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Looking at the totality of the evidence: a response to Jeffery Jay Lowder


A little over a year ago, I wrote a reply to a post by skeptic John Loftus, arguing that in a godless universe, senseless evils are precisely what we would expect to happen. Shortly afterwards, Jeffery Jay Lowder, President Emeritus (and co-founder) of Internet Infidels, Inc., posted a reply to my post, which I’d like to respond to today.

In my post, I accused John Loftus of making seven philosophical errors. Jeffery Jay Lowder has responded to each of my seven points. I’d now like to reply to Lowder’s arguments.

Mistake #1: Loftus’ failure to take account of prior probabilities

In his reply, Jeffery Jay Lowder conceded that John Loftus had failed to take account of prior probabilities in his argument – which he agreed was a significant failing, given that Loftus has previously endorsed the use of Bayes’ theorem when assessing the truth of supernatural claims. Lowder went on to observe, however, that in his opinion, “metaphysical naturalism, which entails atheism, has a higher prior probability than theism.”

I reply: that doesn’t really matter, if the theist can produce sufficiently strong evidence for theism. To see why, let’s look at the Bayes’ formula for the probability of a hypothesis H, given the evidence E:

P(H|E) = P(H)x(P(E|H)/[(P(E|H)xP(H))+(P(E|not-H)xP(not-H))]

As Dr. William Lane Craig has pointed out previously, this is mathematically equivalent to saying:

P(H|E) = X/(X+Y)

where X is P(H)x(P(E|H) and Y is (P(E|not-H)xP(not-H)).

The perceptive reader will notice that if X is much bigger than Y, then X/(X+Y) will be very close to 1.

Now suppose our hypothesis H is that some supernatural Deity exists. Suppose we grant Lowder’s claim that P(H), or the prior probability of supernaturalism, is very, very low. Then we can say that P(not-H) is very close to 1, which means that Y is practically equal to P(E|not-H).

My point is simply that if we can find some evidence E for the supernatural, such that Y, or P(E|not-H), is much, much less than X, or P(H)x(P(E|H), then we are entitled to conclude that P(H|E) is high, making the hypothesis of supernaturalism a highly probable one.

Mistake #2: Loftus’ illegitimate narrowing of the evidence set

In my reply to Loftus, I asserted that “if one is to going to conclude that a hypothesis (such as theism) is probably false, one must consider the total relevant evidence.” (I’m quoting here from Lowder’s handy summary of my argument.) I then argued that Loftus had failed to consider the totality of evidence pertaining to theism, in his original post. Lowder grants my point, but goes on to say that theistic arguments also ignore this principle, as they commit what the philosopher Paul Draper calls the fallacy of understated evidence. Proponents of a theistic argument commit this fallacy when they “identify some general fact F about a topic X that is antecedently more likely on theism than on naturalism, but ignore other more specific facts about X, facts that, given F, are more likely on naturalism than on theism.”

I think Draper has a point here, but it isn’t sufficient to undermine theism. Take the general fact that the universe (or for that matter, the multiverse) is now known to have a finite age. Taken by itself, this fact might be said to strongly favor theism over atheism. However, Draper thinks the more specific fact that there’s nothing particularly special about our place in this finite cosmos (the Copernican principle) renders naturalism more likely than theism. But even if Draper were right about this, it still wouldn’t follow that the Copernican principle tips the balance of probabilities the other way. The question we need to answer is: how strongly does the Copernican principle favor naturalism over theism? If it only weakly favors naturalism, then we might rationally conclude that while the ordinariness of our location in the cosmos is not what we would expect if a supernatural Deity had brought us into being, nevertheless the finite age of the cosmos is such a powerful piece of evidence for theism that it still makes a lot more sense to believe in God than to reject theism.

Thus the flaw in Draper’s fallacy of understated evidence is that it fails to quantify the degree to which more specific facts that Draper adduces favor naturalism over theism.

