Δευτέρα, 6 Μαρτίου 2017

Richard Carrier ; Review of In Defense of Miracles (2)

Nash on Naturalism vs. Christian Theism (1999, 2005)

Richard Carrier


[Part 3B of a larger Review of In Defense of Miracles.]

Claiming Victory After Only One Battle
Ronald Nash's basic argument is that naturalism, which excludes miracles, is unreasonable, but Christian theism, which includes miracles, isn't. The chapter begins by explaining why worldviews are an important consideration, and then describes Christian theism. This is useful, because he lays out in a short summary all the basic beliefs that Christians of his ilk hold to, and shows how they are all interrelated, and this is valuable information for those of us who want to understand where people like him are really coming from. But he never defends this worldview. He only explains it. Thus, he fails to show that Christian theism is reasonable (since merely being coherent is not enough), undermining the basic purpose of his essay in the context of this book.
All his arguments are devoted to proving naturalism unreasonable. He chooses this target because naturalism "creates the greatest problems for belief in miracles" (116). But myopia has set in here. The fact that naturalism is the most common opposing view that he has had to deal with, since he lives in the Western, English-speaking world, does make it important to address. But what about Taoism and Buddhism? These worldviews, especially the more careful philosophical versions, are coherent and attractive. Although they allow "miracles" in some sense, they do not allow miracles in the sense defined by Purtill, and thus these worldviews create serious challenges to Christian theism--as does Deism, which cannot be excluded simply because it has gone out of fashion. It is a mistake to suppose that by eliminating naturalism, Christian theism becomes the most attractive or plausible alternative.[1]
Nash does recognize these other views in passing, but simply dismisses them (as well as Islam) since they are not popular in Western countries and are not encountered "frequently" enough by Christians in Europe and the U.S. But so what? The majority of the people on Earth live elsewhere. And certainly there are Christian missionaries in China who have a rough time of it--yet Nash gives them no assistance. The underlying assumption here is that unpopularity in his own corner of the planet equates to universal unreasonableness, but that is hardly a valid assumption. Moreover, Nash only attacks "physicalism," excluding all other kinds of naturalism, simply because today "physicalists control the agenda" (293). But since he must show that Christian theism is reasonable, it is not enough to attack only one live view, no matter how popular it is in his own neighborhood, since the other views may yet be more reasonable than Christian theism. He is in a sense accepting a "truth by vote" fallacy: most English speakers who reject Christian theism adopt physicalism, therefore physicalism is the best alternative. But that does not follow.[2]
Shouldn't Nash at Least Read What Naturalists Write?
There is another fault in Nash's approach: he never once quotes a naturalist. Whenever demonstrating some view held by naturalists, he usually quotes a Christian critic. In one case he goes outside Christian literature to quote a twenty-year-old introductory college textbook. A sensible scholar would not do this, because of the risk of building a straw man. Moreover, this makes us wonder how Nash knows what he is talking about, since he shows us no signs of having read any naturalist literature. Hence we can hardly trust that he has made a competent effort to actually refute any naturalist worldview, much less all of them.
For example, Nash quotes C.S. Lewis arguing that naturalism excludes spontaneity (120). But many physicalists hold to a realist interpretation of quantum mechanics, which makes acausal "spontaneity" a genuine possibility. Naturally, Lewis predates the growth of Quantum Mechanical worldviews in philosophical discourse, which really only got going in the 60's and have become rather popular only in the past two decades. Thus, by not reading up on current literature, Nash's ideas of what naturalism entails are out of date. Although I am not a QM realist myself (I am suspending judgment until scientists know more), no discussion of naturalism can be current without addressing that issue, among many others that Nash ignores.
Nash also inserts his foot in his mouth when he says "it is interesting that there is [in naturalism] an insistence on explanation for all individual entities," but a "denial of both the necessity and the possibility of explaining the whole system in terms of something else" (122). Strange. Doesn't Nash realize that Christian theism does exactly the same thing? After all, theists "deny...both the necessity and the possibility of explaining" God's existence. So what's the difference? And when we apply Occham's razor, we find that between the two worldviews, naturalism explains all the same phenomena as Christian theism, but with fewer theoretical assumptions. Since that is the only standard for choosing between competing theories in the absence of any other deciding evidence between them, naturalism should appear the most rational choice.
Nash also shows a significant lack of knowledge of physics, which leads me to question whether he knows enough to really understand physicalism. For instance, he says that to physicalists "antecedent causes must either be matter or be reducible to matter," apparently forgetting the fact that light (comprised of photons) is not matter, yet can transmit a chain of causation all the same, and if naturalists accept that (as they all do), then they can in principle accept any number of other matterless causal agencies. Such a shallow grasp of what naturalist's actually believe, or can accept as possible, permeates Nash's critique.
The Argument from Reason
Finally, the launching point of Nash's direct critique is a brief defense, drawing mainly from C.S. Lewis, of the "Argument from Reason."[3] The argument basically says that logic (human reason) cannot exist or be known without God. All such arguments stem from a complete ignorance of the scientific literature on the evolution of logical and mathematical thinking in living systems, which explains, with ample proof, how and why we think like we do, and why we are able to correct ourselves when our brain makes a mistake. Indeed, I have never seen any proponent of any form of the Argument from Reason ever cite, mention, address, or even show an awareness of this literature.[4] Nash is no exception. He thinks that a fifty-year-old Christian apologist (C.S. Lewis) can be used to the complete exclusion of all scientific literature on the subject since. It is so very typical of apologists to act as if antiquated Christian rhetoric can be substituted for solid, current, scientific research, on what is clearly a scientific question. Instead, Nash inserts long quotes of the barely-comprehensible quasi-Platonic ramblings of C.S. Lewis, ending with the conclusion that "the process of reasoning requires something that exceeds the bounds of nature, namely, the laws of logical inference" (127). But that's not true. The principles of logical inference don't require anything beyond the bounds of nature.
Logic is Language, Plain and Simple
Nash seems unaware of the importance of the synthetic-analytic distinction. Logic is analytical, and all analytical statements are artificial. What we call "logic" or the "rules of reason" are actually nothing more than language. If a language exists, then by definition logic exists, because without logic you can communicate nothing. It follows, then, that if you are communicating something, logic exists, for it must be inherent in the very rules which allow the communication to occur.
It works like this: the only way I can communicate to you that "my cat is white" is if you and I both agree to certain arbitrary rules, called a 'code', which we invent and decide to follow. This allows me to know that you will know what the sounds "my" and "cat" and "is" and "white" will stand for. They are "code words" for our experiences. I point to a white wall and you and I agree that we will call what we both see there "white," and so on. It takes a bit more effort than that, but learning a language reduces to essentially this. Then, when I shout "white" to you, you will remember our agreement about what that would be a code for, and I will have communicated something to you. We invent these rules for this very purpose. If you and I refused to decide on any rules, or did not obey the rules we decided on, we would be unable to communicate.
All logic arises from these manmade rules. Consider the universal, fundamental principle of non-contradiction: something cannot both be and not be. For example, my cat cannot be both all white and all black. Why not? Suppose I were to tell you "my cat is all white and all black." You would look up these words and follow the rules in our mutual codebook, but you would not be able to make this statement correspond to anything in your experience. The rules would not be able to match this code with any agreed-upon meaning. Consequently, I have communicated nothing to you. This is because "black" means, among other things, not white, as we have agreed.
Since this is all manmade you might think that all we have to do is assign a meaning to this statement, and it will then be able to communicate something. But what meaning will we assign? There's the rub. Can we assign it a meaning that will be consistent with all our other rules? No, we cannot--because we decided beforehand that we would use the word "black" to refer to certain non-white things. Thus, the only way to create a meaning that will obey our own rules is to change the rules, and hence the meaning, of the words that conflict, but then they won't conflict. In other words, the law of non-contradiction is simply a natural feature of any consistent set of rules. Indeed, this is a tautology: What is a consistent set of rules? A set of rules that never produces a contradiction.
So then you might think we can escape this by "deciding" not to have a consistent set of rules. But we have already seen that we cannot communicate anything with an inconsistent set of rules--because we have to follow the rules in order to communicate, and we can't "follow" inconsistent rules. Thus, we are stuck. Either we have contradictions, but no language, or we rule out contradictions and communicate. This is a simple fact that we observe about the universe. Now, you might say that perhaps there are things that can exist but cannot be communicated. But if they can be experienced, then they can be given a code name, and can thus be communicated to anyone who has experienced the same thing and knows the code word for it.
Perhaps you might propose instead that it is possible to have a universe where a contradiction could communicate something, where it could actually describe something that we can experience or imagine. But since we all see that we do not live in such a universe, since we cannot even imagine it, it doesn't matter if it is possible. More sophisticated versions of either TAG or the argument from reason claim that this inability to experience or imagine a contradiction may simply be a limitation in our construction, or an error in our brain or senses. But if something can affect us in any way, it follows that we can experience it, and thus imagine it, by reference to that effect. If something existed that could never, even in principle, affect us in any way, its existence would be of no consequence to us. More importantly, no kind of sensation could ever experience that thing, because to sense something is, by definition, to be affected by it in some way. Thus it follows that even a god could not make us capable of sensing something that can never affect us. All he could do is make it affect us. Thus, the argument that we are missing some feature of reality is moot--so long as any part of reality can affect us, we can experience it.
