Sunday, June 28, 2009

J. D. Walters on the argument from naturalistic explanations

A redated post.

This is J. D.'s rebuttal, which he put in the comments line.


Anonymous said...

I want to comment on J D Walters post. J D starts by presenting the argument as:

‘It goes something like this: we gain significant support for naturalism in that many phenomena previously ascribed to spirits, gods or God have now been explained by the natural sciences as the outworking of lawlike, mechanistic processes. People no longer explain lightning and thunder in terms of the displeasure of Zeus, or mental illness in terms of demonic possession. Therefore, so the argument goes, it would seem that God has less and less to do with anything in the world, until the point is reached where He has been pushed back in a Deistic fashion to the foundational event of Creation itself and even obliterated altogether what with the recent theories of quantum cosmology rendering a place even for such a remote Creator untenable or unnecessary.”’

If prior explanations invoked God, when the phenomena in question were merely physical phenomena, and so these prior explanations were shown to be false, is that a major problem for Christian theism? Yes, only if Christian theology entails believing in explanations that are incorrect. But does Christian theology involve a claim that no strictly physical explanations could possibly be true? No, in fact since Christianity includes the belief that God created an actual universe that includes physical phenomena, there is no necessitated conflict between physical explanations that are true and Christianity.

Christians not only believe that God created the universe, but that He sustains the universe in existence (cf. a few years back Mortimer Adler argued from this notion, that something must be maintaining the whole universe in existence, therefore God must exist, in his HOW TO THINK ABOUT GOD). If God does indeed sustain the entire universe in its existence, then God though completely absent from all strictly physical explanations, is in fact involved in some sense in all events which occur in the universe. Minimally, while perhaps not directly causing all events, He is nevertheless making all events possible which end up becoming actualized.

‘It is clear, then, that metaphysical naturalism enjoys a decisive explanatory edge over various kinds of theism.’

So physical explanations always enjoy a
“decisive explanatory edge” over various kinds of non-physical explanations (such as theistic explanations)? This is a category mistake on the part of the materialists. When it comes to explaining why personal agents perform their voluntary actions, why explanations/teleological explanations (which strictly physical explanations are incapable of dealing with) are in fact superior to strictly physical explanations. And if the freely chosen actions by human agents proceed from an immaterial soul (which is the majority belief among Christians), then voluntary actions by humans are beyond the explanatory domain of science. And I would think that our reasons for doing our own voluntary actions are very important to us and other persons with whom we are dealing!

‘This argument is usually bolstered with the innocent-sounding qualification that things could have turned out differently. Science could have reserved a place for the action of spirits and Gods if the evidence had led in that direction. BUT IN FACT the world has turned out to suggest a naturalistic reading over a religious or specifically theistic one.’

This bit of reductionism is typical of materialists and those espousing scientism, but for those aware of different types of valid and relevant explanations that go beyond strictly physical explanations, it is obvious that science is not the only “language game” in town.

‘This absolves the naturalist of any suspicion that there is just as much faith and interpretation involved in the naturalistic position as in the theistic one.’

Yes it is always important in discussions such as these to bring out the nature of materialism as a world view with very specific presuppositions as well as to differentiate between science and scientism. Science is a great asset that can and has greatly benefited mankind. Scientism is the use of intentionally truncated philosophy, to argue against theism. Truncated because it is both intentional and severely limiting and outright false to insist that only science can establish legitimate truth claims. For example the claim that science is a good thing to engage in, cannot be established scientifically or by appealing to strictly physical explanations.

’I fully accept the observation that the natural sciences have proven remarkably efficacious in explaining all sorts of general kinds of occurences in the world (and in fact, it causes me to reflect upon and give praise to the Creator Who I believe is responsible for all this).’

J D expresses the Christian belief here that the legitimate findings of science do not threaten Christianity. If God made the physical world a certain way, and if that physical world is properly studied, we will end up with correct conclusions about the nature of physical reality as created (and maintained) by God. The “enemy” for the Christian is not science or legitimate scientific findings, No, the true enemies of the faith are materialism and its attempted use of science (i.e., scientism) to establish materialism.

It is significant that God creates a creation with a high degree of order, and that very order is then used as an argument against God’s existence! If God had created a universe that was disorderly and haphazard we would hear that as an argument against the existence of the creator. As it stands, He creates an orderly and rational universe, and **that** supposedly is evidence of His nonexistence. When people do not want to believe, God cannot win! :-)

‘But I have never been able to connect the dots between this observation and the explanatory superiority of naturalism.’