Mistake #3: Loftus overlooks the fact that his “no-God” hypothesis explains senseless tragedies, only if physicalism is true

In my reply to Loftus, I pointed out that the “no-God” hypothesis of metaphysical naturalism makes no prior assumptions regarding the truth of physicalism. (For instance, someone could believe in the reality of spirits without believing in God.) I then argued that if physicalism were false, then we can no longer argue (as Loftus did) that senseless tragedies are the kinds of events that we would expect to happen in our world. That only follows if physicalism is true. But if physicalism were true, then we wouldn’t need Loftus’ argument from evil to disprove theism; the truth of physicalism would be sufficient to establish the non-existence of God. I then criticized Loftus for failing to provide us with an independent argument for the truth of physicalism. Without such an argument, his case against God fails.

In his reply, Lowder cites several facts which, he says, “are much more probable on the assumption that naturalism is true than on the assumption that theism is true,” :

First, not only does the world contain much horrific suffering, but it contains relatively little glorious pleasure. Second, horrific suffering often destroys a person, at least psychologically, and prevents them from growing morally, spiritually, and intellectually. Third, God is silent in the face of tragedies like Sandy Hook, in the sense that victims of tragedies rarely report feeling God’s comforting presence. All three of these facts are more probable on the assumption that Loftus’s “no-God” hypothesis is true than on the assumption that God exists.

Once again, I would reply that this argument treats “naturalism” as if it were a single, unified hypothesis. However, I have already pointed out that these facts are only more probable on a materialistic version of the naturalistic hypothesis, and that if materialism is false, we can draw no conclusions as to whether they favor naturalism over supernaturalism.

Another problem with Lowder’s argument is that unless he can establish some upper bound for the probability of factors (e.g. our possession of libertarian free will, or the occurrence of a Fall at the beginning of human history) which might mitigate the force of the argument from senseless tragedies – for example, by showing that the probability that these mitigating factors actually apply is less than or equal to 0.1 – then it becomes impossible to calculate the likelihood that God would not make a world containing evils such as injustice, confusion and senseless suffering. And in that case, we cannot even say that the Argument from Evil renders God’s existence improbable, let alone impossible.

Mistake #4: Loftus’ “no-God” hypothesis fails to explain the universe in the first place

In his reply, Lowder charges me with committing the fallacy of understated evidence:

Let’s assume that the “no-God” hypothesis indeed fails to explain the universe in the first place. But the fact that the universe exists hardly exhausts the available cosmological evidence. Given that the universe exists, the fact that it began to exist with time, rather than in time, is evidence favoring naturalism over theism. Or again, given that the universe exists, the fact it does not exist on a human scale is evidence which weakly favors naturalism over theism. So it’s far from obvious that the available cosmological evidence, once fully stated, favors theism over naturalism.

I must say I am mystified by Lowder’s claim that the fact that the universe began to exist with time favors naturalism over theism. It was St. Augustine who pointed out that there was no time before the universe was made, and that the universe was created along with time. I see absolutely no reason why this counts as evidence against theism.

Regarding Lowder’s second point (the scale of the universe), he himself admits that it only weakly favors naturalism over theism. But if the existence of the universe is a fact which very strongly favors theism over naturalism, then a rational person would continue to uphold theism.

Lowder also argues that even if the existence of the universe favors theism over naturalism, the occurrence of senseless tragedies points the other way. Now, I’ve already argued that the occurrence of senseless tragedies doesn’t favor naturalism, unless physicalism is true. But even if it did favor naturalism, the question would still need to be asked: to what degree? A theist might acknowledge that the occurrence of senseless tragedies is a good argument against the existence of God, while at the same time maintaining that the existence of a law-governed universe is a much more powerful argument in favor of the existence of God. That’s a perfectly rational position to take.