If we should discover the ability to imagine and communicate contradictions, we would simply change the way we thought about things, just as we did when the axioms of non-Euclidean geometry were discovered. There is thus nothing that needs to be accounted for here. Logic is explained by what we observe, and it arises automatically the moment we try to create a set of rules for describing those observations. And since reason amounts to nothing more than communicating with ourselves, reason can only exist when we actually communicate something, even if only to ourselves, and such communication is only possible if we construct and use a logic.
There is something more fundamental than that, however: all language begins with discrimination between things that are the same and things that are not, and so if language exists, it follows that the universe has things that are the same and things that are not, which is the very reality that "non-contradiction" refers to. This is even more obvious in the case of inductive inference, where the entire structure of inferential arguments is justified solely and entirely by prior experience: by recalling the reliability of all prior inductive reasoning, we conclude that it works. After all, no one believes that inductive inferences are guaranteed to always work--by definition, they only suggest, they do not "prove" in the same sense deductive inferences do. But either way, why are we justified in trusting inferences? Because they work. Period. Experience completely explains logic, and completely justifies it--as well as it can ever be justified. So why must we look for some other "ground" for reason?[5]
Must an Accidental Sensory Organ be Untrustworthy?
The landing point for Nash's critique of naturalism is another standard but lame arrow in apologetic quivers, which I shall call "the purposeless sensory organ" fallacy. Again he basically quotes another writer at length, and never addresses, or even shows any awareness of, any scientific sources. The argument, in the words of Richard Taylor (the only unaffiliated philosopher Nash ever cites, but still not a naturalist), is this:
It would be irrational for one to say both that his sensory and cognitive faculties had a natural, nonpurposeful origin and also that they reveal some truth with respect to something other than themselves, something that is not merely inferred from them....we cannot say that they are, entirely by themselves, reliable guides to any truth whatever... (129)
There are several problems with this strange argument. First, Nash gives no reason why this would be irrational except a false analogy, and thus he fails to show that this is actually irrational. In particular, his "example" is a set of stones arranged to convey a verbal message: it would be irrational to regard the message to be both accidental and true, since an accidentally arranged message would only be true by blind luck. But would it be irrational to regard the presence of a pile of stones at the base of a cliff as signifying a danger of landslides? The analogy breaks down here. The pile of rocks signifies a landslide risk not because of any design--we don't infer the risk on the assumption that someone arranged those stones to convey to us, by a prearranged code, a landslide risk. Rather, we infer the risk from the prior observation that landslides result, without any intelligent design, in sufficiently unique patterns of debris, and thus we know that wherever those patterns happen to turn up again, we can suspect that there have been landslides there, and so there may be a risk of further landslides.
Since this proves that it can be rational to infer a "message" from an accidental arrangement of things, Nash cannot say it is irrational for us to do this in the case of our sensory organs, unless he can show that our sensory organs must be like the "words" analogy rather than the "landslide debris" analogy, which he does not do. And I do not believe he can. Remember what I said about language: it is an agreement between you and me that certain things will be codes for certain other things. But what is an agreement? You decide to keep using this to mean that, and I decide to do the same. So the regularity of nature is equivalent to an agreement: nature "decides" to keep using this to mean that (by having one regularly follow the other), and we decide to adopt the same rule. And that is what an inference is. All that is needed is regularity.
Second, Nash mischaracterizes the truth about sensory organs and how we know things from them. For instance, he confuses reliability with authenticity. Even if our eyes did not give us authentic information about color (in fact, I do not believe they do), they nevertheless reliably inform us of distinctions in color, and we can accurately infer things about the world based solely on that. Likewise, the fact is that all of our senses do in fact reveal the truth about things merely by inferring data from themselves. For instance, what we call colors are only inventions of our brain. They are coded patterns which are created to represent the fact that our eye-cells are sending signals to our brain. We infer from the patterns presented by this "invented representation" certain things about the world, like the fact that our eye is being hit by photons which are most likely bouncing off our bathroom door. We do not infer this because we were pre-designed to know what photons bouncing off our bathroom door would look like. We know it only because we have seen the same effect every time we looked at our bathroom door in the past--in fact, this repeated experience is what we give the name "bathroom door," and everything we believe about a "door" is based on all our past sensations of just such a sort. So it is not even necessary to know about cells or photons in order to trust our eyes. Our senses are only reliable because of two simple facts: first, the universe just happens to follow certain consistent behavior patterns, and second, our eyes just happen to follow certain consistent behavior patterns. And all that is needed for things to follow consistent behavior patterns is the existence of consistent behavior patterns. Once you have that, the reliability of sensory organs can be accounted for, and there is no need to appeal to an intelligent engineer.
Perhaps Nash means to argue that the existence of consistent behavior patterns in the universe requires an intelligent engineer, but that is the teleological argument, and he does not seem to be defending that here. If he can accept that naturalism can account for consistent behavior patterns (and it certainly can--there is no need for anything "transcendent" for consistent behavior to exist), then Nash must accept the fact that naturalism can account for the trustworthiness of human reason and of sensory organs. Since theists expect us to accept that God is both necessary and immutable--so that he could not "not exist" and could not be any different than he is--without a shred of proof or a single rationale, we are perfectly entitled to expect them to pay us the same courtesy, since we claim far less than this: we don't require that the universe necessarily exist or be immutable, although we think it could be. Rather, we can accept that the universe may have had other possible forms, and might have had a less than 100% chance of existing at all. We can even accept the possibility that the universe is not perfectly regular or consistent. We are thus being far more open minded than the Christian theist, and our worldview has much more room to move than theirs.[6]
The Argument from Reason is Self-Refuting
A final problem with Nash's approach is that it is a double-edged sword. If we must assume that God exists before we are justified in trusting reason and our senses, then how do we know God isn't a Cartesian Demon? All our reason and senses could be deliberately designed to lead us to believe in any lie, just because God wanted it that way. Even the theist's conviction that God is good (and therefore that God would not trick us like that) is suspect, because a Cartesian Demon would fool the theist into thinking that very thing. The entire Argument-from-Reason approach is actually identical to the argument developed in Descartes' Meditations, which in turn comes from Augustine's reformulation of what was actually the central argument in Plato's justification for belief in the Timeless Forms. The circularity of this argument ("we know the truth because God lets us, and we only know this because God lets us know the truth") has long been known, yet proponents show no signs of any prior experience with this and other challenges in the philosophical literature, which spans the whole of human literary history in the West.
Therefore, Nash's attempt to "refute" naturalism (much less establish Christian theism as the more reasonable worldview) is a complete failure, making this another weak link in their book's overall argument.
Return to this review's Table of Contents to read more detailed critiques of specific chapters in In Defense of Miracles.

[1] Nash could have accomplished his task at least if he had made a better positive case. For instance, since Islam, Judaism, and Christianity entail certain common beliefs (e.g. a single omnibenevolent, miracle-working God), one can refute all three by refuting one of their common beliefs. Thus, naturalists, by making a strong case for the lack of the supernatural and the absence of divine values in the working of the universe, effectively refute almost every competing theory, since all nonnaturalist competitors posit some view that contradicts these conclusions. In like fashion, proving the reasonableness of certain beliefs, like a physical, objective reality unconnected with human expectation or desire, is itself a refutation of all worldviews that deny this, like Buddhism. Thus, had Nash made a more positive case for Christian theism, he could have escaped the fallacy of assuming naturalism is the only reasonable competitor, simply by refuting all contrary worldviews in the very process of proving his own.
[2] Many naturalists would dispute the assumption that physicalism "rules the agenda." Nevertheless, I myself am a physicalist, and I defend my worldview at considerable length in Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (2005). See also Naturalism as a Worldview.
[3] A far superior version of this argument has been articulated by Victor Reppert, which I discuss and refute in Richard Carrier, Reppert's Argument from Reason (2004). This argument is similar to, but not identical with, the Transcendental Argument for God (or TAG). Even so, Nash appears to imagine his Argument from Reason in terms that correspond to TAG. For example, he writes that naturalists are "compelled to abandon one of the cardinal presuppositions of metaphysical naturalism and to conclude that their cognitive faculties were formed as a result of the activity of some purposeful, intelligent agent" (130). As far as I see, this entails the presupposition that there are no atheists, since if I am "compelled" to recognize the existence of God before I can use reason or trust my senses, then I must presuppose the existence of God to use reason and trust my senses, and therefore if I use reason and trust my senses I cannot really be an atheist (or if I am an atheist, I am contradicting myself).
