CosmicSceptic and objective morality

0. Introduction

CosmicSceptic is an atheist YouTuber, called Alex, from England. Despite those similarities, we see things a bit differently. He recently made a video, called Morality Can’t be Objective, Even if God Exists. In it, CosmicSceptic (henceforth CS) makes a few pretty sloppy arguments, and I’m going to explain where I think he went wrong here.

  1. The main claim – morality is subjective

At the start of the video, CS explains that he has had something of a change in his view recently. Apparently, he used to think that atheists had to be subjectivists about morality, but that theists could be objectivist about morality. In contrast to that, he now believes that:

“…even they, the religious … can’t provide an objective basis for morality either” (1:17).

So what CS is going to argue is that nobody can provide an ‘objective basis’ for morality; all morality is subjective, whether atheistic or theistic in nature.

1.1 Subjective and Objective

An immediate issue is that CS doesn’t tell us exactly what he means by ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’. It’s not a particularly controversial topic, and this Carneades video does a good job explaining it. Basically:

  • x is objective if and only if (iff) x does not depend on what we think or feel about x.
  • x is subjective iff x does depend on what we think or feel about x.

On the other hand, I think CS sometimes means something slightly different by the term ‘objective’. Sometimes, it sounds like he means the following:

  • x is objective iff it can be shown (or demonstrated, or proven) to be the case

These are two ideas are distinct, because (at least in principle) something can be objective in either sense without being objective in the other.

For example, unproven (or or even unprovable) mathematical formulas are still true or false independently of what anyone thinks about them (although some philosophers disagree, most don’t). So, there can be things that are true independently of what we think, but not demonstrable.

Conversely, something can be demonstrated to be the case, yet not be true independently from what we think about it. For example, we can demonstrate the value of the dollar vs the pound (by pointing to the latest exchange rate), but all monetary value is a product of collective human agreement, and would not exist if minds did not exist.

So being mind-independent and being demonstrable are logically distinct notions, and should not be conflated. Unfortunately, there is a sort of ambiguity present whenever CS says ‘objective’. For instance, when CS makes his central claim, it seems to me to be infected with the above ambiguity. He says (1:45):

“I am now of the view that all morality, even religious morality, is ultimately subjective”.

Is he saying that: all morality depends on our mental states or that: morality cannot be shown to be true? These are quite different. His central claim is not clear. Maybe he has explained this in other videos, but haven’t seen him ever explain this. This will become important towards the end.

Anyway, CS explains that he will outline the following:

  1. How he defines morality
  2. Why he thinks religious morality is subjective.

So let’s take these in turn.

2. Defining morality

CS defines morality as (5:43):

“The intuition that we ought to do that which is good and ought not do that which is bad.”

He puts this as text on the screen so we are sure to note it. There are several big problems with this though.

Firstly, it completely begs the question against the moral realist. Usually, moral realism is the view that moral claims, such as “x is good” or “one ought to do x”, state truths, and these are true independently of what people think or feel about them (i.e. they are objectively true). Yet, CS defines morality explicitly in terms of intuitions, which are mental states. If there were no minds to have intuitions, then there would be no morality according to CS’s definition. That rules out moral truths as being ‘objectively’ true from the outset.

Before he gives his definition, he talks about something that Tracy Harris said on an episode of the Atheist Experience. CS disagrees with Harris because he thinks that when talking about what makes someone moral or not, she left out the idea of having moral intuitions. CS imagines a robot that is programmed to act fairly, but this wouldn’t make the robot moral, according to CS. To be so, the robot needs moral intuitions, says CS.

Perhaps a moral agent requires intuitions of what is right and wrong (although I’m not sure I buy that either), but that definitely doesn’t mean that morality itself should be defined as being an intuition about what is right and wrong. Morality, surely, is what our moral agent has intuitions about; that is what we need to be defining. So I think I can see how CS got to his definition, but he should drop the word ‘intuition’ from it (and indeed he later does).

Secondly, and this is more important, there are clear counterexamples to the central aspect of his proposal. He is basically offering two conditionals, which relate the moral properties of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ with the moral duties, or obligations, which are what you ‘ought’ and ‘ought not’ to do. His conditionals are as follows:

  1. If something is good, then we ought to do it
  2. If something is bad, then we ought not to do it

CS seems to think these are mere platitudes. Yet, there are seemingly obvious counterexamples to this.

In general, being obligatory is a stronger requirement than being good; there are things which are morally good to do, but which you are under no obligation to do. For example, friendship is morally good, but it is not morally obligatory to have friends. The concept of what is morally good is larger than what is morally obligatory; it contains what is obligatory, but also contains things that are not obligatory (like friendship).

Similarly, there are things that are morally bad, which are not impermissible. Exactly what the examples of this category are is debatable of course, but gambling or eating meat are examples of things that are plausibly morally bad but not impermissible. In that way, bad contains the impermissible as a proper subset, and also things that are not impermissible.

We can place actions on a moral scale, as follows:

  1. Both good and obligatory (like saving a person who is drowning in front of you)
  2. Good but not obligatory (like friendship)
  3. Neutral (like having toast for breakfast)
  4. Bad but not impermissible (like eating meat, or gambling)
  5. Both bad and impermissible (like murder or rape)

The fact that we have categories 2 and 4 stops CS’s idea, that we ought to do what is good and ought not to do what is bad, from looking plausible.

2.1 Argument

(The causal reader can skip this bit if they like.)

