A slide presentation by Professor Robert Greg Cavin and Dr. Carlos A. Colombetti on the subject of miracles, which was used by Professor Cavin in a debate with Christian apologist Mike Licona on the Resurrection earlier this year, raises points of vital importance for Intelligent Design proponents.
As readers will be well aware, Intelligent Design theory says nothing about the identity or modus operandi of the Designer of life and/or the cosmos. Nevertheless, Cavin and Colombetti’s presentation is philosophically interesting, chiefly because the authors put forward three arguments to support their claim that Divine intervention in the history of the cosmos is astronomically unlikely:
(i) a religious argument that supernatural intervention is antecedently unlikely, which appeals to the Via Negativa and cites the authority of St. Augustine of Hippo and the Jewish philosopher and rabbi, Moses Maimonides;
(ii) a scientific argument that a Transcendent Designer, having created the laws of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, would no longer be capable of manipulating the cosmos; and
(iii) a mathematical argument, which appeals to Bayesian logic, purporting to show that there could never be good evidence for such an act of Divine intervention.
The religious argument against supernatural intervention
(a) How Cavin and Colombetti misread Augustine and Maimonides
Let’s begin with the religious argument. Cavin and Colombetti argue that supernatural intervention by God is antecedently improbable, by appealing to natural theology (the investigation of God’s nature based on reason and ordinary experience) and the Via Negativa (which says that we cannot know what God is, but only what He is not).
To bolster their case, Cavin and Colombetti cite the authority of St. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.), who wrote that “Nature is the Will of God!” (De Civitate XXI, 8). But here’s what he actually said:
…[I]t is possible for a thing to become different from what it was formerly known characteristically to be…
For how is that contrary to nature which happens by the will of God, since the will of so mighty a Creator is certainly the nature of each created thing? A portent, therefore, happens not contrary to nature, but contrary to what we know as nature…
What is there so arranged by the Author of the nature of heaven and earth as the exactly ordered course of the stars? What is there established by laws so sure and inflexible? And yet, when it pleased Him who with sovereignty and supreme power regulates all He has created, a star conspicuous among the rest by its size and splendor changed its color, size, form, and, most wonderful of all, the order and law of its course!
In other words, what St. Augustine is maintaining here is that the nature of a thing is simply whatever God wants it to be. Augustine is most emphatically not saying that things have a fixed nature of their own, and that this fixed nature reflects the unchanging will of God. Rather, he affirms that God can change the course of even the stars at will – as well as their color, size and form – but that this change is not “unnatural,” not because the laws of Nature are fixed, but that the nature of a thing is to be whatever God wants it to be. Thus in this passage, St. Augustine is emphatically denying Cavin and Colombetti’s claim that supernatural intervention by God is antecedently improbable.
Additionally, Cavin and Colombetti adduce the authority of the Jewish philosophical scholar Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), also known as Rambam, to support their contention that it is extremely unlikely that God would supernaturally intervene in the course of events. Maimonides is associated with the Via Negativa (or the Way of Negation), which is built on the premise that since we cannot understand what God is, we have to learn about God by seeing what He is not. Although Cavin and Colombetti never bother to tell us why this premise makes miracles unlikely, it is true that as a young man, Maimonides upheld the view that what we call miracles are actually events which have been pre-programmed by God into the laws of nature. Rabbi Gil Student, the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Orthodox Jewish Website and journal Torah Musings,describes the evolution of Maimonides’ thought in an online article titled, Rambam on Miracles (April 14, 2010):
In his earliest work, the Commentary on the Mishnah, the Rambam asserts that miracles are a part of nature. The Mishnah (Avos 5:5 in the Rambam’s edition) lists items that were created during the last moments of the six days of Creation, each of them miraculous (e.g. the “mouth” of the earth that swallowed Korach). Rambam, in his commentary to that Mishnah, explains this to mean that miracles were part of Creation. When setting the laws of nature in motion, unique exceptions to those laws were included; miracles were pre-programmed into the laws of nature. Therefore, technically, they do not violate nature but are part of it…
This was, by no means, a non-controversial explanation. Later commentators, such as Meiri and Rashbatz, disputed this interpretation and explained the Mishnah in accordance with the view that miracles are deviations from the laws of nature…
At this point, the Rambam was a Naturalist when it comes to miracles while the Meiri and Rashbatz were Interventionists, believers that God intervenes in nature…
However, there is evidence that later in life, the Rambam softened on this issue and became more of an Interventionist. In Moreh Nevukhim 3:32, the Rambam writes that God actively metes out reward and punishment in order to encourage people to observe the commandments. In Moreh Nevukhim 2:29, Rambam even calls the idea that miracles are pre-programmed into Creation “very strange” (Kafach edition, end of p. 290)… And in his Medical Aphorisms (vol. 2 p. 216), he states that the idea of an eternal universe is objectionable because it excludes the possibility of miracles.