[4] As just a few examples of the kinds of works Nash could have consulted: William Calvin, How Brains Think (1996); Dietrich Dörner, The Logic of Failure (1996); Hugo Strauch, How Nature Taught Man to Know, Imagine, and Reason (1995); Valerie Walkerdine, The Mastery of Reason: Cognitive Development and the Production of Rationality (1990); etc. And more recent works include: Robert DeMoss, Brain Waves Through Time (1999); Manfred Spitzer, The Mind within the Net (2000); Lesley Rogers, Minds of Their Own (1998); etc.
[5] Although Nash does not bring it up, a common approach is to argue that abstract objects (like "yellowness" or the rules of logic) cannot be explained by naturalists. But abstractions are, like all words, merely names for shared patterns in the things we identify with our senses (including our internal senses, such as emotions). For instance, "yellowness" is the code-word for the pattern we identify as a yellow color, such that "yellowness exists" simply means that there can be patterns in our visual sensation which we call "yellow." Likewise, "the rules of logic" are merely what we call the identifiable patterns in our sensory experience of using the code-book of a common language to match up code-sentences with catalogued experiences in our memory. The "abstraction" is itself a code-rule, and refers to a property--which is a pattern of sensory data--shared by numerous things (like yellowness--or roundness, as in my discussion of the role of "organization" in my review of Moreland).
[6] I discuss the ontology of logic (and the natural reliability of reason) in further detail in Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (2005) and in even more extensive detail in Richard Carrier, Reppert's Argument from Reason (2004). In the former, however, I also discuss the cosmological and teleological arguments and some of the viable explanations naturalists have for order in the cosmos.
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Moreland's "Christian Science" (1999, 2005)

Richard Carrier


[Part 3C of a larger Review of In Defense of Miracles.]

Christian Science, Moreland Style
Moreland correctly identifies the fact that many scientists and atheists erroneously hold that miracles are beyond science because they are not natural, not repeatable, and not governed by law. And I agree with him. For instance, crimes are not exactly repeatable, yet criminal forensics is regarded as a science. It is true that forensics, as with archaeology and history, does solve unique cases by applying general principles proven by repeated testing, but there is no reason why the same thing could not, at least in principle, be done in the case of miracles. Likewise, it is not certain that people obey scientific 'laws', yet psychology and sociology are sciences, thus science is not restricted only to studying lawlike features of nature. And whether you consider history a science or not, it still explores issues that can be proven or refuted, just like scientific discoveries can. Although history gets at the truth with great uncertainty and difficulty, it would be silly to say that the crossing of the Rubicon by Julius Caesar is "beyond science" and thus could not be proved true or false in any degree, simply because it is unrepeatable. Then there is that tricky term 'natural'. What does that mean? Scientists study what can be observed, and everything they observe they typically consider a part of nature. But since miracles could be observed, too, miracles cannot be excluded a priori from scientific or historical study. I have dealt with these issues at greater length in The Problem with Miracles and Nash on Naturalism.
Seeing this, Moreland endeavors to establish just how "miracles" (or all the various claims of theism) could be scientifically investigated. But as I explain in my Survey of this book's contents, Moreland only defines this "Christian Science" in terms of null-hypotheses known as "God-of-the-gaps" arguments. He does not even mention any possible positive contributions of this science, in terms of testable hypotheses. Thus, his idea of a "Christian Science" would never get to anything Christian, because it would be forever tied up with refuting competing theories--since, contrary to the oft-quoted Sherlock Holmes, there is never a point where all possibilities have been eliminated. This same tactic has been described as the central fault in parapsychology (see Dr. Susan Blackmore's autobiography In Search of the Light: The Adventures of a Parapsychologist, 1996).
Nevertheless, he slugs onward. Moreland calls his project "theistic science," whose defining principles are that "there is a personal, transcendent agent--God--who has...acted...in 'natural' history," that "commitment" to this theory "has a proper place in the practice of science," and this 'proper place' is the finding of "gaps in the natural world...that are essential features of immediate, primary divine agency properly understood" (132-3). First of all, I do not quite understand how "transcendency" is supposed to be operationally defined for use in scientific research, or how we are supposed to scientifically establish a "proper understanding" of divine agency, much less the "essential" features of it. Even if these problems could somehow be solved, the fact is that Moreland does not solve them here.
But the primary problem with his project is this: there is no way that the refutation of all known theories can establish a positive theory. He thinks that he can avoid this problem by defining his positive theory in such a way that it is equivalent to an "absence" of alternative theories. But this is not what he has done. His positive theory is twofold: there is, first, a thinking person possessing the undefined property of "transcendence," and, second, the demonstrable action of this person as the sole and necessary cause of the phenomenon to be explained. It should be clear that neither "an unexplained phenomenon" nor "an unexplainable phenomenon" is the same thing as a person, much less a person possessing any particular properties or acting in any particular way.
To "prove" Moreland's positive theory we would need certain positive evidence. Consider this case: I am levitated against my will out of my room and carried through a poor neighborhood, then whisked off through space to another planet where I am set down before a stone that glows. I lift the stone and find ten pounds of gold, and am then zoomed back to Earth with the gold. Once I had eliminated all alternative explanations, I would then consult the positive evidence that remained: my journey had an apparent purpose, with moral overtones, and must have been intelligently planned with an understanding of things like the value of gold and how it might alleviate the suffering of the poor. It also involved vast knowledge and ability. But would this prove the existence of God? Not quite. One crucial piece of evidence is missing: I have no proof that my tour guide was "transcendant" (it could have been a finite or even a natural creature), nor that he created the world, or was the same Being responsible for anything else in history. Now, all of these things could perhaps be established sufficiently enough to believe them, given enough unfalsified, reliable evidence from other, similar cases, which can be added to this one, and which fit together, and which fit with the rest of what I know about the universe. It would be even easier if God spoke openly and candidly and we could interview and test him.
But this is not what Moreland proposes. If we had actual positive evidence like this, then there would not be any atheists. But there are atheists precisely because this evidence is lacking. The concept of God as a benevolent, compassionate being does not fit with what I know about the universe: the unalleviated, useless suffering in the world's history (and in its very design), the lack of clear leadership and direction by God resulting in religious division and warfare, his refusal to have an honest conversation when asked, the apparent deception entailed by the evidence of increasing fossil complexity over time (if we assume special creation, rather than guided evolution, was the actual truth), and so on.
Of course, Moreland omits "benevolent and compassionate" from his definition of God here. But even his preliminary concept does not fit with what I know about the universe: there are no clear linguistic messages in the design of the universe, nor any clear, linguistic communications of an intelligent nature with me which match those made with others throughout all times and cultures; the universe never seems to act with any value-laden purpose (I have only seen such actions from humans), and it is not designed with any values in mind (life thrives by survival of the fittest, not survival of the kindest, and resources are limited, environments are harsh, etc.); and there is a great deal of imperfection in the design of humans and their world that has no good explanation if it was engineered that way.
There are also no other queernesses in the universe suggesting the existence of Moreland's agent. I expect churches or righteous men to be protected by mysterious energy fields, or bibles to be inexplicably indestructible or even printed in the stars, or for there to be successful "faith healing" wings in hospitals, and things of that nature. Thus, there is a lot more to Moreland's project than he thinks. God is nowhere to be found when it comes time to test his abilities or interview him, nor are any of the expected odd things (like faith healing) operational when closely examined, and when I add this to the contradictions and difficulties mentioned above, I doubt there will ever be a theistic science. But I do recognize it as feasible--if there were a God, I'm sure it would be a respected branch of science, since then it would have something to study.
Perhaps Moreland does meet all these difficulties somewhere else. In this book he says he has done so in numerous other books and articles cited in a footnote, and therefore all he tries to do here is defend one particular notion of "divine agency" in terms of the supposed physics of "libertarian" free will. I think this is a cop out. Since the problems I outline above are absolutely central to the case that his chapter must make in order for this book's editorial strategy to succeed, it is not acceptable to claim victory elsewhere and then skip the subject altogether. Since this book claims, even in its title, to be a "comprehensive case for God's action in history," Moreland's failure to make his own case comprehensive is a serious flaw. I have not read any of the other works he cites[1] but I have learned that he brings up the issue of positive evidence at least in Bauman's Man and Creation (1993), although every example he offers there appears to be false given the known data (which is exactly what this book's "miracle claims" amount to). Nevertheless, he fails to mention such examples here (unless you count the following), and I am only reviewing this work.
The Physics of Libertarian Free Will
Moreland's entire chapter is essentially an argument for a "libertarian" concept of free will, despite the fact that Feinberg defends the opposite view ("compatibilism") in the same book (cf. pp. 242-3). It is not even a complete argument, as Moreland says himself after laying out his theory: he has "not had the space to defend libertarian agency" but rather claims only to have shown that miracles are not "in principle outside the bounds of science" by showing that physicalism and compatibilism are not necessarily true (148). This turns out to be a rather weak argument.