We can even make an argument which shows what is at stake by adopting CS’s idea, as follows. Consider the principle that ought implies can:

  1. If x is obligatory, then x is possible.

This principle seems very intuitive. Yet, if CS’s view were correct, we would have to abandon it. The reason is that there is no ‘good implies can’ principle, and this makes the pair asymmetric. Here is an illustration:

Imagine you have just one $5 note in your pocket, and are faced with two charity collection buckets; one for a dog charity and one for a cat charity. Giving to the dog charity is morally good, and giving to the cat charity is morally good. Giving to both is morally good. Yet, if we ought to do what is good, then we ought to give the $5 bill in both the dog and cat bucket. But it is impossible to do that; the same bill cannot go in each bucket. Tearing the bill in half will result in giving nothing of any value to either, which is bad. So we have something which is good to do (give to both), and is therefore something that we ought to do (by CS’s principle), but which is also something that we cannot do (because we can only give to one and not the other). Thus there is something we ought to do that we cannot do, which clashes with the ought implies can principle. We can avoid this difficulty by recognising that although both are good, neither is obligatory, which is to throw out CS’s principle.

Here is a slightly more formalised version of the argument, for people who like that sort of thing. If you don’t, you can definitely skip this bit. It’s a reductio ad absurdum:

  1. ~(◊(Dog & Cat))                                   (Assumption)
  2. G(Dog) & G(Cat)                                  (Assumption)
  3. O(x) -> ◊(x)                                          (Ought implies can)
  4. G(x) -> O(x)                                          (CS’s principle)
  5. ∴ G(Dog & Cat)                                    (2, distribution)
  6. ∴ O(Dog & Cat)                                    (4, 5, modus ponens)
  7. ∴ ◊(Dog & Cat)                                    (3, 6, modus ponens)
  8. ∴ ◊(Dog & Cat) & ~(◊(Dog & Cat))    (1, 7, conj. intro.)

7 contradicts 1. One has to deny either 3, or 4, or show that some step is invalid. Is it invalid to infer from two things being good that their conjunction is good (premise 5)? Premise 3 is very intuitive, premise 4 is CS’s principle. Given the above reasons for doubting CS’s principle, it seems obvious that we should just avoid it and block the inference to the conclusion.

2.2 Moore

Despite saying that he is a big fan of moral philosophy, frustratingly, CS only mentions one actual moral philosopher, G E Moore. CS says (6:55) emphatically that:

“…the reason that morality can’t be objective is precisely because ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘ought’ can’t be defined. I subscribe to G E Moore’s notion that Good is like the colour yellow. It has no synonyms. It can’t be described to someone who has never experienced it. Nonetheless, you know what I mean by yellow, and you know what I mean by good”

So, not everyone holds to this view, that moral notions can’t be defined. If you think that good actions are those that maximise happiness (or wellbeing, or whatever), then you do think you can say something about what ‘good’ means. Also, if you think that good actions are ones that God commands, then you think you can say something about what good means. Moore disagreed with both of these types of approaches to meta-ethics, and argued that no definition could be given. So, when CS says that he subscribes to G E Moore’s notion that “good is like the colour yellow. It has no synonyms,” it seems like he is saying that he is a moral non-naturalist, like Moore.

But it is strange to see CS endorsing Moore, because Moore was a famous moral realist, who thought there were mind-indepenedent truths about morality. For example, in the opening section on Moore’s moral philosophy in the Stanford article, we find the following point:

“Moore’s non-naturalism comprised two main theses. One was the realist thesis that moral and more generally normative judgements … are objectively true or false. The other was the autonomy-of-ethics thesis that moral judgements are sui generis, neither reducible to nor derivable from non-moral, that is, scientific or metaphysical judgements.”

Clearly then, Moore held that moral notions were both objective and indefinable. In contrast, CS says that moral notions can’t be objective because they are indefinable (“the reason that morality can’t be objective is precisely because ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘ought’ can’t be defined”). This is really quite different from Moore.

In fact, Moore is at pains to stress that cases of moral disagreement are like cases of mathematical disagreement (which is paradigmatically objective). We do not simply say that each party has their own subjective view of what is at stake in mathematics; rather, we explain it by supposing that (at least) one party is making a mistake somewhere. As Moore famously says about finding someone doing mathematics seemingly incorrectly:

“If we find a gross and palpable error in the calculations, we are not surprised or troubled that the person who made this mistake has reached a different result from ours. We think that he will admit that his result is wrong, if his mistake is pointed out to him. For instance, if a man has to add up 5 + 7 + 9, we should not wonder that he has made the result to be 34, if he started by making 5 + 7 = 25. And so in Ethics, if we find, as we did, that ‘desirable’ is confused with ‘desired’, or that ‘end’ is confused with ‘means’, we need not be disconcerted that those who have committed these mistakes do not agree with us. The only difference is that in Ethics, owing to the intricacy of its subject-matter, it is far more difficult to persuade anyone either that he has made a mistake or that that mistake affects his result” (Moore, Principia Ethica, §87).

Moore clearly thinks that ethical disputes are as objective as mathematical disputes, and only look different (i.e. look potentially subjective) because ethics is harder than mathematics.

Thus, CS has only a passing connection to Moore’s philosophy here. If this was the first time you had encountered Moore’s moral philosophy, you might come away thinking that his view is similar to CS’s, when they are extremely different

Confusingly, CS seems to change his own tune. Firstly, he starts off saying that moral terms can’t be defined (and cites Moore), but later on he seems to be advocating a pragmatic strategy, which is that by simply not defining them, isn’t taking a stand on moral philosophy at all. He says (7:45):

“The moment we attempt to define good, as in to give it a synonym, we necessarily have to presume a particular moral philosophy. I might define ‘good’ as ‘what God commands’, or as ‘what procures wellbeing’. But to do so I would automatically be agreeing with a certain philosophy. And this is why I haven’t defined ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘ought’ in my definition.”