The reason that you cannot connect the dots it because the argument overreaches, it cannot establish the conclusion they want it to establish. You cannot deductively conclude from success with some physical explanations to the invalid conclusion that only physical explanations are valid or useful or true.

‘First of all, it seems to me that a robust doctrine of creation entails a broadly realistic and even naturalistic interpretation of the sciences. Throughout the Scriptures and Christian tradition we find many affirmations of God's constancy in both creating and sustaining in existence the natural processes of the world.’

Those familiar with the origins of modern science as practiced in the western world, know that if not for a Christian worldview, this modern science would not have arisen. It is because God is orderly and rational that we can expect His creation to be orderly and rational and capable of scientific investigation. The non-theist assumes the truthfulness and usefulness of induction, only the Christian worldview can account for why induction is valid and useful universally.

‘To give one example, from the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus exhorts people to love their enemies, "so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matthew 5:45). The clear implication is that there are certain aspects of God's providence which are constant irrespective of a person's conduct.’

God maintains the orderly universe so that the arena for man’s actions is possible. Imagine if sounds waves were arbitrary and disorderly, we could not even carry out a simple conversation with each other.

‘Or consider God, after Noah's flood, promising that "While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease" (Genesis 8:22).’

Again, God maintains the order of the world for the end of allowing for meaningful human action in that world.

’Secondly, a general theory for how, say, lighting or diseases work may prescribe what Philip Clayton calls a 'presumption of naturalism', the propensity to appeal first to natural explanations for specific seemingly supernatural events, but this does not absolve all particular instances of such phenomena of possible supernatural influence. Lighting, we know now, is caused by discharges of static electricity in the atmosphere. Does that necessarily preclude a specific lightning strike at a particular time being the direct product of divine agency?’

J D appeals to the providence of God idea. God’s providence may include both “ordinary events” such as the seasons, as well as “miraculous events” such as healing a person and even “ordinary events that include a spiritual component” such as God answering a prayer by putting a thought on someone’s mind. A lightning bolt then could be an “ordinary event” and be part of providence. It could also be an “ordinary event that includes a spiritual component” if God were to use such a lightning bolt to say, judge someone’s sin by destroying one of their possessions. My point is that divine agency can be both direct and through the use of secondary causes.

’Christian theology has a place both for God's constant, faithful upholding and sustaining of Creation, including its natural, lawlike processes, as well as special acts of divine providence which accomplish His salvific purposes which do not need to be explained through natural processes.’

The lawlike processes would be providence and God acting through and maintaining secondary causes. The miracles or actions that cannot be explained strictly by natural processes would usually involve direct agency on the part of God or at least a spiritual component that strictly physical explanations cannot deal with adequately.

‘The question of the activity of other sorts of spirits, such as demons and angels is more difficult and from a theological point of view more open for discussion. As C.S. Lewis rightly remarks, with regard to his belief in the existence of demons, "I believe this not in the sense that it is part of my creed, but in the sense that it is one of my opinions. My religion would not be in ruins if this opinion were shown to be false" (The Screwtape Letters). Personally I think there is fairly good evidence for at least some alleged cases of angelic and demonic encounters, but like C.S. Lewis I wouldn't stake my faith on it. All I have tried to argue here is that the 'presumption of naturalism' caused by the success of the natural sciences need not be an additional reason to question the explanatory power of some kind of supernaturalistic theism.’

Regarding demons we are speaking of other personal agents that are spirits that also are present and acting in the universe. Can science speak of demons that are spirits, with strictly physical explanations? No, but theistic explanations can do so. I enjoyed J D’s comments and hope that I have further supported them here.

Plantinga Fan

philip m said...

J.D. makes a good argument here. I agree that theist is justified in interpreting some event in his life as an act of God, even in the case that a completely natural explanation could be given for it. For if we have good arguments to think that God exists, we also have good reason to believe that God has sovereignty over his creation in such a way that he could plan things to work out however he wants.

J.P. Moreland starts his book The Kingdom Triangle with an example of people in Africa praying for God to provide them with specific items, and then those exact items showing up in the mail. From what I remember, I think it was the case that they didn't start praying until the mail had already been sent. He then points out that the way you interpret the story basically determines your worldview: you could always just say such a thing is a coincidence, and that's because you seal off the boundary of causation at the boundary of the natural.

But if God is in control of world history, he could set things in motion to fulfill his purposes in ways such as that, and He's still completely involved in the world, despite the fact that the events in question could be assigned completely natural explanations.