The objective here is to show that libertarian freewill entails something as far as physics is concerned: namely, an absolute gap in a chain of causation. His point is that since libertarian freewill must be true, and since this entails the existence of actual gaps in the function of physical laws, therefore scientists should accept gaps as a feature of physics, and use these proven gaps as evidence of agent causation.[2] Of course, a gap would not always entail causation, but he argues that agency would always be the "best" explanation. His argument is that when we act, there are physical states of our brain and body and world which progress in sequence, but at some point there will be a "causal gap" such that "the description of the brain...just prior to acting will not be sufficient to entail or causally account for...the agent's" action (144). I will discuss the logical problems with this later. For now, I will continue to describe his scientific theory. First of all, if he thinks scientists will ever be able to map human brain-states so well that they can ever demonstrate a causal gap, he is being absurdly optimistic. But most troubling is the fact that he does not even try to lay out how scientists are supposed to do this.
For instance, he thinks his idea violates the First Law of Thermodynamics (conservation of energy), and this is "what it means for an agent...[to be] capable of genuine creativity and novelty," although at the same time he argues that it might not violate the First Law, if we assume the Law only applies to "causally closed physical systems" which would exclude humans, because they have free will. But none of this is science. Until he actually establishes experimental proof of either view, he is merely engaging in the armchair speculation of a philosopher. Personally, I agree that we may yet find something that violates the First Law, but until we actually find such a thing, we are not allowed to assume it can exist in any theory we propose, until that theory describes an experiment that will possibly prove the violation. Moreland proposes no such experiment.
My discussion of The Problem with Miracles is also important here, because central even to Moreland's null-hypothesis approach is the proof of a gap in causation, but in no actual miracle account do we have enough evidence to prove there was such a gap. He simply assumes that when we can't prove any causal explanation, we have "proof" of a causal gap. But that does not quite follow: it would be one thing to show that all known causal explanations fail, but it is quite another matter when we are merely unable to test those explanations. For example, we cannot go back to the supposed time of the Flood and use all available physical instruments and observations to check whether there is a causal explanation. But this does not permit Moreland to declare that such a mission would fail. Until it is undertaken and actually does fail, we cannot conclude that there was a causal gap involved.
So all he has to support his "causal gap" theory of miracles like the Flood is an argument from ignorance, which is hardly scientific--it is, instead, fallacious reasoning. In this respect I think Moreland actually makes the case for miracles worse, not better. If we stick with Purtill's definition, it will be hard enough to prove that a miracle has occurred, but now Moreland is telling us to add yet another requirement: an even harder test for a "causal gap." Thus, even if we could demonstrate a miracle in Purtill's sense, we would still have to reject it if we were unable to prove a causal gap. So how is Moreland helping his own cause? He really gets nowhere here. The rest of this chapter will address his attacks on reductionism and compatibilism, even though they are actually divorced from any useful connection with the rest of the book.
Reductionism
Moreland begins his argument for Libertarian Freewill by explaining reductionism, the view that everything, including human decisions, can be reduced to the interaction of causal systems (133-5). In short, to have a "mind" in the reductionist view, all you need is the right aggregate of parts. You do not need to add anything, for the sum of the parts and their interaction is sufficient to create and explain a mind. As Moreland says, "a complete account" of raising a hand to vote "could be given in terms of...brain states and so forth" and this explanation could "exclude the psychological level, since they would be what they are with or without the...higher psychological level and would contain no reference to mental entities." Indeed, it could be given in terms of the interaction of packets of energy in the form of atoms and photons and other particles. Moreland does not refute this view, though he vaguely suggests that it entails a possible dilemma.
But Moreland's analysis here has one thing missing: organization. Would it really be possible to give a complete account of any system without referring to the overall organization of that system? Not really. But isn't that very pattern of organization synonymous with the higher level of explanation, in this case the psychological level? In other words, a brain is not just an interacting system of atoms and electrons and other things. It is a particular pattern of interaction. And we use the word "mind" to refer to that particular pattern. The pattern is itself just as crucial to the behavior of the system as its components, for the system would exhibit a totally different behavior if it were not for its particular pattern of organization.
Here is a simple example: compare a gold ring with a gold cube. Both can be made of exactly the same gold atoms (the ring later crushed into a cube, or fashioned from a cube), but only one of them has the property of hollowness and can be placed on a human finger, and only one possesses the property of roundness and will roll down a slope like a wheel. These properties arise entirely from the pattern of organization of the gold atoms: the way in which the atoms are arranged relative to each other. Thus, we can describe a gold ring without using the word 'ring', by laying out a mathematical explanation of the relative positions of the atoms. But this description would be synonymous with 'ring' and the ability of this arrangement to roll down a slope is more easily explained by saying it is 'round', which is synonymous with a certain patterned arrangement of atoms. If the gold was not in a round shape, it would not roll down a slope like a wheel. Thus the organization is an indispensable part of the description of any physical system, and this includes the human mind.
The bottom line, however, is that reductionism is not an assumption, but a discovery. We believe it is true because so far it has consistently proven true, and because it explains so much so well. Moreland presents no scientific evidence to throw it into doubt, nor even any logical arguments against it, although I know he would have had he been given the space. In fact, though Moreland does not pursue his argument against reductionism any further, it appears as if his essay was cut for space (there is an odd break in the flow of his argument on page 135). Once again, a book that claims to be "comprehensive," is not.
Libertarian Freewill
Now Moreland moves into a discussion of compatibilist freewill and contrasts it with "libertarian" freewill, which he defines as follows: "given a choice...nothing determines which choice is made" (137). He does not seem to notice the illogical nature of this position. Nothing determines a choice? Not even reasons? Not even values or knowledge? This is an impossible position to defend. Notice how he explains his odd view: "When agents will A, they could have also willed B without anything else being different inside or outside of their being" (137-8). So if I absolutely do not want to raise my hand, according to Moreland, I might raise it anyway. If I am certain that there is a wall in front of me, I might try to walk through it anyway. If I have no reason to jump out of my window right now, I might do it anyway. What kind of theory is this? It makes absolutely no sense. It would render human behavior inexplicable, random, and bizarre. Indeed, we would live a nightmare, where at any moment we might jump out of a window or put our hands in a fire for absolutely no reason at all.[3]
Moreland tries to have it both ways by saying that desires and such "influence" but do not cause our actions. Yet he never explains just what the difference is supposed to be. My knowledge that a wall stands before me doesn't cause me to choose to change the direction of my walk? My desire to live doesn't cause me to refrain from leaping out of windows? It seems to me that 100% of the time, when I know there is a wall, I will stop or turn, or when I want to live I will not leap out of my window. If knowledge of a wall will be followed 100% of the time by my stopping or turning, if my desire to live will be followed 100% of the time by my not jumping out of a passing window, isn't that equivalent to causation? I do not see how it can be anything else. Moreland fails to even acknowledge this problem, much less address it. Indeed, he seems totally ignorant of it. Consider his example:
"Suppose some person," Moreland asks, "freely performed some act...say raising an arm in order to vote" (138). He says that this person "exerted [his] power as a first mover (an initiator of change) to bring about" the motion to vote. But what about the request to vote in the first place? Actually being in a circumstance that calls for a vote is itself a necessary condition for raising a hand to vote. Now, this does not mean that the circumstances will be a sufficient cause of the action, but Moreland does not make this distinction. Instead, he includes in his theory the premise that this person "brought about [the choice] for the sake of some [specific] reason," but that entails another necessary cause--the reason--which will at least correspond to a brain state, and a chain of causation can be followed as we examine the path of all the calculations and knowledge which are in turn necessary causes of that reason.
What Moreland must contend is that despite the necessity of all these causes, the sum of them all (having a reason and a sufficient desire, as well as the requisite knowledge and the necessary circumstances) will still not be sufficient to cause an action, and that something "else" is required, which is neither a reason nor a desire nor knowledge of any kind nor anything about the surrounding circumstances. It is hard to see what this "something" can be. If I have a desire to actually shoot someone, a desire that is sufficient to override all other desires which urge me against it (a necessary cause of any willful choice to shoot), why would I not shoot? If Moreland appeals to moral shame or guilt or fear, then he is appealing to a desire. But that is a cause, and that cannot be his necessary "something." Likewise, if he appeals to my character, knowledge of God or moral laws, to reasons not to shoot, or any such thing, then he is still appealing to causes. So what is left that could "cause" me not to shoot? He is saying, in effect, that there is some acausal power in me that can cause me not to shoot for no reason whatever. But this contradicts his premise that an agent always acts "for the sake of some [specific] reason." For if I have no reason at all not to shoot, how can it be that I might choose not to shoot for some specific reason? This is a contradiction, and thus his concept of free will is self-refuting.
Consequences of Moreland's View
Moreland might respond that we always have a reason to do and not to do something, and which reason we follow is caused purely by "something" in us, but not by these reasons or anything else like desires or knowledge or circumstances. But this does not rescue responsibility. Rather, it destroys it. Imagine two parallel universes, identical in every detail, and imagine a man in each universe, identical in their character and knowledge and desires and everything else, standing in totally identical circumstances. Now imagine that one of these men chooses to kill his wife, but the other man chooses not to. What could possibly explain this? Since the two situations and the two men are identical in every respect, there can be no cause whatsoever for either man's choice. This is what Moreland says is the case.