So there are two different reasons given for why CS doesn’t define moral terms:

  • “…the reason that morality can’t be objective is precisely because ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘ought’ can’t be defined”
  • “…to [define moral terms] I would automatically be agreeing with a certain philosophy. And this is why I haven’t defined ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘ought’ in my definition.”

Moore’s claim was that moral terms are indefinable. He has arguments for that claim (such as the open question argument, and the naturalistic fallacy). That is itself a type of moral philosophy, called non-naturalism. Advocating the position that moral terms are indefinable is already to take a stand on moral philosophy, and to disagree with people who define moral terms in relation to God’s commands or maximising wellbeing. Moore didn’t just refrain from giving a definition because otherwise he would “automatically be agreeing with a certain philosophy”. He wasn’t avoiding advocating a moral philosophy. He had a very distinct, and influential, moral philosophy of his own.

CS seems to think in this section that by not defining the terms he is not taking a stand deciding between moral philosophies. That’s not only false (because he would be endorsing a version of non-naturalism, which is itself a species of realism), but it is also different from what he said above. Either CS doesn’t define moral terms because he thinks, like Moore, that they can’t be defined; or he merely holds off from defining them in order to make a statement that other people can get on board with. These are not the same, but CS doesn’t seem to recognise that.

We are left feeling that his grasp of what Moore’s moral philosophy is, is shaky at best.

3. Religious morality – Craig’s argument

CS examines some quotations from William Lane Craig. CS sets up the challenge as follows (10:55):

“So why does Dr Craig feel that atheism can’t provide a basis for objective morality?”

The quote from Craig goes as follows:

“Well, because if morality is just based in feelings, and relationships with other people, and the way we were raised by our parents and society, then it’s all relative – someone who has different feelings or was raised in a different society might have a vastly different set of values and moral duties – and therefore it’s not objective; its purely subjective”

CS comes back immediately after playing the clip by saying:

“Ok, so that’s crucial. Note the use of the word “therefore”. Dr Craig says that atheistic morality can vary upon a person’s upbringing, their geographical and social background, their environment, which ‘therefore’ shows that it is subjective, because it wouldn’t be variable if it were objective.”

I take it that this is CS summarising what he takes to be Craig’s argument here. We can put it like this:

  1. Atheistic morality can vary due to geography, etc.
  2. Therefore, atheistic morality is subjective.

CS thinks that this argument can be turned against religious morality though:

“It seems by that logic that if I can show that religious morality can vary in the same way, it too is therefore subjective. And of course a moment’s reflection allows us to realise that religious views too, obviously, vary in exactly the same way. A person’s religious view is more often than not determined by their social and geographical background, just as atheistic morality is.”

CS is making the following argument:

  1. Religious morality can vary due to geography, etc
  2. Therefore, religious morality is subjective.

Let’s try to be clear about what is going on. I’m going to make two distinct points about this. Firstly, he seems to be strawmanning Craig’s assertion. Secondly, CS is using the term ‘atheistic morality’, but he doesn’t explain what he takes that phrase to mean, and this causes problems with how he takes the argument even if we think he didn’t strawman Craig.

3.1 Treating Craig Fairly?

I think that there is reason to seriously doubt that CS’s idea of Craig’s argument is what Craig was really saying. CS seems to ignore entirely the first part of Craig’s sentence. Consider it again:

“… if morality is just based in feelings, and relationships with other people, and the way we were raised by our parents and society, then it’s all relative.”

It is a conditional, and the first bit of the antecedent is “morality is just based in feelings”. The conclusion, following on from the word ‘therefore’ that CS told us was crucial, was “it’s not objective – its purely subjective”. Let’s recall that the standard definition of subjective just means that it is dependent on our thoughts and feelings. On one reading then, what is going on here is that Craig is really just spelling out that:

If “morality is just based in feelings” then “it’s not objective; its purely subjective”

That is a simple definitional consequence. That’s just what it means to be subjective.

The words that follow the ‘therefore’ (i.e. “it’s not objective; its purely subjective”) isn’t primarily supported by the idea that morality varies from place to place. That is merely an illustration of the wider antecedent assumption, which is that “morality is just based in feelings”. This seems to be the most straightforward way to hear what Craig is saying here.

Looking at it the way CS does though, Craig is making a really poor argument. He might be doing so, but given that there is another easy way of reading him, why think that he is? Why not consider the better argument? Either CS didn’t ever realise that Craig could be read like that, or he simply misunderstands Craig (due to not being clear on what ‘objective’ means), or he is strawmanning Craig. I don’t know which one it is.

3.2. Atheistic morality

CS uses the term ‘atheistic morality’ when summarising Craig’s argument. But it is not clear what this means. Obviously, it indicates that God isn’t required as part of the theory, which makes divine command theory definitely not a candidate. But we don’t know anything else about it. And it matters for what CS wants to say in a minute. So just to be clear, let’s distinguish two possible ‘atheistic moralities’:

  • Moral subjectivism – there are moral truths, but they depend on human minds for their existence
  • Moorean non-naturalism – there are moral truths, and they are objective non-natural truths.

CS gives us no reason to think that one of these is what ‘atheistic morality’ means rather than the other. Both seem like options available to an atheist (Moore’s theory requires no reference to a God). So, again, we have an ambiguity over what CS is talking about. And this matters here, because it will infect his argument.