I think at least I have good reason to believe that demons are real, although I'm aware this will not be uniformly the case. I've been in dialogue with someone about whether to explain a particular case using dissociative identity disorder or demon possession. (The case was a woman with a spritual problem, after which she came to my dad, and upon being summoned, the 'entity' spoke in a deep voice, told its name, and then shrieked as it left her after a verbal command, at which proint the spiritual problem disappeared). I think the case is much better explained through demon possession.

And if such cases happen, and can be healed with a verbal command, it seems that the NT authors were probably justified in thinking such cases of demon possession were not naturally caused. For if such things were naturally caused, then we would presume the act of excorcising it would be a natural cure, and it would enter the medical profession as standard practice. But it's not a natural cure, and that's because what it takes care of is not a natural cause.

Anonymous said...

In case anyone is interested, here is an ongoing written debate about the resurrection:

The negative position takes a radically different approach to the debate resolution.

IlĂ­on said...

Paraphrasing Lewis in (I think) Voyage of the Dawn Treader: "To say what a thing is made of is not necessarily to say what the thing is."

Doctor Logic said...

Why bother writing up rational arguments when you're openly superstitious?

Superstition is about improper sampling and improper inductive inference. Why do people think 13 is unlucky? Because they count the hits and ignore the misses. They let their emotions and their biases drive their conclusions. So, how do we avoid bias? How do we filter out emotion from the evaluation process? By blinding our emotions and relying on statistics to analyze experimental situations. In other words, by using science! That's how we know 13 is not an unlucky (or a lucky) number.

What theists are saying in this thread (and what JD is saying) is that God operates EXCLUSIVELY below the level of human bias where no science can see him. Well, gosh, darn, isn't that convenient?!!!

When theists make this kind of argument, they utterly discredit every other argument they make. If you don't have the cojones to challenge your own bias, you should just give up philosophy. Philosophy requires the courage to rely on your own reason, ABOVE gods.

You probably think your superstition is pretty harmless. Well, it isn't. It's a pox on your thinking. If God (i.e., that voice in your head) is telling you your conclusions, and you lack the courage to stand up to him, then everything you say here is just a rationalization. You're too afraid to confront truth because you think God is constantly watching you, making your bus arrive a minute late so you can catch it, and generally converting lucky coincidences in "blessings".

Example: I keep hearing from you how vital it is that we base morality on objective foundations. But how the 4377 would you know? You can't even imagine a world without God for fear of being smitten (in the bad way). The world would look exactly the same if morality were just subjective, but you'll never see it if you're superstitious.

You can suppress bias, stand up to the voices in your head, go with reason, and still potentially conclude God exists, assuming the evidence is there. I'm not begging the question for naturalism. I'm not saying science is above philosophy. I'm saying you should get rid of bias and put reason first. Don't pretend that science's inability to find non-physical causes doesn't weigh against the theistic position. Science could easily find such causes if they existed and if they were reliable and above the noise/bias. It's just they aren't above the noise, and that's why, a posteriori, God is dead.

Did ya ever think that God might respect rational thinking? That he might respect people who refuse to let their biases mislead them? Might rational skepticism be responsible even when questioning God's existence? Might God want you to take due diligence in forming a belief in his existence? That's what I thought as a child.

But, wait. Christians want you to AMPLIFY your bias. Feel like that last sandwich was a sign from God? The priesthood tells us that God works in mysterious ways. Even through BLT's. I bet a lot of you probably think it's the biased people who go to heaven.

Seeing this superstition from "philosophical" theists really makes me think I'm wasting my time here. If theists can't face up to bias of the most blatant kind, there's no point in reasoning at all. AfR my @$$!

Any theists here not superstitious? Any of you immune to the belief that God is acting to help you by way of happy (or even tragic) coincidences? Any of you actually rely on statistics and science? Then this rant probably doesn't apply to you. (Hint: If you believe in the Resurrection, then you're superstitious.)

philip m said...

Doctor Logic,

Not knowing whether or not it is _my_ reason which has been impugned, I'll keep this comment short.

First, if God exists, and given that Open Theism is not the correct way to view his knowledge, it does follow that God knows, and has thus in a sense ordered world history. The question is simply whether or not that corolloary holds, and absent open theism, it seems absolutely correct.

But if that's true, then it simply means we ought to not rule out the possibility that God can work in the world. It does not mean that God automatically is. But it might be the case, pending further evidence.

God's existence I wholeheartedly agree does not imply that we should immediately begin looking for shapes in the stars, or the same number everywhere, or whatever. That's just paranoia. And trivial instances, like shapes in sandwiches, is simply not what I'm talking about.

I agree with you about bias and skepticism (and to an extent, moral values), so I'll simply leave it at that. Defining supersitition might be helpful. You seem to imply a definition which no one here has ever implied applies to them.