But this has an unacceptable consequence: their desires, their knowledge, their moral character, nothing at all can be blamed for having caused their choice. Moreland even agrees: "no description of our desires, beliefs, character, or other aspects of our makeup and no description of the universe prior to and at the moment of our choice...is sufficient to entail that we did it" (138-9). But this means that we could not even say that the first man was evil and the second good, since doing so assumes that the first man's badness caused him to kill, while the good man's goodness caused him to refrain. But these men are identical, so one cannot be evil and the other good. Moreland might say he is evil or good after the deed, but that means we could not say he did what he did because he was a good or a bad man. In fact, we could not say at all why he acted. What quality in either man that is uniquely a part of "him" can be blamed for causing his particular choice? There is none.
Now imagine that this man is you, and in one universe you kill your wife, in the other you do not. What would you think of yourself then? You would know that nothing causes your actions--not your character, nor your environment, nor the surrounding circumstances, nor your knowledge, not even your love of your wife. Nothing. Your choice to kill or refrain is purely a result of happenstance. Imagine how you would feel, having learned that it is nothing but the result of unpredictable randomness whether you kill your wife or not at this very moment. Imagine that you refrain from killing, but could run the universe back a million times, and watch yourself again each time, and saw that sometimes you killed and sometimes you didn't, even though each time all the circumstances, including your thoughts, desires, character, everything, are the same. There would be no rhyme or reason to why you did one or the other--it would be a mere shake of the dice. Wouldn't you instead want the result every single time to be the same? But if the same circumstances are followed by the same choice 100% of the time, that is causation. Indeed, we know we are good only by seeing whether our goodness causes us to do good deeds, and so we should expect deterministic causation in our own choices. After all, the only alternative to 100% causation is randomness, and why would we feel good about our choices if they were actually random, and not caused by any of our inner qualities?
This is the crux: "I" am defined by my knowledge, character, values, and desires. If something causes me to act which is not one of these things, then "I" did not cause that action. Moreland wants "me" to be defined by something other than these things, but if you were to take them all away, there would be no me, so his approach is absurd. Would anyone conclude that I was at fault for something that I did not cause? The key word here is "I" and what it means. Moreland defines it as some unexplainable, unidentifiable thing that excludes all my memories, desires, virtues, values, traits, even my reasoning. This is a rather illogical conception of human identity.
Compatibilism: the Only Sensible Notion of Freewill
Moreland tries to defend this illogical notion, against compatibilism, by laying out "four areas central to an adequate theory of free will" (138). In fact, what he offers are four things central to a moral theory of responsibility: we must have the ability to act, we must be in control of our action, we must have a reason to act, and we must be the cause of the act. Of course, even if moral responsibility were shown to be illusory, this would not be scientific proof of libertarian freewill. Nevertheless, Moreland fails to make a case against compatibilism, and thus it remains the most sensible justification for our notion of moral responsibility. His four arguments are discussed below:
The Ability Condition
Compatibilism holds that "freedom is willing to act on your strongest preference" (138). Better put, freedom means getting to do what you want. It even means getting to want what you want, but even this entails that at some point there will be some desire or other that you did not choose, since in order to choose the desire that you want, you must first "want" it--and if you begin with no desires at all, you will never make any choice of any kind. Thus, it follows, according to compatibilism, that any organism that chooses in accord with its desires must begin with one or more desires that it did not choose. We call this, in our case, "human nature," which we did not choose, but was given to us by the accidents of physics and history (or even, given Moreland's worldview, by the designs of God).
In contrast, Moreland's "libertarianism" holds that "a free act is one in which the agent is the ultimate originating source of the act." At first glance, this is the same thing: compatibilists also hold that freedom entails being the source of the action. The person's character, desire, knowledge, etc., must all be necessary causes of the act. This requires that the "person" be involved in the chain of causation (in the sense of thinking, contemplating, desiring, knowing, etc.). These factors, plus the circumstances, are together the full sufficient cause of any free act. Instead, Moreland requires that a person be an "ultimate" originating source, not just the source. But there is a problem here: never in all of history has anyone ever sought to confirm this before assigning responsibility. In other words, we have no problem calling people responsible all the time, but do we ever bother to check if there was a physical gap in the chain of causation, that the person was an "ultimate" origin and not just an origin? No, we do not. Thus, Moreland's notion of freedom, as it relates to responsibility, does not correspond to actual human practice. But if Moreland's ideas have nothing to do with what people actually mean, then why should we care about his ideas?
The Control Condition
The compatibilist view of control is that "an agent is in control of an act [if] the act is caused...by the agent's own character, beliefs, desires and values," etc. (140). To defend the libertarian rejection of this explanation, Moreland appeals to Aquinas for the notion that "only first movers are the sources of action" since everything else "merely receive[s] motion passively and pass[es] it on." But this entails a special use of the word "source" that is not employed in normal discourse. We say the source of an earthquake is a particular rock fracture at a particular location which slipped at a particular time. We never say the source of the earthquake was the Big Bang.
Likewise, in human discourse we distinguish between active and passive transmission of energy in a different way than Moreland does here. For we think in terms of whether the agent took action in accord with a desire to transmit motion: if the transmission of motion requires the participation of the agent's personality or character or reason, etc., then we call that an active participation. But if the motion does not require participation (if the body is pushed, despite efforts to resist), then the agent has not actively participated, so we say the agent was not in control of his own motion. Consider a thermostat: even though the thermostat is caused to change by the temperature in the room, and in turn causes that temperature to change, we do not say that the air in the room controls the temperature in the room. Instead, we say that the thermostat is in control, because it is a necessary factor in determining the temperature in the room, without which the room's air could be any temperature that other factors determine it to be. This is the distinction we actually make in real life. Again, Moreland is arguing for ideas that do not correspond to the way people actually think in the relevant contexts. So his contention that we do not have "real" control under compatibilism amounts to special pleading.
The Rationality Condition
Here Moreland talks in a circle. He wants to show that compatibilism entails that we do not act for reasons (intentions) but that we only act because of chains of causation, using the Aristotelian distinction between efficient causes (a ball colliding with another ball) and final, or teleological causes (a ball is collided into another in order that the second ball will land in the corner pocket). But the fact is that reductionism entails that these two kinds of causes are necessarily equivalent in the case of an agent: whenever there is a final cause, if reductionism is true, then there is also an efficient cause (of course, it is not the other way around).
Moreland says, for example, "a reason for acting turns out to be a certain type of state in the agent, a belief-desire state, that is the real efficient cause of the action" (141). His argument is that this excludes the possibility of final causes. But since a belief-desire state is an intention, and an intention is a final cause, it follows that final causes can exist under compatibilism. He often does this, stating tautologies as if they were distinctions. For instance: under compatibilism "persons as substances do not act; rather, states within persons cause later states to occur." But these are the same thing: the state within me (the sum of my being) is my substance, and since my substance is in turn the cause of my choices, it follows that persons as substances do in fact act under compatibilism. Indeed, so feeble is Moreland's position here that he concludes with the vague statement that "libertarians reject [this view] and see a different role for beliefs and desires in free acts" yet he never explains what that difference is. I seriously doubt he can validly show any real difference.
The Cause Condition
Here Moreland shows how unaware he really is of the importance of organization in reductionist explanations of causation. According to a compatibilist, Moreland says, "if we say that a desire to vote caused Jones to raise an arm, we are wrong" since the truth is that "a desiring to vote caused a raising of the arm inside Jones" (142). But Moreland is skipping something here. "Jones" is a synonym for a particular collection of character features, values, desires, beliefs, and memories, all of which are necessarily involved in the chain of causation from the initial call for a vote up to the rise of the desire to vote one way or another. Thus, although you could play a word game and say that a desire did not cause Jones to act, by arguing that Jones in fact caused the desire which in turn caused the act, this gets you nowhere if your object is to show that Jones was not the cause of the act, since he must be either the cause of the desire or the direct cause of the act, and either way he is the cause of the act.
Moreland again repeats tautologies as if they were distinctions: "it is the self that acts, not a state in the self." He never explains how these must be, or even can be, different. Even on his view, there must be some "state" in the special acausal "soul" stuff that Moreland is trying to identify as the "ultimate" cause of action, which in turn causes or constitutes the choice, thus the "self" always equals a "state in the self." They are always one and the same thing. He thinks this invalid distinction explains the difference between acts and "mere happenings." But that difference is already adequately explained by what we humans actually look for, which is not an undefined, unobservable, "self-stuff," but which is instead a visible, demonstrable connection between the act and an agent. This is what is done in courts of law: "means, motive, and opportunity" is a catchphrase for all the evidence which can lead a jury reasonably to believe that the event (a crime) is causally connected to an agent--and not just the agent's body, but the agent in his entirety: his mind, character, desires, beliefs, and intentions (i.e. "motive"). Since this is all we ever look for, it follows that this is all we actually mean when we say it was an "action" and not a "mere happening." Moreland's view is thus disconnected from the reality of human discourse, and that renders it irrelevant as far as I'm concerned.