This has led some scholars, such as Tzvi Langermann (Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, pp. 172-174) and Charles Manekin (On Maimonides, pp. 68-71), to suggest that the Rambam changed his view.
Readers will recognize Maimonides’ earlier views correspond to the view known as front-loading among Intelligent Design thinkers. Later on, however, Maimonides reverted to the traditional view that God can and does intervene in Nature.
It thus appears that the very authorities cited by Cavin and Colombetti in order to support their claim that God is very unlikely to supernaturally intervene in Nature actually refute it.
I’d like to wrap up my discussion of the Via Negativa by quoting from another thinker who belongs in this intellectual tradition: the theologian and philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who wrote in his Summa Theologica: “Now, because we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not” (S.T. I, q. 3, introduction; Benziger Bros. edition, 1947). Thomist scholar Brian Davies interprets Aquinas’ teaching about God as an exercise in negative theology:
We cannot, he [Aquinas] argues, know what God is. We must content ourselves with considering “the ways in which God does not exist, rather than the ways in which he does.” And it is here that his talk of God as Ipsum Esse Subsistens [Subsistent Being Itself – VJT] comes in. It is part of an account of ways in which God does not exist. Its chief purpose is to deny that God is a creature. As some authors would say, it is an exercise in negative theology.
(Thomas Aquinas: Contemporary Philosophical Perspectives, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 11.)
Given that Aquinas was an exponent of the Via Negativa, what did he think about miracles? Here is what he had to say in his Summa Contra Gentiles Book III, chapter 99, paragraph 9 (That God Can Work Apart From The Order Implanted In Things, By Producing Effects Without Proximate Causes):
[D]ivine power can sometimes produce an effect, without prejudice to its providence, apart from the order implanted in natural things by God. In fact, He does this at times to manifest His power. For it can be manifested in no better way, that the whole of nature is subject to the divine will, than by the fact that sometimes He does something outside the order of nature. Indeed, this makes it evident that the order of things has proceeded from Him, not by natural necessity, but by free will.
We can see that Aquinas explicitly affirms in the passage above that God can and does act outside the order of Nature. For Aquinas, God is an interventionist.
(b) Possibility, probability and cucumbers
But Cavin and Colombetti are not finished yet. In their slideshow, they point out that possibility is not probability (p. 78), and give a humorous example to illustrate their point: “If God wills that I turn into a gigantic green cucumber then I’ll turn into a gigantic green cucumber. But it’s hardly probable that God would will this!” (pp. 80-82). The authors conclude: “The fact that God can supernaturally intervene doesn’t make it in the least bit likely that He does” (p. 83).
Cavin and Colombetti go on to argue that God’s self-revelation in Nature shows an exceptionally strong tendency not to supernaturally intervene in natural affairs – for instance, they say, He possesses an exceptionally strong tendency not to raise the dead! The authors then attempt to construct a statistical syllogism, which they describe as a standard argument pattern of inductive logic, showing that on the basis of the fact that 99.999…999% of the dead are not supernaturally interfered with by God, and, thus, not raised by Him, it follows that the antecedent probability that God would cause someone to rise from the dead is astronomically low. As I wrote above, although the authors are attempting to undermine the case for the Resurrection, the point they make has obvious relevance for Intelligent Design as well. Someone could argue in a similar fashion that since 99.999…999% of molecules are not supernaturally manipulated by God, the antecedent probability that God would manipulate some molecules on the primordial Earth to create life over 3.5 billion years ago, or to create an array of 30 animal body types 530 million years ago, is also “astronomically low.”
