A few months ago, Keith Parsons, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Houston-Clear-Lake, announced that after having taught the philosophy of religion for a decade, during which time he managed to publish over twenty books and articles on the subject, he had decided that this particular field of philosophy was no longer worth teaching, as there was no good case to be made for the existence of God:
I have to confess that I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position – no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest; I don’t think there is a Bernie Madoff in the bunch. I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it. I’ve turned the philosophy of religion courses over to a colleague. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)
Parsons’ choice of words – “I now regard ‘the case for theism’ as a fraud” – ignited a firestorm of controversy, which he now regrets: “I’m afraid what precipitated the thing going viral is that I said it was a fraud, which I shouldn’t have said, because ‘fraud’ implies an intentional attempt to fool people,” Parsons says. However, Parsons has not wavered in his firm belief that the case for God’s existence is utterly devoid of intellectual merit.
Professor Parsons’ unfinished business
Professor Parsons has since written two follow-up posts (see here and most recently, here) to his original announcement on September 1, 2010, that he was quitting philosophy of religion. In today’s post, I’d like to go back to something he wrote near the end of his original announcement, suggesting that he was not quite done with the philosophy of religion:
For instance, the Secular Web has a long critique of my essay “No Creator Need Apply,” and I might respond to that.
Professor Parsons was referring to his online essay, No Creator Need Apply: A Reply to Roy Abraham Varghese (2006), which, I have to say, is one of the best critiques of the cosmological argument for the existence of God that I have ever read. However, after reading the brilliant refutation by Professor Paul Herrick, Job Opening: Creator of the Universe – A Reply to Keith Parsons (2009), I was extremely surprised that Parsons had contemptuously written off the case for theism as without merit in his announcement last September that he would no longer be teaching the philosophy of religion. Any unbiased reader of Parsons’ and Herrick’s essays would acknowledge that Herrick has written a devastating rebuttal of Parsons’ arguments, and unless Parsons can write an equally devastating counter-rebuttal, his retirement from the field of philosophy of religion will look like an ignominious retreat.
Readers may be wondering why I am bothering to write a series of posts on the Parsons-Herrick exchange, if it was so one-sided. The short answer is: I don’t think that even the cleverest atheists fully appreciate the strengths of the intellectual case for theism. Reading Parsons’ essay, I detected a hint of exasperation: evidently Parsons thinks that theists spend a lot of time asking silly questions that should not be asked. Before Professor Parsons attempts a reply to Professor Herrick, I hope that he will take the trouble to read my forthcoming posts, which are intended to address a few issues that Herrick did not have time to discuss in his lengthy rebuttal of Parsons’ essay.
Is “Why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?” a silly question?
In my first post, I’d like to focus on a single paragraph in Parsons’ essay, in which he attempts to show that the question, “Why is the universe the way it is?” is a meaningless one, by likening it to the question, “Why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?”
Why should it surprise us that there is a universe? Why should it surprise us that we have this universe? What else should we expect? Of course, we can imagine that there might (i.e., conceivably could) have been nothing at all or that all sorts of other universes might have existed instead of ours, but this need not create any mystery. There are always innumerable imaginable possibilities whose failure to be realized creates no mystery at all. The moon could conceivably have been made of cheese, but it is no mystery that it isn’t. In general, it is no mystery why something does not exist unless, given our background knowledge, its existence was expected, or at least no more unexpected than what does exist. Nothing in our knowledge base supports the slightest expectation that the moon would be made of cheese. Nor do we have any basis for thinking that some other (ex hypothesi eternal) universe should have existed all along instead of ours. Therefore, it is hard to see how asking “Why doesn’t some other universe exist?” is very different from asking “Why don’t we have a moon made out of cheese?” (Emphasis mine – VJT.)
But is “Why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?” a silly question, which we shouldn’t even bother asking, as Parsons seems to think? For my part, I think that the question makes perfect sense, and that it would be flippant to answer, “Why should it be?” as Parsons evidently thinks we should.