Conclusion
Moreland's chapter is a waste. The purpose of the chapter is to show that miracles can be an object of scientific study, but Moreland spends too much time defending one illogical point of view in order to support the general thesis. I actually agree that miracles can be a proper object of scientific study in principle. But Moreland has not even made that case here. Instead, he has tried to argue for something that is only of doctrinal interest to one specific conception of God, and which therefore is ill-suited to any general argument for the scientific study of miracles. Perhaps Moreland has been misled by his opponents? He claims that Antony Flew "and others" claim there is a "dilemma between the theistic requirement of strong laws of nature...and the admission of real exceptions to those laws (miracles)" (142). But if Moreland thinks the answer to this charge lies in the illogical concept of libertarian agency, he is fooling himself. For there is in fact no logical dilemma for the theist who holds that there are strong laws of nature because God maintains them consistently, and also that God can choose to not maintain them on certain specific occasions. These are perfectly compatible views, and would be even if reductionism and compatibilism were true, since these would only describe the order that God maintains, which he could cease maintaining at will.
Also, if we suppose God to be made of some unique substance, which is neither matter nor energy but which can influence both, then it would follow that reductionism would not apply to God (unless his "substance" could in turn to be reduced into component parts arranged in a pattern of behavior). But there is nothing wrong with that, because we have yet to observe a god, and thus could not say whether his behavior must be reducible to anything else. On the other hand, compatibilism must be true even for God, since if God acts for no reasons at all, choosing despite his greatest desires and beliefs, even despite his inherent nature (such as his inherent goodness), we would have a God who could do anything, even the most heinous evil, at any moment, and for no reason at all. But if we are to attribute God's choices to his knowledge and moral nature, we must adopt a compatibilist view of God's freewill.
Even so, this does not make miracles impossible, nor does it make them incapable of study, just as it doesn't in the case of human choices. But Moreland does not present or address any of this, nor does he present any practical advice, or any useful discussion at all, of just how scientists would go about scientifically confirming an event as a miracle. And this means his chapter accomplishes nothing of relevance to the rest of the book.
Return to this review's Table of Contents to read more detailed critiques of specific chapters in In Defense of Miracles.

[1] Except chapter 7 of Scaling the Secular City (1987), which does not make any better case than he does here. But I have not read: The Creation Hypothesis (1994), chs. 1 and 2; Christianity and the Nature of Science (1989); or his contribution in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith vol. 46 (March, 1994), pp. 2-12; or in Bauman's Man and Creation (1993), pp. 105-39.
[2] There is a fundamental flaw in Moreland's reasoning that I did not detect when I first wrote this: he assumes that "libertarian, agent acts (human or divine) result in gaps in the causal fabric of the natural world" (p. 133), but this does not necessarily follow. It is possible that the so-called spontaneous libertarian acts of agents will create the appearance of a continuity of causation and thus leave no causal gaps at all. The following example explains just one way this could happen.
       For instance, suppose an "Agent" is an immaterial Soul, which must act through manipulating a material body, and suppose the material body must obey the laws of conservation. In such a case, the Soul could only affect the body by "borrowing" energy and then reinserting it where desired, so as to bring about the desired causal effect. Moreover, to preserve conservation, this event would have to be instantaneous, leaving no point of missing energy, and it could not, for example, change the direction of any borrowed motion without borrowing still more energy to compensate for the energy required to change the direction of motion. In the end, when a scientist "observed" this system, every change in the system would be entirely accounted for by the seemingly deterministic interaction of units of energy.
       The fact that a soul had intervened in such a system would not be observable, unless the scientist's ability to observe extended perfectly even to the smallest energy scale, and the scientist's knowledge of physical laws was perfect and complete. But neither is likely ever to be the case: observations of events at the smallest scale are impossible, because they cannot be made without interfering in that event, and any behaviors that could be observed, which seemed counter to the expectations of known physical laws, would not appear as a causal gap (since all energy would be conserved), but as the manifestation of an as-yet unknown physical law.
       In actual fact, the actions of a Soul in such a system would most likely appear exactly like the known physical laws of quantum indeterminacy. For unique actions would not allow the statistical discovery of any deviation from otherwise-expected randomness. In other words, the fact that the Soul's actions were slightly violating or toying with the normal "quantum" probabilities involved would never be observable because no action of the Soul would ever be repeatable--every choice is based on unique circumstances and thus is itself a unique event. Thus, even if Moreland were right about the mechanism of agency, his planned scientific program could fail to detect it. This would create even greater problems for his proposed scientific investigation of miracles than I already point out in my conclusion above.
[3] This section on free will and the previous discussion of reductionism have both been substantially expanded and improved upon in my book: Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (2005). In the present review, I also discuss the issue of free will a bit more in my critique of Beck.
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Beck's Argument for God (1999, 2005)

Richard Carrier


[Part 3D of a larger Review of In Defense of Miracles.]

Here I will point out the errors in Becks' argument for God. Because they are typical of those used by Christians everywhere, sophisticated or not, I think this survey will be of use on its own, although Beck is so bad at this that he is clearly not the best champion for theism. At any rate, the failure of Beck's particular case here essentially destroys the entire project of In Defense of Miracles. But for those who want a much more comprehensive discussion of the question of whether God or Naturalism can provide the best explanation of the universe and its physics and contents, see Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (2005), where I also engage an extensive demonstration of the natural foundations of moral facts.
First the Old "There Must Have Been a First Cause" Argument
By proving a limitation of the human imagination (in this case, our inability to imagine an actual infinite series), he claims to have proven a limitation on reality. But there is no necessary connection between what humans can do and what nature can do, so this argument fails to prove the necessity of a first cause. It is even more absurd coming from Christians who all, at one time or another, claim some feature of God to be mysteriously incomprehensible, and thus have no problem accepting that something they cannot imagine can nevertheless exist, despite having no evidence or compelling inferences to justify their belief.
As is typical of all apologists, Beck forgets that he is supposed to prove the necessity of a first cause, or else provide physical evidence for one. Instead, he only shows that a first cause is possible and more easily imagined than an eternity, which hardly needs to be argued. Never having experienced an eternity, it is only natural that we should have a hard time imagining it. That tells us more about ourselves than the universe. He must provide a logical reason or empirical evidence, yet he can offer neither. He even refutes himself with the elegant and entirely true statement: "Not everything that can be conceived should be believed" (154). In other words, just because we can imagine a first cause, this is no reason to believe there was one. And he offers no good reasons to believe there was one.
The weakest step he makes, however, is when he claims that this is actually an argument for the existence of God. But there is no reason that a first cause must be equivalent to a god, at least not by his definition. Consider the kind of argument he uses to make such a connection: a first cause is nondependent, and Romans 1:20 mentions the eternal "God-ness" (he does not give the Greek, which is theotês, "divinity, godhead"), which "conveys the idea of nondependence," so therefore the first cause "we may indeed call 'God'" (151-3). But why does he think "God-ness" conveys nondependence? Athena possessed theotês yet she was not 'nondependent'. And certainly just because God could be a first cause, it does not follow that God is a first cause. So as usual, theists pretend that they don't need empirical evidence for empirical claims. Moreover, Beck trips over his first argument here. If an actual infinity can't exist, then even God must have had a first cause, which would beg for an explanation--yet another god? Is it gods all the way down? But if Beck's sudden reversal is correct, and God can be eternal but uncaused, then Beck's argument that an actual infinite series is impossible would have to be false, since, for example, an omniscient God's thoughts would then be an actual infinite series. It seems either way you look his case is doomed.
Theists can't have it both ways, even though they always want to. Since a universe can be eternal just as easily as a god can, and since the nature of the universe can be a first cause just as easily as a god can, the First Cause argument is vacuous. Since Christians find it easier to imagine a god as an explanation, they conclude that therefore it is more reasonable. They forget the fact that obviously they will find it easier to imagine a God as an explanation: they've spent far more time imagining it! They have primed themselves to accept their own conclusion as more natural, a delusion so common that scientists have developed the concept of blind and double-blind experimentation, and other methods, in order to prevent it from tainting the results of research. This is why we cannot trust arguments based on what we find "easier" to "imagine," especially when talking about things in which our brains have no experience (such as the origin of a universe).
Second the Old "It's Too Complex to Have Happened by Chance" Argument
Things that seem designed are designed. That's the teleological inference. The most fundamental flaw with the teleological inference is that it is unfalsifiable and thus could not be refuted even if it were wrong. This means that it is a useless axiom, because it cannot advance our knowledge of the universe. After all, if we cannot know when it is false, then we cannot know when it is true. The argument goes like this: in our experience, we have seen design come only from intelligent action, therefore it is reasonable to infer that all design comes from intelligent action. This is not a necessary deduction, but it would be a reasonable inference--if the premises were true. The problem is that this inference assumes its own truth by using the word "only." How do we know that we have seen design only as a result of intelligent action? We don't. All of nature may be proof of unintelligent design, and scientists have found a great deal of evidence to support the belief that unintelligent design exists in abundance. For example, no intelligence is required to make an amorphous substance crystallize in an orderly fashion--it does so automatically. Maybe the nature of the substance (the "physical laws" which govern it) were designed, but that is both undemonstrable and irrelevant. Even if God created the laws of crystallization, it does not follow that god intelligently creates every crystal.