Mistake #5: The physicalistic version of Loftus’ “no-God” hypothesis fails to explain the emergence of life

Lowder suggests that Loftus could respond to my argument that a materialistic worldview fails to explain the origin of life by making the following counter-attack: cosmological fine-tuning arguments and biological design arguments are at odds with one another. Lowder evidently thinks that in a sufficiently fine-tuned universe, Kauffman-style self-organization would be possible. However, he thinks that the biological design argument aims to show that life could not have emerged without a miracle from God. As the paper, A User’s Guide to Design Arguments by Trent Dougherty & Ted Poston, which Lowder links to, puts it: “If we are to infer divine action from the existence of biologically complex organisms it must be nothing short of miraculous. This is ‘statistical impossibility’.” Lowder then reasons that if the latter argument is true, then the former argument is invalidated.

What Lowder fails to realize is that even if cosmological fine-tuning could render the emergence of life inevitable (as in some front-loading Intelligent Design scenarios), that would in no way weaken the biological design argument, as the finely tuned initial conditions of the universe would still stand in need of an explanation. All it would establish, as Professor William Dembski and Dr. Robert Marks II point out in their paper, Life’s Conservation Law: Why Darwinian Evolution Cannot Create Biological Information, is that “we live in an informationally porous universe” – a startling fact which points to the existence of an Intelligence transcending our cosmos. Dembski and Marks explain why with the aid of a nautical analogy:

Imagine you are on an ancient ship and observe a steersman at
the helm. The ship traverses difficult waters and reaches port. You conclude that the vessel’s trajectory at sea was teleological. Why? Two things: you see a steersman controlling the ship’s rudder who, on independent grounds, you know to be a teleological agent; also, you witness the goal-directed behavior of the ship in finding its way home.

Now imagine a variation on this story. An ancient sailor comes on board a twenty-first century ship that is completely automated so that a computer directly controls the rudder and guides the vessel to port. No humans are on board other than this sailor. Being technologically challenged, he will have no direct evidence of a teleological agent guiding the ship — no steersman of the sort that he is used to will be evident. And yet, by seeing the ship traverse difficult channels and find its way home by exactly the same routes he took with ancient ships guided by human steersmen, he will be in his rights to conclude that a purpose is guiding the ship even if he cannot uncover direct empirical evidence of an embodied teleological agent at the helm.

Now, the Law of Conservation of Information gives this conclusion extra quantitative teeth. According to LCI, any search process that exhibits information by successfully locating a target must have been programmed with no less than what we defined as the active information. Thus, armed with LCI, our ancient steersman, however technologically challenged otherwise, could reasonably infer that a teleological agent had put the necessary active information into the ship (the ship, after all, is not eternal and thus its information could not have resided in it forever). Like the ancient sailor, we are not in a position to, as it were, open the hood of the universe and see precisely how the information that runs evolution was programmed (any more than the sailor can peer into the ship’s computers and see how it was programmed). But LCI guarantees that the programming that inserts the necessary information is nonetheless there in both instances.

What really would weaken the force of the biological design argument is a demonstration that complex life would be quite likely to emerge, even without fine-tuning of the laws or initial conditions of the cosmos. That kind of “self-organization,” were it possible, really would undercut the logic of design inferences. But this hypothetical scenario can be ruled out on purely mathematical grounds. In their paper, Dembski and Marks define information very rigorously, as anything that improves on a blind search (see pages 13-14). Dembski and Marks’ point is that you cannot explain a system’s ability to hit a very small target (say, living things whose cells contain a genetic code of some sort) better than blind chance would, simply by going back in time. For no matter how far back you go, information is always conserved, so you are forced to confront the dilemma: either the system itself is built with an internal bias to reach that goal, or something has to be added to it to bias it in that direction – and the level of bias required never decreases as you go back in time. That’s why you can’t start with a simple unbiased universe, and arrive at us.