So, to recap, CS characterised Craig’s argument as saying that because ‘atheistic morality’ varies from place to place, that means it is subjective. CS then said that he can turn this logic on religious morality, because that varies from place to place too. At this point, CS says that there is an obvious rebuttal to this turning back of Craig’s argument (12:10):

“Ok, I can already hear the sounds of religious objection. Of course religious views vary, but that’s not because my religion is only subjectively correct. It still has an objectively true morality. It’s just that other people have gotten it wrong, and follow a false morality, because they feel that their religion is objectively true when it really isn’t. My morality is still objective even if other people have gotten it wrong.”

So the response CS imagines hearing is someone basically saying that variation in opinions does not mean that the topic is subjective. This response is exactly what Moore said about moral disagreement. For a moral realist, whether religious or not, the fact that people have different views about morality is just like when they have different views about mathematics. It doesn’t show that it is all subjective; it shows that at least one person is incorrect.

CS thinks that there are two problems with this as a response:

“Firstly, the exact same could be said of atheistic claims to objective morality. Of course atheistic claims of morality vary by social and geographical backgrounds. But that doesn’t mean it’s not objective, just that other people have gotten it wrong. It’s the same thing”

But now the failure to distinguish between the two potential versions of ‘atheistic morality’ starts to make trouble.

If ‘atheistic morality’ is a version of subjectivism, then this rebuttal is not available to the atheist. On subjectivism, if you think X is wrong, and I think X is right, we cannot explain that as a case of one of us being mistaken. Each of us is just reporting our own individual opinion, like saying “I like X” and “I do not like X”. That doesn’t count as a case of disagreement, and cannot be explained by one of us making a mistake. It is deeply disanalogous to mathematics.

On the other hand, if ‘atheistic morality’ is a version of realism, like Moore’s theory, then the rebuttal is available. However, CS states very explicitly that he is a subjectivist about morality, so this response is not available to him.

So he can only take this route by denying the central claim in his video.

CS has a second reason:

“Secondly and more crucially, the only reason that anybody could possibly choose one religious morality as more ethically viable than another is because they feel that it provides a better framework for moral truth. How else could a person possibly prove to themselves or to others that one religion has a superior ethical code to another? How else can a Christian possibly believe that the ethical code of Christianity is superior to that of Islam? If you want to compare the ethics of two religions you need some moral basis on which to judge them. That moral basis obviously can’t be one of the religions and so the only way you can decide which religion is morally superior is through a subjective analysis of which you feel is better. It’s ultimately a subjective decision based on your, not your religion’s, moral intuition.”

So, let’s recap a bit. The argument CS takes himself to be responding to is his version of Craig’s argument, which was that because atheistic moral opinions vary, that means it is subjective. He replied that the same could be said of religious views; they vary as well, so they should be subjective on that logic. He then painted a possible reply from religious people, who say that the difference of opinion doesn’t imply subjectivism. This is his second reply to that move. He is saying that if you were to decide between two religious moral systems, that would be “through a subjective analysis of which you feel is better”.

Now, what CS says there is true, in a sense. But, it is true for all decision making. Decision making is something that you do in your mind; it is inherently subjective. Ultimately, you base your decisions on things that you believe to be true, and as such they depend on these beliefs. So when I’m doing a bit of mathematics, I have to ultimately decide whether I believe I have got the answer right. I could look at the text book, but even there I have to believe that I understand it properly. I could ask you if I have got it right, but I have to ultimately believe whether I trust you, or whether I understand what you are saying, etc. There is no possible way to decide anything that isn’t “through a subjective analysis of which you feel is better”, in the sense that it doesn’t depend on beliefs at some stage. It’s not clear to me what an ‘objective analysis’ even means. It sounds like saying an ‘objective belief’ or an ‘objective desire’.

But does that mean that everything is subjective? I think the answer is clearly no. All we need to do is distinguish between the belief and the content of the belief. It’s up to me whether to believe the mathematical proof in front of me, but that doesn’t make the proof itself only subjectively true. In the same way, it is up to me whether I believe in a version of moral realism, say divine command theory, but that fact doesn’t make divine command theory a subjectivist theory as a result.

The ‘big argument’ CS has here is just that all morality, including ‘religious morality’, has to be subjective because the only way to decide whether to believe in any moral system is through a decision process which is subjective in nature. This is a terrible argument.

Just in case you thought I was straw manning CS, here he is making pretty much exactly this point:

“The only thing that seems to distinguish religious morality from atheistic morality …  is that the religious believer feels like their morality is objective whereas the atheist recognises the subjectivity lying at the heart of ethical decision making.”

But this isn’t what distinguishes religious morality from atheistic morality. It is true that there is a subjective element at the heart of decision making (whether ethical or not), but this fact doesn’t make what is being decided about subjective.

If I am deciding which action to take, if I am trying to work out which is the right thing to do, my decision will necessarily have a subjective element to it. It happens in my mind. It’s informed by my beliefs. But that doesn’t mean that if I pick option A over option B, that there is no objective truth about whether A is the morally better option. In the same way, if I pick between two religions, I have to make my own mind up about which one I want to go for, but that doesn’t stop the claims of those religions being objectively true (or false). CS seems to think that this is what makes objectivist theories impossible, and he is quite wrong about that.

And it’s not like religious philosophers think that there is no subjective element to moral decision making. Everyone has to ultimately decide for themselves when they make a moral decision if their choice is the morally right one or not. That much subjectivity is present in everyone. Realists just hold that there is a mind-independent fact about whether your choice was the morally correct one.