The point is that if there are certain rules, then there will always be complex outcomes--in other words, there will always be design. Consequently, the existence of complex outcomes only proves, at best, the existence of rules, which describe consistent patterns of behavior and their interaction. It does not prove the existence of a creator. And since this is true for substances, it is equally true for the rules themselves. There simply does not have to be a first intelligent cause. Just as a god can have a complex nature (such as his own intelligence and moral character) without intelligent design, so can a universe and its physics.
So God is not a necessary explanation, which leaves empirical demonstration as their only avenue. But theists can offer no empirical evidence against the possibility that the rules of the universe had an unintelligent cause, nor can they offer any empirical evidence proving an intelligent cause. Once again, their entire argument is derived solely from what is "easier" for them to "imagine," and thus they prime themselves to ignore every answer but their own. This is an invalid method. How or why the universe has the rules it has is an empirical question that can only be answered through empirical observation--it cannot be answered with logical reasoning, nor with wishful thinking.
The second problem with teleological arguments is scientific and statistical illiteracy. Beck gives us some classic examples, which are typical of all other similar arguments made in many other books. He first declares that "we can calculate the probability of an event's occurrence...to indicate whether [phenomena] might occur as a result of the normal randomness permitted by the laws of physics" (156). Then he gives as examples (citing Hugh Ross) the "mass density of the universe...polarity of the water molecule...[and the] oxygen quantity in [the Earth's] atmosphere" (157). But we do not even know what the "normal randomness permitted by the laws of physics" would produce in any of these cases, so he is essentially telling us that we can do something (calculate their probability) which in fact we cannot do. If he understood more about astrophysics he would know this, but such scientific illiteracy typifies apologetic works.
Consider the odds that a stationary body of water on Earth will normally flow downhill rather than uphill. The odds are not 50/50. The laws of physics dictate the odds to be 100%, and we know this. Now what are the odds of the universe having a certain mass density? To figure that, we need to know what physical laws determined that density. But we do not know that. For all we know, the odds of the universe having that density, just like the odds of water on Earth flowing downhill, might have been 100%. What Beck is giving us here is an argument from ignorance: since we do not know what densities were possible, we are allowed to "assume" that it could have been anything at all, and that every option is equally likely. But we are not allowed to assume either. We don't even know if any other density is possible, much less how likely those other possibilities might be.
This gross incompetence becomes greater still when we examine the other two examples. The polarity of water is necessarily decided by the laws of physics--in particular, the attributes of oxygen and hydrogen, which are decided in turn by the four forces in the context of quantum mechanics. So the actual odds of water having that polarity, given the "normal randomness permitted by the laws of physics" is 100%. Thus, Beck cannot argue that this polarity is improbable. He could, perhaps, go deeper and try to argue that the exact attributes of the four forces are improbable, but how can he or anyone know that? We do not know what caused the forces to be what they are, if any particular physical laws govern them, or what other possible attributes there were or what the odds were of any of those alternatives. This is the same problem noted above. It is, in other words, an argument from ignorance, and that is simply a fallacy.
Now consider his third example. He claims that if the oxygen level were greater or less, life would not be possible. But this is demonstrably false. Not only is there life that breathes neither oxygen nor carbon dioxide (anaerobic bacteria in deep sea volcanic vents), but life began when there was virtually no oxygen at all. Geological studies prove that there was very little oxygen when life began in the Precambrian (at which time no life on earth breathed oxygen). Then as a result of pollution from carbon dioxide breathers, oxygen levels rose to at least 30% above present levels (during the Jurassic period), and then fell again (and are still falling). Thus, life on earth has flourished through all kinds of fluctuations in the supply of oxygen. In fact, humans can survive in oxygen levels as low as 60%, and as high as 140%, of the current average at sea level (according to the current NASA Life Sciences Data Book and the 1977 Princeton study, Space Settlements). If Beck knew anything about geology and biohistory, he would see that he is merely putting his foot in his mouth when he uses this invalid example.
The same scientific illiteracy plagues attempts to show that the cosmological constants "had" to be exactly as they are for some kind of intelligent life to develop--in every case, such assumptions about the consequences of variations in the constants are unsupported by any facts or reasoning, and require that the constants are independent of each other, which is unlikely--change one, and you will no doubt change them all. We also do not know if this is the only kind of universe capable of bearing life. Along the same lines, Beck cites Hoyle's odds against the formation of DNA (157), blissfully ignorant of the fact that Hoyle's calculation, like all others in the same vein, is entirely bogus (see my critique of all such DNA-based Odds against Life Calculations).
The Oxygen Level example also betrays the third problem with all teleological arguments: the anthropic fallacy. Most life on earth does not even breathe oxygen. Yet Beck assumes that the level of oxygen is essential for the development of life. Why does he assume this? Because he breathes oxygen. If we had evolved as an intelligent carbon dioxide breathing jellyfish-like creature, Beck would think that the level of carbon dioxide was essential to life on earth, and believe (mistakenly) that any increase or decrease in that level would make life impossible. But the fact is that life uses what it has, and adapts to where it is. The hypothetical jellyfish people would have evolved to live within just such a carbon dioxide level, and that is why the two would seem so well-matched: the fish have developed to match the levels on their planet, not the other way around. The same is true for us: we have adapted to the oxygen level we have. If the levels were different, we would be different. And if the levels yet change, the only people who will survive will be those who can handle the new level, and then their children will propagate this ability and man will change to be perfectly suited to the new level, and so on. So this, and other things like it, can never be used to show that life is improbable. Rather, these things prove only one thing: that life is adaptable to many different circumstances. This is exactly the opposite of what theists want us to think.
I discuss more errors of this kind in various cosmological arguments elsewhere. See Richard Carrier, Ten Things Wrong with Cosmological Creationism (2000) and The Fine Tuning Argument (2001).
Third the old "Objective Moral Values Require a Divine Source" Argument
Here Beck simply regurgitates his own version of the argument of C.S. Lewis. The first premise is "morality is an objective feature of our universe" (160). Beck supports this premise with only one observation: "it is simply impossible...for the larger context of social discourse to occur without making statements about what is right or wrong or without assuming that they are true or false." But as happens in all such arguments, he refutes himself by actually using subjective facts to support his belief that these statements are rooted in objective facts. But if the connecting premise, which takes us logically from "we believe moral statements are true" to "moral statements refer to objective facts," is a subjective fact, then the argument falls--instead, the argument proves the exact opposite: that moral statements refer to subjective facts.
Beck's self-defeating statement is this: "That Adolf Hitler...[was] not really morally wrong, that we cannot judge a society truly guilty if it practices genocide...are such repugnant proposals that we find it impossible to believe that they could be true." Notice what he is saying: these statements cannot be true because they are repugnant. His argument depends entirely on our subjective reaction to these statements. If we did not find them repugnant, then he would not have an argument, would he? Imagine if he had said this: "That eating ice cream was not really morally wrong is such a repugnant proposal that we find it impossible to believe that it could be true." Would he then have proof that we believe eating ice cream is objectively wrong? No--because we do not regard this proposal as repugnant. Thus, his argument actually requires a subjective foundation for morality (in this case, a feeling of "repugnance"), and he cannot use this to prove an objective foundation for morality.
He tries to shore up his position by dismissing two criticisms, that "moral judgments" are just "emotive outbursts or conditioned patterns of behavior," with this wonderful proof: "it is doubtful that reasonable people really believe it" (161). So now, if I really believe this, he doubts that I am reasonable! This is a covert ad hominem attack on his opponents, and a fallacious "appeal to the crowd." It is all the more telling, because when he presents his "proof" that reasonable people do not believe this, he actually states what amounts to a subjectivist definition of morality: "That the brutal slaughter of children is revolting, horrifying and antisocial but not immoral or wrong is nonsense." Of course it is nonsense! It just so happens that being "revolting, horrifying and antisocial" is for Beck the same thing as being "immoral or wrong." Beck would benefit from Ayer's observation: "a proposition whose validity we are resolved to maintain in the face of any experience is not a hypothesis at all, but a definition" (Language, Truth, and Logic, 1946, p. 95). So if it is nonsense, if it is impossible, to regard a "revolting, horrifying and antisocial" act as moral, if no possible observation could ever make this true, then it follows that this is the definition of morality.
