In a recent internet discussion of fine tuning, I was referred to a 2014 debate between Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig, where Carroll made a number of criticisms of the fine-tuning argument used by Craig. He also included some other statements he regarded as showing that the universe looks like one NOT created by a God.
Arguments based on what you’d expect
Carroll’s arguments are in the form of comparing what a reasonable person would expect (i) if theism was true, and (ii) if naturalism was true. I think this is an excellent way to consider these questions.
Why is God hiding?
If theism were really true there’s no reason for God to be hard to find. He should be perfectly obvious whereas in naturalism you might expect people to believe in God but the evidence to be thin on the ground.
I wonder how Sean Carroll assesses that God is “hard to find”? About 80-90% of the world believes in God, so it seems God isn’t as hard to find as he says. Perhaps he is seeking evidence inappropriate to the question?
He then infers that the evidence for God is “thin on the ground”, but how does he judge this? I and many theists think the evidence is strong. He has actually assumed the answer to the question in formulating this objection!
We can agree that the evidence for God is not as amenable to scientific analysis as we might like, and therefore isn’t as strong as the evidence, say, for gravity or the big bang. But then, the evidence for Carroll’s naturalism, and for the love of a partner or the truth of ethics, are likewise less than much scientific evidence. That’s the way things are.
I think before this argument could have any force, we’d have to define, and agree on, some statement of what we think God is on about, and then what is necessary to achieve that. I think God’s purpose is to allow us to make choices without him too obviously breathing down our necks, but that is a discussion for another time. (I have looked at this question in The hiddenness of God but it may be time to update that post.)
Under theism you’d expect that religious beliefs should be universal. There’s no reason for God to give special messages to this or that primitive tribe thousands of years ago. Why not give it to anyone? Whereas under naturalism you’d expect different religious beliefs inconsistent with each other to grow up under different local conditions.
I think this argument has a little more force. Why should Jews in the first century get special treatment by being the nation where Jesus lived? Why should 21st century christians have an advantage over Hindus or Muslims?
If I believed that only christians could receive eternal life, I would agree that this would be grossly unfair. Many christians believe that, I think, and Carroll was probably assuming that belief. But I don’t believe it, for two reasons:
1. The Bible hints that everyone will be judged on whatever light they have been given. Paul makes interesting comments in Acts 17:27 and Romans 2:14-16:
“God did this so that they [all the nations] would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”
“(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.”
2. The Bible is clear that many Old Testament Jews were heroes of the faith. If they could receive life in the age to come without ever hearing about Jesus, there is no reason why others shouldn’t too.
So I think you could expect what we see under both naturalism and theism. Perhaps this reality is more obvious under naturalism, but I think the argument is not very strong.
Constant beliefs and ethics
Under theism you’d expect religious doctrines to last a long time in a stable way. Under naturalism you’d expect them to adapt to social conditions. Under theism you’d expect the moral teachings of religion to be transcendent, progressive, sexism is wrong, slavery is wrong. Under naturalism you’d expect they reflect, once again, local mores, sometimes good rules, sometimes not so good.
I think this is a strange, and quite unrealistic expectation. Times change and needs change. What is necessary for good living in one age isn’t always the same at another time. Furthermore, at different stages of life we need different values – e.g. a child might need to obey their parents without question when they are really young, for they don’t have the life experience to know what is best in every situation, but a teen will be given more freedom. This is all obvious to parents, teacher and (I guess) anthropologists.
If God is analogous to a parent and teacher, then I’d expect him to know it too. So I’d expect him to start with laws and end up with freedom, which is exactly what we find in the Bible. I think Carroll somehow expects God to be legislating one rule for all time, a most inflexible way to go!
In fact, this argument opens up a problem for Carroll’s naturalism. How does he know sexism is wrong, slavery is wrong? Three years ago Sean participated in a workshop of fellow naturalists, and summed up their views on morality as “moral feelings come from a variety of sources, and that even though they cannot be scientifically justified they can be rationally discussed”. Reviewing the workshop, I felt that they all wanted to say some ethical statements are “right”, but couldn’t really find any basis for it apart from “moral feelings”.
So where does Sean get his ethics about sexism and slavery from? He agrees they don’t come from science. He seems to have simply assumed them because he “feels” they are right, and progressive. I don’t disagree with him, but the only rational basis for really true ethical statements (I believe) comes from God – see the Moral argument.
What do we expect from our sacred texts?
You’d expect the sacred texts, under theism, to give us interesting information. Tell us about the germ theory of disease. Tell us to wash our hands before we have dinner. Under naturalism you’d expect the sacred texts to be a mishmash—some really good parts, some poetic parts, and some boring parts and mythological parts.
I guess he thinks differently to me here. I wouldn’t expect that at all. How could they possibly include all the useful knowledge, and how could they stay relevant to each culture?