How should Intelligent Design proponents respond to Cavin and Colombetti’s anti-interventionist argument, which is based on the regularity of Nature? In my opinion, we have nothing whatsoever to fear from it. The reason for my optimism is that the number of discrete events that have occurred in the observable universe is finite: Seth Lloyd, in his paper, Computational capacity of the universe (Physics Review Letters 88:237901, 2002, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.88.237901), calculates it to be no more than 10^120. That’s his estimate of “the number of elementary operations that it [the universe] can have performed over its history.” All we need to show, then, in order to make the “interventionist” hypothesis a viable option, is that there is at least one system or structure existing in Nature whose antecedent probability of arising as a result of unguided evolution is less than 1 in 10^120.
In view of the fact that the world-renowned evolutionary biologist, Dr. Eugene Koonin, has estimated in his peer-reviewed paper, The Cosmological Model of Eternal Inflation and the Transition from Chance to Biological Evolution in the History of Life, (Biology Direct 2 (2007): 15, doi:10.1186/1745-6150-2-15) that the probability of even a simple life-form evolving in a region the size of the observable universe, within the time available, is less than 10^(-1,018), or 1 in 1 followed by 1,018 zeroes, I would say that Intelligent Design passes Cavin and Colombetti’s probability test in flying colors. Their statistical syllogism is rendered invalid by an even stronger syllogism going the other way. If the antecedent probability of a supernatural act of intervention is astronomically low, the antecedent probability of a living thing coming into existence without an intelligent designer is infinitesimal. Koonin himself does not infer that an Intelligent Designer made the first living thing; instead, he invokes the multiverse as an explanation for the unlikely appearance of life on Earth. However, in my recent post, Is God a good theory? A response to Sean Carroll (Part Two), I explained why this response was an inadequate one, and I argued that even a multiverse would still need to be designed.
This does not mean that we can infer that life was produced by an act of intervention by the Intelligent Designer. Front-loading is another possibility, although I should point out that physicist Robert Sheldon has written a thought-provoking article entitled, The Front-Loading Fiction (July 1, 2009), in which he critiques the assumptions underlying “front-loading.” What it does mean, however, is that intervention by an Intelligent Designer is a “live option” that is on the table for discussion.
Scientific arguments against supernatural intervention
Later on in their slideshow, Cavin and Colombetti adduce two scientific arguments purporting to show that supernatural intervention is extremely unlikely.
(a) The argument from the Second Law of Thermodynamics
Referring to the miracle of the Resurrection, the authors state that “scientific considerations show that the Resurrection has a non-zero, albeit astronomically small, prior probability” (p. 277), as “the entropy of the Universe markedly decreases in a supernatural resurrection from the dead,” and “the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that: the entropy of a physically isolated system is always increasing” (p. 283). It follows that “The supernatural Resurrection of Jesus by God violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics and thus has an astronomically low prior probability!” (p. 282). Again, a skeptic could mount a similar argument aiming to show that the creation of life on Earth by an act of supernatural intervention would result in a decrease in entropy and thus violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, making it an astronomically unlikely occurrence. Let’s have a look at their argument:
The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that: the entropy of a physically isolated system is always increasing. (p. 283 )
…[But] since the supernatural realm, e.g., God, is non-physical, it lacks mass-energy, thus making the Universe a physically isolated system! (p. 284).
Even if God exists, He is not physical, and thus lacks energy, and so cannot exchange energy in any form with the Universe! The Universe is thus physically isolated: there is nothing with which it can exchange energy in any form! (p. 294).
The first thing I want to say here is that Cavin and Colombetti radically misconceive the way in which God interacts with the cosmos. It’s as if they think God moves things by pushing them. But that’s not how it works at all. Instead, God causes events to happen in the world in much the same way as the author of a book narrates the events that happen in it. As Thomist philosophy Professor Edward Feser put it in a post titled, Are you for real? (May 8, 2011):
The idea is that God’s causality is not like that of one character, object, or event in a story among others; it is more like that of the author of the story. Hence to say that God is the ultimate source of all causality is not like saying that He is comparable to a hypnotist in a story who brainwashes people to do his bidding, or a mad scientist who controls them via some electronic device implanted in their brains. He is more like the writer who decides that the characters will interact in such-and-such a way. And so His being the ultimate source of all causality is no more incompatible with human freedom than the fact that an author decides that, as part of a mystery story, a character will freely choose to commit a murder, is incompatible with the claim that the character in question really committed the murder freely.