It might be that what is going on here is that CS has the other version of ‘objective’ in his head when he is making these arguments. Maybe he is saying that you can’t demonstrate, like with a logical proof, that “one religious morality [i]s more ethically viable than another”, and that because of this all religious systems are ‘subjective’.

5. “I’ve got more…”

CS runs a little thought experiment, according to which we grant that God exists:

“Let’s say that somehow we were able to objectively demonstrate that some God, say the God of Christianity exists. We know this for a fact. You might say that if this is the case, religious morality is objective. Because if God is the author of everything, then it is he who determines what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – objectively. Clearly, if God exists, and has objectively defined certain things as good and bad, we can objectively determine how we ought to behave. Morality is objective. Right?”

Here I think we can see the creep of defining ‘objective’ as being ‘demonstrated’, rather than being ‘mind-independent’. There seems to be other uses of the word in this passage which make little sense even if read like that. Consider: “it is he who determines what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – objectively”. What does it mean to ‘determine something objectively’? I can assess something according to some mind-independent standard, like when I check my proof in the textbook, but even then I must make a subjective decision at the end, because I will still need to decide whether I believe that I am reading the text book correctly. All ‘determination’ requires some element of subjectivity, even in the most objective sounding situation of consulting a text book. So what is CS thinking of when he says this?

God is also said to have “objectively defined” morality. But what is the difference between objectively defining something and subjectively defining something? Did God mind-independently define morality? Did he define morality in a way we can demonstrate to others? What is going on here?

The best I can make out is that ‘objectively defining’ something means to define it in such a way that after you have defined it, it becomes true ‘objectively’ (i.e. mind-independently) after that. It is dubious whether there can be anything that counts as an ‘objective definition’, if that is what he means.

Anyway, he goes on:

“Here is the single question that completely changed the way that I view religious morality: why ought we do that which is good? I want you to really think about this, because it’s crucial. Why ought we do that which is good? Let’s say that ‘good’ really was defined by God. We’ve said that we’ve proven beyond a shadow of doubt that the God of Christianity really does exist, and really did write the 10 commandments, let’s say. We can therefore ‘objectively’ say that murder, adultery, bearing false witness, etc are bad ‘objectively’. That’s not enough. You still need to demonstrate, objectively, that because something is good you ought to do it, and because something is bad, we ought not do it. Now it seems stupidly obvious and instinctive that we ought to do what’s good – of course we ought to do what’s good. But can you prove it?”

Well, given my comments in sections 2 and 2.1, I don’t think you ought to do what is good. I think that if you ought to do something, then it is good. But there can be things that are good (like friendship) that you are under no moral obligation to do. CS thinks it is “stupidly obvious” that we ought to do what is good, but I think the general principle is false, because of the counterexamples.

But the confusions keep coming in this passage. Consider: “the God of Christianity really does exist, and really did write the 10 commandments, let’s say. We can therefore ‘objectively’ say that murder, adultery, bearing false witness, etc are bad ‘objectively’.” Firstly, try and tune out the meaningless repetition of the word ‘objectively’, which has no stable content at all. The ten commandments are not proclamations about certain actions being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They are commands. God says ‘Thou shalt not…’ If anything, it is God trying to impose an obligation to his people, not assigning a moral value for them. So why does CS think that this would be enough to ‘objectively’ know that adultery, etc, is bad rather than that we should not do it? It is unclear.

Yet that is what he thinks, because he goes on to say that even if we (somehow) accepted that by saying “thou shalt not commit adultery” God had established that it was bad to commit adultery, we would still be faced with the problem of why we ‘ought not’ commit adultery.

Once again CS imagines a response from ‘the religious’:

“The religious might respond that of course we can prove that we ought to do that which is good, because God commands us to do that which is good. God defines good, and God commands us to do that which is good, and so morality is objective.”

CS says there are two problems with this. He says:

“Firstly, you’ve just pushed the issue back. I can still ask why I ought to do what God commands. And any answer you give me can be questioned in the same way.”

But the problem with this whole set up is that we granted a premise that makes no sense, and now we are being told that we cannot grant another one.

Let’s clean up the example, so that it fits with what CS wants it to say. Imagine that God said: “Giving to charity is good”. The question we can ask at this stage is: how does God saying that make it the case that giving to charity is good?

CS wants us to imagine being in a situation where God’s commandments are enough to establish moral values existing (even that his ‘objective definitions’ can make them exist), yet not enough to establish moral obligations from existing. But why not? If we had an answer to how his saying that giving to charity is good makes it good, why wouldn’t we also have an answer to why his saying that you ought to give to charity makes it the case that you really ought to do it? In each case we have God saying something, and the mystery is how him simply saying something makes it the case. There is no special mystery here about obligations which is different to moral values.

There is a legitimate question to be asked, which is ‘why ought I do what God commands?’ But that is really not different from the question: ‘why ought I value as morally good that which God says is morally good?’ Those are both interesting questions, but CS thinks one is problematic and the other isn’t. Or that if you had solved one, you would still have to solve the other. But any solution to one would be a solution to the other. If God’s saying something actually made it the case, then that would work for values or for obligations. Or, if there is some extra difficulty here, CS provides no reason for thinking so.

What CS is fumbling around for is the idea that moral principles, like values or obligations, seem to be what they are independently of what anyone says or thinks about them. God commanding this or that might reveal what he wants, or what the consequences are for doing certain things, but it doesn’t seem like it can be enough to actually make it the case that certain things really are good, or obligatory in the moral sense. But what he is getting at is the intuition that is the main motivation for realism about morality, which is the opposite to what he says he wants to defend in this video.

