life-permitting is 1. Thus, the probability is 1 on either theism or atheism.

Granted, the likelihood version of the FTA would have us ignore our background knowledge along with antecedent probabilities. But it seems to me that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander in this case. The FTA proponent needs a stronger construal of T than ‘there is such a person as God’ in order to base any expectations on it. As Elliot Sober says, “The problem is that the design hypothesis confers probability on the observation only when it is supplemented with further assumptions about what the Designer’s goals and abilities would be if He existed” (Quoted in WTCRL, 220 — 21). So the theist has to add these further assumptions to the concept of God and, presumably, these assumptions form part of the theist’s background knowledge. Therefore, the theist needs something at least as strong as what Plantinga calls T* ‘There is such a person as God and he wants there to be life.’ (I’d argue that the theist needs something much stronger to justify fine tuning over, say, ‘coarse tuning’ but be that as it may.) But, as Plantinga also notes, the atheist can come back with A* ‘There is no such person as God and the universe has a powerful intrinsic impulse toward the existence of life.’ This can go on and on, but because we don’t have antecedent probabilities to constrain these hypotheses, this one-upmanship is interminable.

Plantinga concludes that the likelihood version of the FTA ‘is pretty anemic’ (WTCRL, 222) but says the same for the Bayesian version. Even if we consider the antecedent probabilities, due to the modal aspects of theism, the theist is going to say that the probability of theism is 1 and 1 on any evidence. Likewise, the atheist will say that the probability of theism is 0 and 0 on any evidence. If we switch from objective probability to epistemic probability (how much credence we should place in a belief) problems remain. The theist and the atheist are going to assign different subjective probabilities to the priors. In other words, we haven’t made any progress.

So what’s the value of the FTA? I think it certainly has rhetorical value in the apologist’s arsenal. That’s why we are unlikely to see it disappear any time soon. Again, the dizzying numbers and stupefying ‘improbability’ is difficult for the layman (theist or atheist) to resist. In Plantinga’s more modest assessment, the FTA provides some slight support for theism depending on how one construes the epistemic probabilities. In the end, then, the FTA is like most philosophical arguments: its force is subjective. It will move some, but not others. As Plantinga says elsewhere, ‘that’s just life in philosophy.’


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Free Will in Heaven?

There seems to be a paradox regarding the doctrines of free will and heaven. I’m by no means the first to point this out, however, my formulation goes something like this:

1. Free will makes sin possible

2.. Either free will is an overriding good or it is not

3. Those in heaven either have free will or they do not

4. If those in heaven have free will, then it is possible that they sin

5. If those in heaven don’t have free will, then they lack an overriding good

This dilemma seems to follow from the definition of contra-causal free will and the definition of heaven as a place that has all of the goods of creation but none of the evils. What are the Christian’s options here? Well, one could deny contra-causal free will, i.e. be a compatibilist. But I’d argue that this move comes at a steep cost to theodicy. (I’ll leave the fleshing out of this argument to the reader.) One could deny that free will is an overriding good, but then one would have to abandon the free will defense wrt the problem of evil. One could deny that those in heaven have free will, but then it would seem that they lack a great good. One could say that they have free will, but cannot sin (although I think that is tantamount to denying contra-causal free will). But this move invites the question: if it’s possible to have free will without the possibility of sin, then why didn’t God actualize that world in the first place? Finally, one could affirm that those in heaven have both free will and the possibility of sin. The perfection of heaven is a contingent state of affairs. However, this seems to go against the traditional view, that those in heaven cannot sin.

To be fair, there is more that a theist could say. For example, perhaps those in heaven have the freedom to sin, they just choose never to exercise that freedom. In other words, they don’t want to sin. Perhaps they remember their sinful condition and have no desire to go back. This might work if memories of our terrestrial existence remain intact. I’m not sure that’s a safe assumption given certain biblical passages about all tears being dried and every sorrow being wiped away. Presumably that would not be true if certain painful memories remained intact. I would think that the healing of one’s soul that would come as a result of the Beatific Vision would involve, at a minimum, psychological healing which would include memories. There seems to be a dilemma lurking here too: on the one hand, in order to maintain psychological continuity with my terrestrial self, I would have to retain a significant portion of my memories; on the other hand, in order to be a wholly restored person, I would need to be cleansed of a significant portion of my memories. I don’t know how this is supposed to work. Any thoughts?

There are other moves a theist could make. For example, one could say that heaven is not possible without an antecedent fallen state in which people do exercise their will, and sin as a consequence. In other words, the problem of ‘the Fall’ happening a second time in heaven is obviated by the fact that it already happened once. People were given an opportunity to exercise their free will, sin, and accept redemption. Through this experience they have so formed their characters that they now only desire to choose the good. They exercise their redeemed free will only in the direction of the good, much the way God does. However, this heavenly state wouldn’t be possible without the fallen state that preceded it. In this sense, then, the Fall can be seen as an instrumental good leading to this better state. This response has some promise, but it has a couple of entailments: 1) I suspect it commits one to the doctrine of felix culpa (literally, happy sin) by saying that the Fall was good because it permits the even greater goods of Incarnation and Atonement. Again, I think there may be problems for theodicy here, but I won’t go into the details for the sake of brevity. 2) I suspect it commits one the the idea of transworld depravity. In other words, it was not feasible for God to create a world without sin from the get go. This may be true. It’s logically possible. However, it doesn’t strike me as very plausible.

I suppose the theist could come up with other responses. Maybe there’s simply no temptation to sin in heaven, so the possibility is never actualized. Absent temptation, would humanity have sinned in the first place? Maybe there’s a difference between the state of innocence in the garden and the state of grace in heaven. All of these are theologically possible, I suppose. I’m interested in hearing what Christian readers think of these options.

For my part, I’m not necessarily wedded to the notion that contra-causal free will is an overriding good. In fact, I’d argue that on theism, one would expect compatiblism to be true and, consequently, the absence of moral evil. The question of freedom is also confusing when applied to God. God, we are told, is perfectly free but cannot do evil. Is this sort of freedom logically possible? If so, is there some other reason why it’s unavailable to human beings? Are we stuck with felix culpa and transworld depravity?

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