I had intended to write a post on whales as products of Intelligent Design. But the whales will have to wait. In the space of just three hours, Professor Larry Moran has put up two remarkably silly posts. And in both cases, Professor Moran could have spared himself the embarrassment if he had done just a little more reading.
The first post, titled, Can theology produce true knowledge?, critiques Dr. Denis Alexander’s claim that there are other, equally valid, ways of knowing besides science. Professor Moran thinks this is flawed on three counts: first, natural theology is question-begging because “you have to assume the existence of a creator god before you would even think of interpreting the natural world as the produce of his creative mind”; second, “faith cannot be falsified as easily as scientific hypotheses and models,” since alleged falsifications can easily be rationalized away by reinterpreting the Bible in a metaphorical sense, and in any case, “much of what’s written in the Bible has been falsified” (especially with regard to human origins); and thirdly, religious experience does not count as a legitimate way of knowing, owing to the human capacity for self-delusion: you have to “prove to an outside observer that you are not deluded,” and the only way to do that is to “provide evidence that your god is real and that’s the scientific way of knowing.” Professor Moran concludes that Dr. Alexander has failed to make a case for “the ability of theology to produce true knowledge.” After this devastating triple refutation, Moran gleefully chortles:
You’re out, Dr. Alexander. This is a baseball analogy… You have lost your wicket. You are dismissed.
Perhaps someone should tell Professor Moran that there are no wickets in the game of baseball, and that the image which he has attached to the end of his post is not one of a batter being struck out in the game of baseball, but of a batsman being bowled out in the game of cricket.
This is what a strikeout looks like, Professor Moran:
(In the photo above, taken in 2006, Cincinnati Reds outfielder Adam Dunn strikes out swinging to Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz. Braves’ catcher Brian McCann catches the pitch behind the plate. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Why Professor Moran’s three strikes fail miserably
Let’s return to Professor Moran’s “three strikes” against Dr. Denis Alexander. What about Moran’s first strike: his claim that natural theology is question-begging, because it begins with the assumption that God exists? That would be news to St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the foremost theologian of the Catholic Church, who begins his article, Whether God exists? (Summa Theologica I, q.2, art.3) by marshaling two arguments against God’s existence – the argument from evil and Occam’s razor – before proceeding to argue that “the existence of God can be proved in five ways.” Don’t believe me? Go on, have a look:
Objection 1. It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word “God” means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.
Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.
You can’t get a fairer statement of the case for atheism than that.
Now, I’m sure Professor Moran will respond that he doesn’t find Aquinas’ Five Ways convincing – although he really should peruse Ed Feser’s short and highly readable book, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (Oneworld Publications, paperback, 2009) before venturing an opinion on the subject. Be that as it may, Moran is manifestly wrong in asserting that natural theology assumes the existence of God. It doesn’t: Aquinas’ Five Ways, for instance, merely assume the existence of change, causation, contingent states of affairs, grades of perfection, and things that tend to produce certain characteristic effects. (And in case Moran is interested, there are cogent contemporary arguments for God’s existence – see here, here and here.)
I think any fair-minded umpire would rule against Moran’s strike one, calling it a foul instead.
What of Moran’s second strike: that faith isn’t falsifiable in the same way as science is, because statements in the Bible which are contradicted by scientific discoveries can always be reinterpreted metaphorically? Wrong on two counts. First, Moran is assuming that Christianity is tied to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. It isn’t. You could believe in all of the doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed – and the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds as well, which are much more explicit about the Trinity – without believing in the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. That was C.S. Lewis’s position, for instance.