Anyway, we are at the end of the video now, so I’ll wrap up.

6. Conclusion.

There are various confusions in this video. The idea of ‘objective’ is thrown around, but there seems to be no stable meaning to it. There is a principle about what morality is, which ties moral values to obligations in a way that has obvious counterexamples, but CS seems to be unaware of them. There is a poor characterisation of Craig, which leads to a confusing discussion about ‘atheistic morality’ which suffers from not having a clear idea about whether it is supposed to be objective or subjective. It’s also unclear how that section contributes to showing that religious morality is subjective, as CS ends up arguing against the claim that Craig’s argument can be turned back on him. The idea that all morality is subjective because all decision making involves a subjective element is guilty of conflating belief with the content of belief. At the end, CS seems to think there is an issue for obligations that is not there for values, but he doesn’t explain why this is the case.


Loke’s Singing Angels: the Kalam and abstract entities

0. Introduction

Readers of this blog are likely well aware of the Kalam cosmological argument, and its presentation by William Lane Craig. In particular, readers will probably be well aware of the line of defence for the second premise according to which the past must be finite.  This says that the past must be finite because, if not, then there would be an ‘actual infinite’ (or a ‘completed infinite’), and such a phenomenon could not exist without ushering in various purported ‘absurdities’ (such as those illustrated by Hilbert’s Hotel).

Craig and Wes Morriston have had an interesting exchange on this issue (a useful summary of which is found here). In short, Morriston argues that if the past cannot be beginningless because it would constitute an absurdity, then the future cannot be endless, or else it would constitute a symmetrical absurdity. Morriston imagines a pair of angels who take it in turns to sing praises to God forever. Theists, such as Craig, who hold that the future is everlasting, need to show that such a scenario is possible without resulting in the sorts of absurdities that apply to Hilbert’s Hotel, or to the beginningless past. They need a symmetry breaker between past and future.

Craig’s move is to argue that a beginningless past is an ‘actual infinite’, whereas an endless future is merely a ‘potential infinite’.

“No absurdity there, for the number of praises said by the angels will always be finite, even though increasing toward infinity as a limit” (Craig, “Taking Tense Seriously in Differentiating Past and Future: A Response to Wes Morriston,” Faith and Philosophy, 27:4 (2010), 451-456, p. 452)

The debate centres around what the notions of ‘actual infinite’ and ‘potential infinite’ refer to. Craig is right that the number of praises that have been said will always be finite. Yet, Morriston argues that this misses the point:

“But I was not asking for the number of praises that have been said. Instead, I was asking for the number of praises yet-to-be-said – that is, for the number of praises, each of which will eventually be said. In the world of my thought experiment, the series of praises yet-to-be-said is not growing, is never finite, and does not satisfy Craig’s definition of “potentially infinite.”” (Morriston, “Beginningless Past, Endless Future: A reply to Craig”, Faith and Philosophy 29 (4):444-450 (2012), p. 3)

Into this debate steps Andrew Loke, with his paper “On beginningless past, endless future, God and Singing Angels: an Assessment of the Craig-Morriston Dialogue“. In particular, Loke says:

“…the distinction between abstract and concrete infinities is helpful for responding to Morriston’s counter-argument based on the number of angelic praises yet-to-be-said” (p. 58).

It is to this response to Morriston that I want to focus here.

  1. Loke’s argument (?)

Loke makes the central distinction between the number of praises that will have been said, and the number of praises that will be saidSomewhat confusingly, he refers to them as those ‘that-will-be-said’ and those ‘yet-to-be-said’, which sound like synonyms to me. However, he seems to be applying these labels in the right way, when he says:

“Craig’s response that the number of praises that-will-be-said is a potential infinite is inadequate, for Morriston is not asking about the praises that-will-be-said, but rather the praises yet-to-be-said, the series of which, Morriston argues, is not growing, is never finite, and does not satisfy Craig’s definition of potentially infinite, as noted above. Craig’s main point in reply to Morriston was about the praises that-will-be-said, not the praises yet-to-be-said, and thus he misses the thrust of Morriston’s counter-argument” (p. 63)

I agree with this much of Loke’s interpretation of the debate. Loke promises to respond in a way that does not merely fall into the same equivocation that Craig does, “In what follows, I shall (unlike Craig) focus on ‘the praises yet-to-be-said’” (p. 63).

The main thrust of Loke’s response is outlined in the following passage:

“In response to Morriston’s counter-argument, it seems that proponents of the Kalam Cosmological Argument do not have to follow Craig’s proposal to either deny Platonism with respect to propositions or deny that there are an infinite number of propositions. Rather, they can hold the view that the argument against the possibility of the actual infinite based on paradoxical implications is directed against the existence and actualization of an actual infinite number of concrete entities or events; it is not directed against the existence of an actual infinite number of abstract entities.” (p. 63)

Clearly, Loke is going to make his response to Morriston focused on the concrete/abstract distinction. Unfortunately, there is a slide between talking about an infinite number of propositions, and an infinite number of events. Also unfortunately, we are not given a definition of either ‘abstract’ or ‘concrete’. Loke appeals several times to J P Moreland, and a paper called “A Response to a Platonistic and to a Set-Theoretic Objection to the Kalam Cosmological Argument” (Religious Studies, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Dec., 2003), pp. 373-390) (henceforth ‘Response’). In that, Moreland offers a definition of ‘abstract object’ that we can only assume is close to what Loke has in mind. Moreland says:

“An entity is abstract just in case (a) it is not a person, and (b) it exists outside space and time in that it has no spatial or temporal location or duration” (Moreland, Response, p. 376).