Mistake #6: Predation is not senseless, but a necessary fact of life

In my reply to Loftus, I also argued that the existence of predation in the natural world was not a senseless tragedy, but a necessary state of affairs, as some animals have high energy requirements which can only met by killing other animals. I then quoted the Christian philosopher and Anglican divine, William Paley, as arguing that nature needs some way to keep animal populations from multiplying out of control, and that there would be even more animal pain in the world if animals were not killed by predators, because deaths from disease and starvation are slow and lingering.

In his reply, Lowder gave these arguments short shrift:

First, predation is a necessary fact of life only because of the laws of nature. If theism is true, however, God could have designed the laws of nature differently so that predation of sentient animals is unnecessary. Second, facts about the biological role of pain and pleasure and the flourishing and languishing of sentient beings are antecedently very much more probable on naturalism than on theism.

I don’t think the first argument is terribly convincing. Even if it were true that God could have designed the laws of nature so that the predation of sentient animals never took place, they would still need to die somehow – e.g. from hunger, thirst, cold or disease. A swift death as the victim of a predator might be a more merciful end.

But couldn’t God design an animal’s pain regulation such that it passed out automatically when the pain it was suffering exceeded a certain threshold, thereby preventing it from ever experiencing excruciating pain? No. What we need to bear in mind is that an animal’s pain regulation system is regulated by psycho-physical laws. Now suppose that the animal’s pain regulation system were governed by laws like this, guaranteeing that nothing could ever cause it to suffer excruciating pain: “When (animal’s flesh is experiencing second- or third-degree burns) OR (animal’s body is being devoured by a predator) OR (animal’s body is being struck by lightning) OR (animal’s body is falling freely through the air at a speed in excess of 30 meters per second), then: pass out.” And now we can see what’s wrong with this requirement. There are innumerable situations in everyday life which might cause an animal to suffer excruciating pain, and no finite set of program instructions could hope to cover all these cases. (For instance, what about death by electrocution, death by drowning, or dying of thirst in the desert?) An infallible pain regulation system would only work in a Laplacian, deterministic world, where God controlled all the outcomes. But that’s not the world we live in. No moral agents possessing libertarian freedom (such as ourselves) could live in a world like that.

I would therefore argue that not even God could design a natural pain regulation system, governed by psycho-physical laws, that worked infallibly in an indefinite variety of situations. Given such a variety of situations, the only way in which God could prevent animals from suffering excruciating pain in all possible circumstances would be to supernaturally intervene in the rare cases not covered by His natural pain regulation program for animals. What the atheist needs to show is that God is morally bound to intervene in this fashion. The idea (put forward in all seriousness by some atheists) that God, if He existed, would be morally obliged to “step in” every time that an individual animal met with a severely painful situation not covered by the creature’s built-in pain-regulation program, is surely a preposterous one, as it turns God into a cosmic Nanny.

Lowder contends that “facts about the biological role of pain and pleasure and the flourishing and languishing of sentient beings are antecedently very much more probable on naturalism than on theism.”

However, the Christian philosopher, Rev. William Paley, viewed the matter very differently, arguing that the natural world contains a super-abundance of pleasure, making the existence of a benevolent Deity more likely:

Our SECOND PROPOSITION is, “that the Deity has added pleasure to animal sensations, beyond what was necessary for any other purpose, or when the purpose, so far as it was necessary, might have been effected by the operation of pain.”…

A single instance will make all this clear. Assuming the necessity of food for the support of animal life; it is requisite, that the animal be provided with organs, fitted for the procuring, receiving, and digesting of its food. It may be also necessary, that the animal be impelled by its sensations to exert its organs. But the pain of hunger would do all this. Why add pleasure to the act of eating; sweetness and relish to food? why a new and appropriate sense for the perception of the pleasure? Why should the juice of a peach, applied to the palate, affect the part so differently from what it does when rubbed upon the palm of the hand? This is a constitution which, so far as appears to me, can be resolved into nothing but the pure benevolence of the Creator. Eating is necessary; but the pleasure attending it is not necessary: and that this pleasure depends, not only upon our being in possession of the sense of taste, which is different from every other, but upon a particular state of the organ in which it resides, a felicitous adaptation of the organ to the object, will be confessed by any one, who may happen to have experienced that vitiation of taste which frequently occurs in fevers, when every taste is irregular, and every one bad…