The second point I’d like to make is that Cavin and Colombetti falsely assume that when God intervenes supernaturally, He is interacting with an isolated system, where neither matter nor energy can enter or exit – which is why they repeatedly point out in their slideshow that “the Universe a physically isolated system.” But it is far more reasonable to suppose that if God intervenes supernaturally, He acts by redistributing energy within an open system, such as the primordial Earth (which continually received matter from space and energy from the Sun). This kind of intervention would not violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. By contrast, believers in unguided evolution suppose that the Sun’s energy was sufficient to drive a series of chemical reactions leading to the generation of life on Earth. This is an idle speculation on their part, as they supply no mechanism explaining how the process happened, and no calculations demonstrating that the eventual emergence of life, even within a chemical system exposed to sunlight, would be a reasonably likely occurrence (i.e. one with a probability of at least 1 in 10^120).
My third criticism of Cavin and Colombetti’s argument is that it ignores the possibility of creation (and destruction) of energy. The authors write: “Even if God exists, He is not physical, and thus lacks energy, and so cannot exchange energy in any form with the Universe!” Notice the assumption here: that a Supernatural Being interacting with the cosmos would have to do so by exchanging energy with the cosmos. However, an alternative possibility is that God creates extra energy and inputs it into the cosmos. He may also destroy an equivalent amount of energy shortly afterwards, in order to restore the total energy of the cosmos to its previous value.
The fourth reply I’d like to make to Cavin and Colombetti’s argument is that at best, it merely shows that the universe is a physically isolated system (i.e. one in which neither matter nor energy can enter or exit); what it fails to show, however, is that the universe is causally isolated. Cavin and Colombetti acknowledge this criticism, and make two ineffective replies. First, they assert that the Second Law of Thermodynamics has been shown to hold for physically isolated systems — even if they are not causally isolated from God. This assertion misses the point for two reasons: (a) it fails to rule out supernatural interventions which don’t violate the Second Law of thermodynamics; and (b) the Second Law of Thermodynamics has only been shown to hold for physically isolated systems under human-controlled laboratory conditions, whereas the possibility we are considering is that God interacts with the universe-as-a-whole, in circumstances which are entirely under His control (which may mean that the Second Law itself is temporarily suspended).
Second, Cavin and Colombetti argue that “The Second Law as part of the Via Negativa thus shows that God chooses not to supernaturally interfere with physically isolated systems!” (p. 307). We have already disposed of anti-supernaturalist appeals to the Second Law. And as we’ve seen, arguments based on the Via Negativa have a rather hollow ring, given two of the leading proponents of the Via Negativa in the Middle Ages were themselves ardent believers in miracles, in their mature years.
(b) The argument from statistical mechanics
But Cavin and Colombetti have one more ace up their sleeves: the argument from statistical mechanics. Once again the authors take aim at the Resurrection, but their point about microstates can easily be generalized to any miracle in which life is supernaturally generated from dead or inanimate matter:
Statistical Mechanics tells us that all microstates having the same energy have the same equal prior probability. (p. 309)
Statistical Mechanics thus tells us that, even if God has a chosen people, He has no chosen microstates – that is, all microstates having the same energy have the same prior probability! (p. 313)
…the equally probable microstates in which the corpse of Jesus is dead vastly outnumber those in which his body is alive! (p. 316)
Because all the microstates have equal energy, the Postulate of Equal “A Priori” Probabilities applies, and thus all the microstates have equal prior probability. (p. 320)
Because the number of microstates instantiating death and decomposition is vastly greater than those instantiating life, the prior probability that the corpse will not resurrect is virtually 100%. (p. 321)
Since the number of microstates (“ways”) in which the constituents of a body can form a corpse astronomically exceeds the number of microstates (“ways”) in which they form a living body, Cavin and Colombetti conclude that the prior probability of a specifically supernatural Resurrection is astronomically low (pp. 322-323). And I am sure that they would draw the same conclusion regarding the creation of the first life on the primordial Earth: it’s an astronomically unlikely event.