Loke’s explicit reference to ‘Response’ is not to this, but to a similar distinction, according to which an actual infinite is absurd like the Hilbert’s Hotel example only if:

“(1) the members of the set are finite, located, moveable entities, which opens up the possibility of adding, subtracting, or rearranging the members of the set, and (2) the members of the set are spatially extended.” (Loke, p. 63)

Moreland’s idea is that what makes an actually infinite collection absurd is that it meets these two conditions. He explains that what the hotel example is supposed to be showcasing involves spatially located guests ‘moving about’:

  • “Regarding Hilbert’s Hotel, the problem is that if we move the guests from one location to another, there just are no rooms available into which they can be moved. All of them are already filled. Moreover, there is no way to open up a new room by this procedure because there is no spatial region available into which they can be moved or new rooms can be added” (Response, Moreland, p. 379).

  • “If one adds (or subtracts) members to an actual infinite set, then one has not increased the number of members of that set, but this is false since we have before us the new member who was added” (ibid)

Moreland is careful to identify the absurdity of an actual infinite with the ability to manifest this sort of behaviour. On page 380 of the same paper, Moreland makes the following careful statement of what is ruled out by Craig’s appeals to absurdities associated with the actual infinite:

“An actual infinite number of finite, contingent entities that i) can be added to or subtracted from a set and ii) are spatially (or spatio-temporally or temporally) extended cannot exist”

Moreland’s idea can be put like this: if an actual infinite meets both i) and ii), then it cannot exist. If it can exist, then (using modus tollens), we can infer that it does not meet both i) and ii).

Indeed, Moreland draws exactly such a conclusion, arguing that a platonist can affirm the existence of an actually infinite number of abstract entities. These entities fail to fulfil either of his conditions, in that they cannot be subtracted from or added to, and they are not spatially or temporally extended.

It should be noted that to avoid the absurdities, an actual infinite only need avoid satisfying one of Moreland’s two conditions, and not necessarily both (they are individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions). We will come back to this.

So let’s make the distinction between two types of actual infinities; there are ‘active’ and ‘passive’ actual infinities. An actual infinity is ‘active’ iff meets both of Moreland’s conditions above, and it is ‘passive’ iff it is not active.

Loke shares Moreland’s insight, which is that actual infinities that are composed entirely of abstract objects are passive. For example, take the natural numbers, construed as platonic abstract objects. These constitute an actual infinity. These entities, it seems reasonable to think, cannot be ‘moved about’ in any way. It makes no sense to rearrange them, or subtract them. Of course, one can perform ‘subtraction’ using numbers, but one cannot remove a number from the total collection of the natural numbers. They are utterly unchangeable. Thus, some actual infinities, such as the natural numbers, are passive because they are abstract objects. As Loke says:

“Since abstract entities are not finite, located, moveable entities nor spatially extended, the argument against the possibility of the actual infinite based on paradoxes such as Hilbert’s Hotel does not apply to them” (p. 63).

So far, so good.

At this point, I think it will be helpful to codify this in a principle, which I shall call Loke’s principle (or ‘LP’):

Loke’s Principle) Actually infinite collections of abstract objects are passive.


Loke goes on to make what seems to me to be the central argument of the paper:

“Having made the point that argument against the possibility of the actual infinite based on paradoxical implications is directed against concrete rather than abstract entities, the proponent of the Kalam argument can reply to Morriston as follows: The number of praises yet-to-be-said – that is, the number of praises, each of which will eventually be said – is actual infinite, but the number of praises yet-to-be-said do not yet exist as concrete entities or events.” (p. 64)

Let’s try to be clear about what is being said here, because the passage is hard to read clearly. When he says “argument against the possibility of the actual infinite based on paradoxical implications is directed against concrete rather than abstract entities”, Loke seems to be merely articulating what is encoded in LP. If so, it is a statement against which I have no objection.

Loke makes the claim that the not yet uttered praises “do not yet exist as concrete entities”. There is an unfortunate scope ambiguity here. It’s not clear here which of the following Loke means to convey:

a) The future praises currently exist, but are not currently concrete

b) The future praises are currently concrete, but do not currently exist

Is the idea that they do not yet exist at all, or that they do exist, but merely as abstract objects? The phrase is ambiguous.

Loke goes on, but the ambiguity persists:

“Neither would it ever be the case that all of them have been actualised as concrete entities or events, for no matter how many praises have been said, an angel could still say one more. As noted earlier, Morriston agrees that ‘the number of praises that have been said by the angels in my scenario will always be finite,’ and that ‘the collection of praises that have been said will increase without limit.’ One might think it absurd that an actual infinite number of praises will never be said even though each of the praises will eventually be said, but given that ‘the praises that will eventually be said’ do not yet exist as concrete entities or events, this is a problem that remains in the abstract and does not cause problem in the concrete world.” (p. 64, emphasis added)

The phrase “this is a problem that remains in the abstract and does not cause problem in the concrete world” is even more difficult to understand. The implication seems to be that future praises are not concrete, and this quarantines the actual infinite in the abstract realm and not “in the concrete world”. Just like the way Moreland can have an actual infinite collection, just so long as they are abstract objects, Loke seems to be implying that the the praises that will eventually be said is an actual infinite, but one that is not a problem due to being a collection of abstract objects.

The question though is whether we should consider future praises to be abstract objects, or concrete objects.