Surprisingly, in the very next paragraph of his essay, Parsons inadvertently refutes his own example of what he considers to be a stupid question (“Why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?”), by providing the grounds that make it a reasonable question:
In scientific contexts, when only one out of a range of relevant alternatives (what Bas van Fraassen calls the “contrast class”; Van Fraassen, 1980) is realized, we naturally and rightly assume that there is some reason why this happened rather than that. We rightly assume that there were physical antecedents and relevant physical laws that determined, at least probabilistically, the occurrence of one event out of a contrast class.
Scientists are currently investigating the interior composition of the moon. A few days ago, a team of NASA-led researchers concluded that the Moon possesses an iron-rich core with a solid inner ball nearly 150 miles in radius, and a 55-mile thick outer fluid shell. In making this determination, the team had to consider what Professor Parsons refers to as “a range of relevant alternatives” regarding the moon’s interior composition. In such a situation, scientists “naturally and rightly assume that there is some reason why this happened rather than that” – to quote Parsons’ own words. For instance, why is the moon’s core composed of iron, rather than silicates?
But if the question, “Why is the moon’s core composed of iron, rather than silicates?” is a reasonable one, then it is also reasonable to ask: “Why is the moon’s core composed of iron, rather than cheese?” which in turn entails that the question, “Why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?” is a perfectly sensible one. Incidentally, for the benefit of readers who may be wondering, the term “green cheese” originally referred to a young, immature cheese:
“The Moon is made of green cheese” was one of the most popular proverbs in 16th and 17th century English literature, and it was also in use after this time. It likely originated in 1546, when The Proverbs of John Heywood claimed “the moon is made of a greene cheese.” (Greene may refer here not to the color, as many now think, but to being new or unaged.)
How might one answer such a question? Again, Professor Parsons tells us himself: by appealing to “physical antecedents and relevant physical laws that determined, at least probabilistically, the occurrence of one event out of a contrast class.” The contrast class in question here is the range of proposed alternatives for the composition of the moon. In asking such a question, today’s scientists would presumably confine their range of alternatives to minerals that are known to exist on Earth, and they would surely laugh at the very idea that the moon is made of cheese. However, a young child, who is lacking scientific knowledge, might well take the possibility seriously. Indeed, a 1902 study in the United States found that although most young children were unsure of the Moon’s composition, the single most common explanation was that it was made of cheese (Slaughter, J. W. (1902), “The Moon in Childhood and Folklore,” American Journal of Psychology XIII: 294–318). And if that strikes readers as ridiculous, let them recall that the Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that the moon and other heavenly bodies were composed of an imperishable fifth element (aether, which was later known as “quintessence”). A large number of medieval scholastic philosophers, including St. Thomas Aquinas, followed Aristotle in this opinion, since it explained not only the apparently uniform circular motion of the heavenly bodies, but also the unchanging character of these bodies, which appeared immune to the corruption that terrestrial bodies were liable to. The point I am making here is that not too long ago, scientists had no way of knowing that the moon wasn’t made of green cheese, and the alternatives they considered, such as quintessence, were no less bizarre. It is only in the light of current knowledge that we no longer bother asking why the moon isn’t made of green cheese. This current knowledge relates to what Professor Parsons describes as “physical antecedents and relevant physical laws.”
So, why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?
Is there any physical law that prevents the moon being composed of green cheese? No; and for that matter, there is none that prevents it being composed of silver. However, there are laws of nature that make it extremely unlikely that a moon composed of green cheese would arise by natural processes from a cloud of hydrogen and cosmic dust, which is the raw material from which the solar system is believed to have been formed. To see why, let’s consider what cheese consists of:
Cheese consists of proteins and fat from milk, usually the milk of cows, buffalo, goats, or sheep. It is produced by coagulation of the milk protein casein. Typically, the milk is acidified and addition of the enzyme rennet causes coagulation. The solids are separated and pressed into final form.