To see why the argument doesn’t work, consider a set of 1,000 dice lined up in a row. All the dice are tossed at the same time. The dice are all fair dice: thus each side of a die has the same prior probability of coming up, when the die is tossed. The number of possible sequences of the numbers 1-6 which come up on the 1,000 tossed dice and which contain no pattern that can be specified briefly (e.g. “1 to 6 repeating”) is astronomically larger than the number of sequences that do contain such a briefly specifiable pattern. And since we know that all sides of a die have the same equal prior probability of coming up, we may conclude that God has no “chosen sides” for any of the dice. Hence, by Cavin and Colombetti’s logic, we would have to infer that there’s no way even for God to manipulate the dice to form a pattern of numbers. But we would be wrong if we made that inference, for three reasons.
In the first place, even in a specified pattern of numbers, there may well be an equal number of 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, 4’s, 5’s and 6’s. (Consider for instance the sequence, “1 to 6 repeating.”) In such a sequence, God has no “chosen sides”: all values are equally represented.
In the second place, it is fundamentally wrong-headed of Cavin and Colombetti to equate the prior probability of a supernatural intervention with the prior probability of its microstates being in the arrangement specified by the Supernatural Being producing that outcome. What they appear not to realize is that miracles, if they occur, are planned and wrought from the top down, rather than from the bottom up. That is, although the microstates must eventually be specified, this is done so only because of, and logically subsequent to, the initial decision to generate a particular pattern in a system.
In the third place, the argument relating to prior probabilities of the various microstates of a system refers only to natural probabilities. Just as a die retains its natural tendency to land with equal probability on any of its sides even while some card cheat is rolling the die in a way that reliably lands on a six (which apparently can be done with practice, so I’ve read), so too, all the microstates of a system retain their equal prior probability in the natural state, even while they are being manipulated by God. (Is that “cheating” on God’s part? Of course not – he made the cosmos, after all!)
UPDATE: In a highly perceptive comment below. Sal Cordova points out that Cavin and Colombetti rely on a questionable assumption in their argument: they assume that if God made the laws of Nature, then those laws are immutable. Cordova offers a simple counter-example: “For example, I could write a computer program that spits out the number 3 every second, and then once a year it spits out 7.” In a similar vein, the mathematician Charles Babbage, in his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (2nd ed., London, 1838; digitized for the Victorian Web by Dr. John van Wyhe and proof-read by George P. Landow), With his own Analytical Engine undoubtedly fresh on his mind, Babbage asked the reader to imagine a calculating engine that displays very predictable regularity for billions of iterations, such as a machine that counts integers. Then it suddenly jumps to another natural law, which again repeats itself with predictable regularity. If the designer of the engine had made it that way on purpose, argued Babbage, it would show even more intelligent design than a machine that merely continued counting integers forever. He concluded that miracles do not truly contravene the laws of Nature at a higher level – a conclusion he reiterated in his later autobiographical work Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts and Green, 1864), where he wrote that miracles are not “the breach of established laws, but… indicate the existence of far higher laws.” (p. 391)
The mathematical argument against supernatural intervention
Cavin and Colombetti also formulate a mathematical argument, which appeals to Bayesian logic, purporting to show that there could never be good evidence for such an act of Divine intervention.
In response to critics of Bayesian logic who contend that arguments based on “prior probability” are unreliable and that we should try to assess the plausibility of a claim rather than its “prior probability,” the authors argue that “plausibility” is in fact the same thing as prior probability; and they cite the work of Professor Brian Skyrms as demonstrating that “any so-called “plausibility” that is not actually probability is wacky and leads to irrational beliefs and decisions!” (p. 384). Skyrms, they say, has shown that plausibility, in order to be well-behaved rationally, i.e. not wacky, must be a probability. That is, it must conform to the axioms of Probability Calculus, and hence it must satisfy Bayes’ Theorem. Besides, they add, recent studies indicate that the human brain is “hard-wired” for Bayesian reasoning (p. 389). Thus, they conclude, the Bayesian Approach shows that, in order to be well-defined, plausibility must be equal to Bayesian prior probability!
For my part, I have absolutely no objection to the use of Bayesian logic when making Intelligent Design inferences. However, I would object strongly to Cavin and Colombetti’s equation of the prior probability of a Supernatural Designer making a living thing from dead matter with the probability of the matter in question spontaneously forming itself into a living organism. That is precisely what it is not. I would, however, be quite happy for argument’s sake to assume a starting prior probability of 10^-120 as a default value that has to be cleared by a highly specified complex pattern, which would have to be shown to be 10^120 times more likely to be the product of a Designer than of an unguided process.
What do readers think?