And as can be seen, this is a subjective definition: to be immoral, according to Beck, something must be "revolting, horrifying and antisocial." It is not entirely subjective, since to be "antisocial" is an objective, not a subjective fact. But this is still not dependent on God, and the other two terms are subjective. That is then what it means to Beck's imagined audience when they call something immoral. This is especially clear when we observe that the converse is true: could Beck and his gang ever regard something that was "pleasing, admirable, and compassionate" as immoral? Certainly not! Hence this proves that Beck's morals are rooted in subjective human sentiments: since eating ice cream, for example, is not "revolting, horrifying and antisocial" it follows that he does not regard it as immoral, and never would so regard it even if God himself told him otherwise--unless God could convince Beck that eating ice cream really was, somehow, "revolting, horrifying and antisocial."
So much for Beck's first premise. His second premise then becomes moot: "naturalistic 'explanations' of the objectivity of morality are inadequate." Well, since even Beck has failed to present evidence of a truly objective moral standard, it should hardly matter that we cannot account for it. Indeed, even theists cannot really account for it, since they cannot explain why we should define "moral" as "what aligns with God's nature or commands" instead of what is "pleasing, admirable, and compassionate." They simply assume that this will be accepted. But we must actually have a reason to adopt this as a moral standard. And if the "morality" defined by a god's nature or commands contradicts our natural sentiments, if it classifies pleasing, admirable, and compassionate acts as immoral and "revolting, horrifying and antisocial" acts as moral, what possible reason would we have to adopt such a standard, a standard which would itself be revolting to us?
Furthermore, if it "just so happens" that God's standard is the same as our own subjective sentiments, then we don't need God anymore--our sentiments will tell us what is moral. More sophisticated authors would try to claim (though Beck fails to make this point himself) that our sentiments are meaningless unless God designed them, but that does not solve their problem. For God could have designed us with the opposite sentiments (he could have possessed the opposite sentiments himself), and, by the theist's own reasoning, once-revolting acts, like genocide, would then be moral. And since theists cannot justify why God's nature is what it is, since it has no cause, and was not designed in any way but just "is," by unexplained accident, it follows that this theistic explanation for "objective moral value" leaves us with a moral system that is nothing more than an unexplained accident. At least in an atheist's worldview, morality is an explainable accident, so atheism actually has an edge over the theist in this department.
Beck perpetuates a lot of other nonsense about nontheistic moral theories, and once again his own language condemns his arguments to the trash bin, but even more important, it is what he omits that renders his argument useless in modern philosophical circles. For example, he claims that "any form of naturalistic evolution denies human freedom," showing his ignorance of those who use quantum mechanics to explain human freedom within an evolutionary context. Then he concludes that such theories "must deny responsibility," showing his ignorance of the fact that most philosophers today persuasively defend compatibilism, which proves that responsibility is compatible with determinism. Humorously, one of this book's own authors, John Feinberg, actually defends compatibilism in order to support the incarnation of Christ (242), once again exposing inconsistencies in the editorial design of the book. Moreland also ignored Feinberg to support Beck's view of freewill, but I discussed that in my Review of Moreland's Chapter.
Beck continues, "hence it cannot be that my actions have any value" even though he makes no argument for how value "cannot" exist in this view. It is self-evident that value necessarily exists the moment there is any mind that values anything. Human actions--indeed, all things--obtain their value from us. Indeed, they do so even within the theist's own worldview: the theist claims that value comes from God, but the theist himself must first value God's opinion or nature before he can use that argument, and in doing this he proves that value ultimately comes from humans, not from God. And if he posits that God put this standard in us, all he has shown is that values come from the unexplained accident of God's nature, which God himself did not create, and thus even then the basis of value could not be caused by any intelligent plan.
Then Beck amplifies his attack on determinism: only those who have "freedom" can have "the requisite insight to make moral choice possible and to actually decide on moral values or actions for themselves." But what does freedom have to do with insight? If I am determined in advance to have insight, I have it just as well as a free man. In fact, a free man has no advantages over me: we both need the same reasoning faculties, the same rules of logic, the same time and resolve to reflect, the same knowledge of the same facts, all brought to us by the same means. If exactly the same input will produce exactly the same insight in both the free and the determined man, then "lack of insight" in men's choices can never be used to impugn determinism.
Likewise, Beck says freedom is needed to make choice possible, and to allow us to decide for ourselves, but he does not demonstrate this. I do not see how being determined to choose makes choice impossible. Choice still exists. The machine that is doing the choosing is still ourselves, and its input is the same, and its output the same, as it would be for any supposedly "free" man. So how exactly are these things impossible? I still make decisions, and my decisions are still based on who I am and what I know, just as they would be if I were "free" (whatever that means--antideterminists have a very hard time explaining that one). So here, he simply regurgitates half-baked criticisms of determinism, and presents no argument (I discuss compatibilism more in my review of Moreland).
Beck then tries to dismiss the social construction theory of morality, using two feeble points. First, he says "we often think it plausible to make...judgments about...other societies" and so it cannot be that "values derive from our society." But when we criticize others, we are often appealing to the same values possessed by all people, everywhere. Most if not all moral disagreements between people and societies are based on different beliefs about the facts, not on any true differences in core values. National Socialism, for instance, derived its anti-Semitic morals from the false belief that Jews were not human, were devoid of compassion, and had engaged in conspiratorial crimes against humanity. So Beck is mistakenly assuming that there can actually be a society that does not share the same fundamental values as we do, even though he cannot demonstrate that this is humanly possible, much less a reality. If such a society did exist, it would be so absolutely alien to us that we would hardly be able to communicate with it, and whether we could "condemn" them from within their own system would be the least of our concerns.
Second, he says that "only persons can be the source of values, yet no finite...person is in a position to determine" values for others, so "there must be some 'ultimate' person" who does this, which would be God. But consider the fact that only persons can be the source of the meaning of the words in the English language, and yet no finite person determines the meaning of those words--but neither is God telling us what to put in dictionaries. Rather, the meaning of words arises from social convention, without the intelligent design of any one individual. The same cause exists for human moral systems. But even more importantly, the values upon which moral systems are based are not "made up" by anyone, even society, and then "given" to us: they are learned, and developed out of our nature--they are a part of us, intimately born from our experiences and biological nature. What makes people happy, and grants them security and health, is inherent in us, and universal. It does not come by dictation from any person or group.
In short, it is patently ridiculous to look for an "ultimate" person to tell us what will make us happy. We already know that on our own! And since pain, happiness, consciousness, knowledge, empathy and reflection are universal among all human beings, the values which these engender or entail are likewise universal. It would be absurd to claim that we need a God to tell us how to be happy, or even to tell us that we want to be happy! We all want to be happy, by our very nature, and the means to be happy will be pretty much the same for everyone, and can be learned without needing a God. Maybe a God, being so wise and knowledgeable, could at least help by pointing things out that we need to know, but I don't see any god doing this for us, and such a god would still not be necessary.
Even theists are in the same boat as the rest of us, trying to figure out on our own the key to happiness, by reference to their own needs, desires, experiences, and innate qualities. Thus, Beck's "moral argument" for the existence of God is his weakest yet. Here it has been enough to show the inadequacy of Becks' moral argument for God, but to learn more about what I really think about the origin, nature, and justification of moral values, you can read my essays Does the Christian Theism Advocated by J.P. Moreland Provide a Better Reason to be Moral than Secular Humanism? (1998) and What an Atheist Ought to Stand For (1999), and then, for the most comprehensive discussion, my book Sense and Goodness without God (2005).
Has Beck Made a Case?
From all of this Beck has the temerity to conclude that "we are...entitled to assurance that God exists...[and] can act intelligently and with moral concern within human history" (162). Considering how crucial this conclusion is to the entire book's cumulative case for miracles, it is the weakest and most vulnerable link in the chain. For if there is no good reason to think there is a god (and whatever good reasons there might be, Beck has presented none of them), then there is no reason to believe that any amazing event is a miracle from god. For without a prior, positive reason to prefer a divine explanation, a natural explanation must be resorted to--for then no matter how improbable, so long as it is reasonably possible, a natural explanation will always remain the most plausible explanation, since it is the only kind of explanation we have proven successful on other occasions.
I would be willing to cut Beck some slack, on the grounds that he didn't have enough room to argue what he needed, if it were not for the fact that his argument is so absolutely crucial to the whole point of the book that if his argument could not have been made sound in the space he was given, he should have been given more. Instead, all he even attempts to offer as proof is negative evidence: an actual infinity or a natural first cause is "less" conceivable than a First Cause God, there are natural phenomena that have "not" been explained, and the prospect that morals are subjective is "not" a desirable discovery. He presents absolutely no positive evidence in favor of the existence of God. But how curious an approach this is. If I wanted to set out to prove that Bigfoot was a lost species of ape hiding in the woods, but all I had to argue the point were the same notions--that the idea of the "good evidence being faked" was "less" conceivable to me than the idea of Bigfoot actually causing the evidence, that we have "not" searched every inch of the woods, and that the prospect of Bigfoot's nonexistence was "not" a desirable discovery--would Beck be convinced? He would not, and so he has no right to expect us to be convinced when he uses essentially the same arguments for God.
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