Readers who want to learn more about the structure of casein can go here. Amazingly, even in the 21st century, scientists still aren’t able to properly visualize its true structure.
Cheese is normally made by human beings, but it doesn’t have to be. According to Wikipedia, “it is probable that the process of cheese making was discovered accidentally by storing milk in a container made from the stomach of an animal, resulting in the milk being turned to curd and whey by the rennet from the stomach.” Indeed, legend has it that cheese was discovered by the Arabs in precisely this fashion. But this still begs the question: to make cheese, you need milk, which contains proteins. And an inquisitive child, upon being told about proteins, would reasonably ask: how did proteins form, in the first place?
Uncommon Descent readers will be very familiar with the arguments as to why the formation of a protein by natural processes is an astronomically improbable event (see here, here, here, here and here for examples). I hope that Professor Parsons takes the trouble to acquaint himself with these arguments, as they are based on cutting-edge research. Since cheese largely consists of proteins, we may fairly conclude that while there is nothing which physically prevents the moon from being composed of cheese, the formation of such a moon as a result of natural processes is vanishingly unlikely.
So, how would I answer a young child’s question: “Why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?” If the child was about five years old, I’d answer it like this. To make cheese, you need milk. The only way you can make milk naturally is from animals like cows, who feed their babies with it. There are no animals on the moon, and there never have been. Animals need air, and the moon doesn’t have any, because it’s too small to keep its air. So there’s no way of naturally making a moon out of cheese, let alone green cheese. The key notion being deployed here is that certain raw materials (e.g. milk, from which cheese is made) have a characteristic natural origin: they originate in this way, and no other.
If the child was aged eight years or older, I would add that scientists believed that all of the matter in the universe was originally a very light gas called hydrogen, and that over the course of time, other heavier elements formed, such as iron. Carbon (found in the proteins contained in cheese) formed too, but it was just one of many elements. So even if cheese could form naturally from the elements, without the need for animals, it would be very unlikely that the moon would contain nothing but cheese – a bit like flipping a million coins and getting nothing but heads. At this level, the answer to the child’s question, “Why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?” invokes a rudimentary notion of probability.
If the child were ten years or older, I would further add that the most popular scientific theory of the moon’s origin is that it was formed from the debris left over when another planet collided with Earth. To encourage the child to keep an open mind, I would also mention that some scientists are proposing a new theory of the moon’s formation, according to which a massive nuclear explosion occurred at the edge of Earth’s core, flinging red-hot, liquid rock into space. The orbiting debris gradually coalesced into what is now our moon. No matter which theory is correct, however, the logic is the same: since the Earth isn’t made of green cheese, we wouldn’t expect the moon to be. So the answer to the child’s question in this case depends on the added piece of information that the Earth materially contributed to the moon’s formation.
I hope I have persuaded readers that the question, “Why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?” is a reasonable one, which can be sensibly answered in a way that even a young child can understand.
Before I conclude my post for today, I’d like to say that I have the greatest respect for Professor Parsons’ intellectual honesty: he has even acknowledged that he could be converted to theism: “if all the galaxies in the great Virgo cluster, suddenly were rearranged so that, when viewed from earth, they spelled out ‘Turn or Burn! This Means You Parsons!’ (and if all the world’s astronomers also saw and reported this), then I would be in the front pew of the church or synagogue of my choice next time its doors were open.” He is also a great admirer of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. An atheist who is a fan of Aristotle can’t be all bad.
In my next post, I shall argue that the question, “Why doesn’t some other universe exist?” is a good one, which theists are perfectly entitled to ask and seek an answer to. In the meantime, I hope that the links given above on the unlikelihood of proteins forming from inanimate matter will persuade Professor Parsons to reconsider his bald assertion that Intelligent Design is not a “legitimate biological theory.”