Would neolithic hunters benefit from a discussion of the climate consequences of carbon burning? Would we benefit from a discussion of the best side to approach a sabre-toothed tiger? (I’ve looked at this a little more in Moses learns science.)
I expect sacred texts to give us some information about God (especially about his revelation in Jesus) and some incentive to seek him.
Does evolution point to naturalism?
Under theism you’d expect biological forms to be designed, under naturalism they would derive from the twists and turns of evolutionary history.
I think he may be right here, that is what we might instinctively expect – until we examined our assumption a little more. Again, it depends on what we think God’s purposes were.
It comes back to the fine-tuning argument again. Under naturalism, I might expect “the twists and turns of evolutionary history” – if the universe existed at all in a form that supported life. But under naturalism I wouldn’t expect the universe to exist at all, let alone to be finely tuned enough to produce life.
Once we accept that the universe looks like it was designed (which I believe the fine tuning argument establishes, and which cosmologists like Paul Davies and Fred Hoyle agree), then we have to see this twisting and turning process as part of God’s plan.
At first this argument seems promising, but in the end it seems it is run-over by the fine-tuning argument.
Minds and bodies
Under theism, minds should be independent of bodies. Under naturalism, your personality should change if you’re injured, tired, or you haven’t had your cup of coffee yet.
I see absolutely no reason to suppose or expect either of these statements, and Sean offers none.
But again, the argument points to a difficulty for naturalism. If the natural or material is all there is, it is hard to understand minds, consciousness, free will and truthful reasoning, as many naturalists agree. Many say that those things aren’t real, that atoms are all that is real.
At the Moving Naturalism Forwards workshop) Carroll summarised that “the issue, as everyone recognized, is not how the world works, but how best to think about it …. I can’t imagine talking sensibly about human beings without thinking of them as agents who make (somewhat) rational choices” – in other words, naturalism leads us to conclusions that we can’t actually live with.
So where does Carroll get his concept of mind? It seems then it is just a convenience, not a truth. So how can it be the basis for an argument against God, when theism provides an explanation for mind, will, etc, that naturalism cannot?
The problem of evil
Under theism, you’d expect that maybe you can explain the problem of evil – God wants us to have free will. But there shouldn’t be random suffering in the universe. Life should be essentially just. At the end of the day with theism you basically expect the universe to be perfect. Under naturalism, it should be kind of a mess—this is very strong empirical evidence.
On this, I completely agree with him. Evil and suffering is indeed very strong evidence against God. If this was the only evidence we have, I think he would win his argument. But it isn’t the only evidence. I think there is evidence both ways. And I find the evidence pointing to God is much greater than the evidence against (see Why believe?).
So I don’t have an answer to the problem of evil, even though I think some things can be said to reduce the problem a little. For example, as has been pointed out many times, to even define “evil” we need some objective morality, and naturalism seems incapable of providing that. So when all is considered, the problem of evil is a major difficulty for the theist, but can only be used by an non-theist who can justify true ethics from naturalism.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “But I can explain all of that.” I know you can explain all of that—so can I. It’s not hard to come up with ex post facto justifications for why God would have done it that way. Why is it not hard? Because theism is not well defined.
Sean ends his brief discussion of these arguments with this statement, without seeming to realise that it undercuts them.
Natural science is quite well defined, but philosophical naturalism, and the arguments Sean has been outlining, are just as well or ill-defined as theism is. If theism can’t be tested, neither can anti-theism.
But it isn’t as bad as that. Theism can be well defined in broad terms, and I don’t think naturalism has a reasonable response. Here are my statements equivalent to Sean’s.
- If naturalism was true, I’d expect nothing to exist because there’s be no reason, no mechanism, no cause to make it happen. But if theism was true, it is an open question whether God might create or not.
- If naturalism was true, I’d expect any universe that did form to be chaotic, random, purposeless. But on theism, I’d think that if God did create, the universe would have well-designed laws leading to some outcome (perhaps that outcome being life).
- Naturalism cannot explain mind, consciousness, free will and rationality, and is thus unliveable, but theism can.
- Likewise naturalism can’t provide any justification of the things we all feeling are definitely right and wrong, but theism can.
- Naturalism says that there can be no “miracles”, while theism says there can be. And something like 300 million christians believe they have experienced or observed a healing miracle.
Using Sean’s own approach, I think that theism provides much better explanations of these fundamentals of our universe and humanity.
I think there are some interesting arguments here, and a few fizzers. I think it is a pity that they weren’t the subject of the debate, and so Craig didn’t answer them. Some interesting discussion might have followed.
But apart from the problem of evil, Sean’s arguments don’t seem to me to offer much of a reason to doubt theism, and some of his arguments seem to me to show the weaknesses of naturalism. Overall, I think the balance in favour of theism remains.
But doubtless he wouldn’t agree, as many readers may not. Hopefully it gives us all food for thought.