What, then, is Christianity tied to? The most logical way to define Christianity is to look at the credal statements drawn up by the early Christians themselves – notably, the Apostles’ Creed, which, in its Old Roman form, is probably the oldest known statement of the Christian faith, dating back to before 200 A.D.. What the creed affirms is the following: that God created the universe (“heaven and earth”); that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, named Mary; that He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, rose again on the third day, and ascended to be with His Heavenly Father; that He will return to judge the living and the dead; that in addition to the Father and the Son, there is a Holy Spirit; that there is a communion of saints in Heaven as well as a holy catholic church on earth; that sins can be forgiven; and that there will one day be a resurrection of the dead to everlasting life. Some of these statements are obviously falsifiable: if it turned out, for instance, that the universe had no beginning (and hence no Creator), or that the doctrine of the Virgin birth was a second-century addition to the Christian faith; or that no individual named Jesus of Nazareth, professing to be a king, was ever crucified under Pontius Pilate; or that such an individual was crucified, but his body was dug up next week by archaeologists in Palestine, then it would be curtains for Christianity. The early Christian Fathers thought likewise, which is why they went to such lengths to refute attacks on their faith by skeptics. And herein lies Moran’s second error: when he suggests that Christianity is immune to falsification because its teachings can always be reinterpreted metaphorically, he never asks himself the vital question: reinterpreted by whom? The Bible itself never asks us to believe in God, even if He didn’t create the universe; nor does it ask us to believe in Jesus Christ, even if He didn’t rise from the grave. The notion that religious faith ought to be unfalsifiable is a theological novelty, which seems to have arisen in Christian circles a mere 220 years ago, in the writings of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who was heavily influenced by the philosopher Spinoza’s naturalistic critique of miracles. However, Schleiermacher’s position is a minority view among Christians to this day, and to his credit, Dr. Denis Alexander (the molecular biologist who is the object of Moran’s scorn) roundly rejects such a compromise view: for him, the discovery of Jesus’ bones in Palestine would falsify Christianity.
The Arnolfini Portrait, by Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441). Date: 1434. National Gallery, London. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
So much for Professor Moran’s first two strikes. What of his third strike: his claim that you can’t know anything from religious experience unless you can “prove to an outside observer that you are not deluded”? What Moran’s argument implicitly assumes is that you can’t know something is true unless you can prove it to an unbiased outsider. But knowing and proving are very different things, and in the course of everyday life, there are many things that we can properly claim to know, even though we cannot prove them. We do not (and should not) need a scientist to tell us that someone whom we know very well is trustworthy, or that someone in our family loves us. These judgments that we make about particular individuals are intuitive rather than scientific: often we may be quite certain of them, even though we are unable to articulate the grounds for our certainty. Professor Moran might respond that our intuitive judgments about others are nevertheless empirically testable: for instance, the behavior of your spouse over the course of time can lend strong evidential support to the hypothesis that s/he loves you. But even if statements like “My spouse loves me” are testable, we typically come to believe in their truth long before we have subjected them to systematic testing. And we are right to do so.
Professor Moran could argue that at least an unbiased outsider can be satisfied by the evidence that my spouse exists: he can see her and talk to her, for instance. However, the situation is quite different when it comes to God: many people (including people who would like to believe in God) have never had an experience of Him, and therefore doubt or deny His existence. But what this argument illicitly assumes is that religious experience is uniformly accessible to everyone. Perhaps it isn’t; maybe it requires a certain aptitude on the part of the recipient. Just as some otherwise normal people are quite tone-deaf, it may be the case that some people are (through no particular fault of their own) deaf to the “still, small voice of God.” I can quite sympathize; in my entire life, I’ve had only a couple of experiences that I might describe as a sense of the presence of God, and I certainly haven’t heard any voices or seen any visions. But if other people are convinced that they have, then who am I to say that they have no right to be sure they’ve seen God until I can see what they claim to have seen? That would be extremely presumptuous of me. It could be that I’m just religiously tone-deaf – or very hard of hearing. Should I be wary of visionaries’ claims? Certainly – especially when different people claim to see different things. But that has no bearing on the question of whether these people’s experiences count as a valid source of knowledge – at least for them.
What’s wrong with Moran’s claim that science is the only way of knowing?