In seeking for argument, we need not stay to insist upon the comparative importance of our example; for, the observation holds equally of all, or of three at least, of the other senses. The necessary purposes of hearing might have been answered without harmony; of smell, without fragrance; of vision without beauty…

There are three possible suppositions upon the subject, and no more. The first; that the sense, by its original constitution, was made to suit the object: The second; that the object, by its original constitution, was made to suit the sense: The third; that the sense is so constituted, as to be able, either universally, or within certain limits, by habit and familiarity, to render every object pleasant. Which-ever of these suppositions we adopt, the effect evinces, on the part of the Author of nature, a studious benevolence. (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXVI, pp. 482-486.)

Mistake #7: Loftus fails to account for the marvel of the human brain

Lowder didn’t think much of this argument of mine, either:

Again, Loftus can point out that, at best, Torley is committing the fallacy of understated evidence. Assume that the complexity of the human brain requires a designer and so is evidence favoring theism over naturalism. Given that a human brain exists, however, the fact the mind depends upon the physical brain is evidence favoring naturalism over theism.

The last sentence of Lowder’s is puzzling. Is he seriously maintaining that if there were a God, He would have been more likely to make intelligent beings whose minds didn’t depend on their brains? This, it seems to me, is a very questionable assertion. Believers in the Abrahamic faiths have a ready riposte to Lowder’s argument – “He’s already made them, and they’re called angels.” A believer might add that if God wanted to make a universe containing beings of all grades of perfection up to the angelic level, then He would also want to make rational animals like ourselves, who are intermediate between apes and angels, and whose minds are to a large degree dependent on their brains.

But perhaps what Lowder means instead is that the fact (which we learn via a process of induction) that all intelligent beings have minds which depend on their bodies (or more specifically, their brains) tells against the hypothesis of a disembodied Designer of the cosmos, as all the evidence we have to date shows us that a disembodied Designer is an impossibility.

This is, at first sight, a much more telling point. Richard Dawkins uses the same inductive observation to argue that an Intelligent Designer, if one existed, would have to be staggeringly complex, and that the existence of such a complex being would therefore be vastly improbable.

What this reasoning overlooks, however, is that the inductive inference is made over a restricted domain: beings within our universe. And our observations of beings within such a domain do not necessarily hold true for beings outside that domain. Hence no set of observations of Nature could ever render unlikely the hypothesis of a disembodied Designer.

I conclude that the human brain provides the skeptic with no intellectual ammunition whatsoever against the hypothesis of theism.

The problem is there is no universal probability estimate. Someone who has experience miracles in their lives will have better data samples than someone who hasn't regarding questions of God. A skeptic might say he's not witnessed miracles, so by his estimate there is no God. I respect that since after all the absence of miracles is why Sodom and Gomorrah ended in flames:
Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee. (Matthew 11:20-24)
Faith in God comes by grace. Everyone who has experience God's work in their lives should be grateful that they have evidence even if skeptics who haven't experienced the miracles disbelieve in miracles. Probability arguments above assume relevant evidence is equally accessible to everyone, but that is not the case for people who have experienced miracles. Why grace comes to some and not others is a deep mystery, but as Bill Dembski said, the question is not "why doesn't everyone have grace" but "why does anyone receive grace". Paul was a skeptic till God confronted him in Damascus. There was no need of a probability argument for Paul. Those that believe in God should be grateful that grace was extended to them so that their eyes were opened to the truth just as Paul's eyes were opened. A skeptic will remain a skeptic till God confronts him and softens his heart (as opposed to Pharoah, who had his heart hardened by God). scordova

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