In his post, Can theology produce true knowledge?, Professor Moran concludes that “for the time being, science is the only proven way to arrive at true knowledge.” If he had taken the trouble to read Associate Professor Edward Feser’s short article in Public Discourse, Blinded by Scientism (March 9, 2010), he would have seen why this statement is simply ridiculous. Here’s how Feser (an ex-atheist) demolishes the view that all real knowledge is scientific knowledge (scientism):
Despite its adherents’ pose of rationality, scientism has a serious problem: it is either self-refuting or trivial. Take the first horn of this dilemma. The claim that scientism is true is not itself a scientific claim, not something that can be established using scientific methods. Indeed, that science is even a rational form of inquiry (let alone the only rational form of inquiry) is not something that can be established scientifically. For scientific inquiry itself rests on a number of philosophical assumptions: that there is an objective world external to the minds of scientists; that this world is governed by causal regularities; that the human intellect can uncover and accurately describe these regularities; and so forth. Since science presupposes these things, it cannot attempt to justify them without arguing in a circle. And if it cannot even establish that it is a reliable form of inquiry, it can hardly establish that it is the only reliable form. Both tasks would require “getting outside” science altogether and discovering from that extra-scientific vantage point that science conveys an accurate picture of reality—and in the case of scientism, that only science does so.
The rational investigation of the philosophical presuppositions of science has, naturally, traditionally been regarded as the province of philosophy. Nor is it these presuppositions alone that philosophy examines. There is also the question of how to interpret what science tells us about the world. For example, is the world fundamentally comprised of substances or events? What is it to be a “cause”? Is there only one kind? (Aristotle held that there are at least four.) What is the nature of the universals referred to in scientific laws — concepts like quark, electron, atom, and so on — and indeed in language in general? Do they exist over and above the particular things that instantiate them? Scientific findings can shed light on such metaphysical questions, but can never fully answer them. Yet if science must depend upon philosophy both to justify its presuppositions and to interpret its results, the falsity of scientism seems doubly assured. As the conservative philosopher John Kekes (himself a confirmed secularist like Derbyshire and MacDonald) concludes: “Hence philosophy, and not science, is a stronger candidate for being the very paradigm of rationality.”
Here we come to the second horn of the dilemma facing scientism. Its advocate may now insist: if philosophy has this status, it must really be a part of science, since (he continues to maintain, digging in his heels) all rational inquiry is scientific inquiry. The trouble now is that scientism becomes completely trivial, arbitrarily redefining “science” so that it includes anything that could be put forward as evidence against it. Worse, it makes scientism consistent with views that are supposed to be incompatible with it. For example, a line of thought deriving from Aristotle and developed with great sophistication by Thomas Aquinas holds that when we work out what it is for one thing to be the cause of another, we are inexorably led to the existence of an Uncaused Cause outside time and space which continually sustains the causal regularities studied by science, and apart from which they could not in principle exist even for a moment.
If “scientism” is defined so broadly that it includes (at least in principle) philosophical theology of this kind, then the view becomes completely vacuous. For the whole point of scientism — or so it would seem given the rhetoric of its loudest adherents — was supposed to be to provide a weapon by which fields of inquiry like theology might be dismissed as inherently unscientific and irrational.
(The bolding in the above passage is mine – VJT.)
Of course, it might turn out that biochemist Larry Moran has a crushing rejoinder to Edward Feser, who is a professional philosopher. And for that matter, pigs might fly. But I certainly wouldn’t bet on either proposition.
Why Moran’s critique of the fine-tuning argument fails
Professor Moran’s second silly post of February 8 is titled, Intelligent Design Creationism and the fine-tuning argument. Moran thinks that biochemist Michael Denton (who is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture) is “not a trustworthy source of information” when it comes to the fine-tuning argument. So who does he turn to instead? The late physicist Victor Stenger, author of God the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Moran writes:
I have to trust an authority on this one. I choose to trust physicist Igor (sic) Stenger who has actually done an experiment to test the hypothesis of fine tuning.
I conclude that fine tuning is not a valid argument for the existence of gods.
Evidently Professor Moran has not read (or heard of) the devastating refutation of Victor Stenger’s “take-down” of the fine-tuning argument by cosmologist Dr. Luke Barnes, in a 2011 ARXIV paper titled, The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life. For the benefit of readers who dislike mathematics, I’ve written a non-technical overview of Dr. Barnes’ paper, titled, Is fine-tuning a fallacy? (January 5, 2012). In his paper, Dr. Barnes takes care to avoid drawing any metaphysical conclusions from the fact of fine-tuning. He has no religious axe to grind. His main concern is simply to establish that the fine-tuning of the universe is real, contrary to the claims of Professor Stenger, who asserts that all of the alleged examples of fine-tuning in our universe can be explained without the need for a multiverse.
Not only has Professor Moran not heard of Dr. Luke Barnes, but he hasn’t even picked the best critique of the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God, which was made by physicist Dr. Sean Carroll in a debate with Dr. William Lane Craig. I’ve responded to Dr. Carroll in a post titled, Debunking the debunker: How Sean Carroll gets the fine-tuning argument wrong.
I might add that Professor Stenger’s denial of the very existence of fine-tuning puts him at odds with most experts in the field. Here is a list of prominent scientists (compiled by Dr. Barnes) who acknowledge the reality of fine-tuning:
Barrow, Carr, Carter, Davies, Hawkins,
Deutsch, Ellis, Greene, Guth, Harrison,
Hawking, Linde, Page, Penrose,
Polkinghorne, Rees, Sandage, Smolin,
Susskind, Tegmark, Tipler, Vilenkin,
Weinberg, Wheeler, Wilczek
Commenting on these scientists’ religious perspectives, Dr. Barnes remarks: “The list is a roughly equal mix of theist, non-theist and unknown.”
Now, if Professor Moran thinks that Victor Stenger is a more trustworthy source than these eminent scientists, then he is entitled to his opinion; however, he cannot credibly claim to be listening to what the experts have to say.
Dr. Barnes’ conclusions at the end of his paper, The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life, are well worth quoting:
We conclude that the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of life. Of all the ways that the laws of nature, constants of physics and initial conditions of the universe could have been, only a very small subset permits the existence of intelligent life. (p. 62)
It is not true that fine-tuning must eventually yield to the relentless march of science. Fine-tuning is not a typical scientific problem, that is, a phenomenon in our universe that cannot be explained by our current understanding of physical laws. It is not a gap. Rather, we are concerned with the physical laws themselves. In particular, the anthropic coincidences are not like, say, the coincidence between inertial mass and gravitational mass in Newtonian gravity, which is a coincidence between two seemingly independent physical quantities. Anthropic coincidences, on the other hand, involve a happy consonance between a physical quantity and the requirements of complex, embodied intelligent life. The anthropic coincidences are so arresting because we are accustomed to thinking of physical laws and initial conditions as being unconcerned with how things turn out. Physical laws are material and efficient causes, not final causes. There is, then, no reason to think that future progress in physics will render a life-permitting universe inevitable. When physics is finished, when the equation is written on the blackboard and fundamental physics has gone as deep as it can go, fine-tuning may remain, basic and irreducible. (p. 63)
Perhaps the most optimistic scenario is that we will eventually discover a simple, beautiful physical principle from which we can derive a unique physical theory, whose unique solution describes the universe as we know it, including the standard model, quantum gravity, and (dare we hope) the initial conditions of cosmology. While this has been the dream of physicists for centuries, there is not the slightest bit of evidence that this idea is true. It is almost certainly not true of our best hope for a theory of quantum gravity, string theory, which has “anthropic principle written all over it” (Schellekens, 2008). The beauty of its principles has not saved us from the complexity and contingency of the solutions to its equations. Beauty and simplicity are not necessity. (p.63)
At the end of his post, Professor Moran asks:
Can Intelligent Design Creationists refute the views of Stenger and other physicists or have they just convinced themselves that what they say to each other is true?
I hope that Professor Moran will have the grace to own that his critique of the fine-tuning argument was uninformed, and that Intelligent Design proponents have done their homework on this argument.
Professor Moran’s scientism lies tattered in shreds; his critique of the fine-tuning argument has been thoroughly eviscerated; and his “three strikes” against Dr. Denis Alexander turned out to be fouls. Would a retraction be out of the question, Professor?