Let us refresh our memories of the clear (enough) definition offered by Moreland:

“An entity is abstract just in case (a) it is not a person, and (b) it exists outside space and time in that it has no spatial or temporal location or duration” (Moreland, Response, p. 376).

Presumably, and entity is concrete iff it is not abstract. (Is there a third category?) If they are mutually exclusive, then we can ask ourselves wether future praises fulfil both of Moreland’s criteria or not. If so, then they are abstract; if not, then they are concrete.

Clearly, future praises are not people, so they meet condition (a). But do they exist outside space and time and have no spatial or temporal location or duration? There is a small head-scratcher about whether ‘a time’ itself is temporally located or not, but a a ‘future event’ seems to be clearly temporally located. It is in the future! The praise will also have a duration; it will take some definite amount of time to say the prayer. Thus, it seems like the future praises are not abstract by this criteria. Although they meet criteria (a), they do not meet criteria (b). They are quite obviously not ‘outside time’ being events in time (in the future) and they have duration. Unless there is a third category, future praises are concrete.

If that is right, then the ambiguity in Loke’s claim can be cleaned up. The future praises are currently concrete, but not currently existing. As time passes, they do not ‘become concrete’; rather, they begin to exist. Perhaps we can put it like this; as time passes the future praises ‘become actual’. Either way round, what is happening is that the merely potential future praises, which are always concrete, become actual and/or existing present praises, before becoming past praises.

But if that is right, then what has become of the original promise made by Loke in the start of the paper? Recall, he said:

“…the distinction between abstract and concrete infinities is helpful for responding to Morriston’s counter-argument based on the number of angelic praises yet-to-be-said” (p. 58).

Yet, future praises are concrete, just like past praises, given Moreland’s distinction. How is that a symmetry breaker? It is unclear how, if at all, the distinction between the abstract and concrete is supposed to be helping.

3. What do ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ mean for Loke?

If Loke were using Moreland’s definition of abstract, then he could not argue that future praises are not concrete. That would mean arguing that future praises are outside of time. This is clearly not the case. Thus, Loke must have something else in mind when he uses these terms. But what could that be?

One starting point is David Lewis’ book, Plurality of Worlds, chapter 1.7: Concreteness (p. 81 – 86). Lewis says:

“A spectator might well assume that the distinction between ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ entities is common ground among contemporary philos- ophers, too well understood and uncontroversial to need any explaining. But if someone does try to explain it, most likely he will resort to one (or more) of four ways” (p. 82)

These are:

  1. The Way of Example: “concrete entities are things like donkeys and puddles and protons and stars, whereas abstract entities are things like numbers”, p. 82.
  2. The Way of Conflation: “the distinction between concrete and abstract entities is just the distinction between individuals and sets, or between particulars and universals, or perhaps between particular individuals and everything else”, p. 83.
  3. The Negative Way: “abstract entities have no spatiotemporal location; they do not enter into causal interaction; they are never indiscernible one from another”, p. 83.
  4. The Way of Abstraction: “abstract entities are abstractions from concrete entities”. p. 84.

Could Loke mean one of these ways of construing the distinction?

If he took the Way of Example, then he would be saying that future events are “things like numbers”. Part of the problem here is what it means to be a number. Moreland gave an example of what it means to be a number, but that required that the entity does not exist at any time, which clearly future praises do not do. Moreland also thinks that numbers are “immutable” (‘Response, p. 380). Yet going from being abstract to being concrete certainly seems like a type of change. All these give us reasons to think that future praises are not “like numbers”.

I’m tempted to think that Loke is a member of the Way of Conflation. He doesn’t conflate the concrete/abstract distinction to the individuals/sets distinction though. If I was being mean, I would say that I think he conflates the concrete/abstract distinction with the future/not-future distinction. That would be entirely question begging. We are looking for a way of breaking the symmetry between past and future praises. Loke thinks that “the distinction between abstract and concrete infinities is helpful”, but if saying that future events are abstract just means that future events are future, then we have not been given anything at all. Mere tautologies cannot break the symmetry, surely.

More charitably, he may just mean to the distinction between the actual and non-actual. Future events are not actual (yet). They are mere potentials. As such they occupy a lower rung on the ontological ladder than present or past praises. It is hard for me to understand how this succeeds, although it is probably the most promising option. The future praises are ones which will happen. It is possible that our angel will curse his fate rather than praising God. It is possible for him to do so, even though he won’t do it. This is Craig’s view, as a Molinist. He thinks there is a course of contingent future events that God divinely foreknows will actually happen. It doesn’t matter whether God’s knowledge is propositional or not. What matters is that if there is an actual future, how can it be maintained that the future is merely potentiality? To hold that view, you should endorse open theism, according to which there are no truths about the future. One way or another, the set up of the thought experiment is that there is an angel who (actually) will say praises forever. Given that, the future is not mere potentiality, but is quite determinate (at least in this respect). Thus, this escape route doesn’t seem open. Or, at any rate, if we are arguing about whether there can be any truths about the future at all, we would be having a completely different conversation altogether. It has nothing to do with the abstract / concrete distinction any longer.

The Negative Way seems also no help to Loke. If abstract objects have no temporal location, then they cannot be future. Yet, future praises are future.

The Way of Abstraction also seems to be no help. Future praises are not the result of “somehow subtracting specificity” (Lewis, p. 84) from present or past praises. This Way treats the abstract / concrete relationship to be analogous to that between the map and the terrain. One is a less detailed version of the other. But in the set up, each praise is exactly the same.

4. Conclusion

At the end of all this, I cannot see what Loke is getting at. He wants future events to be non-concrete entities. But they don’t seem to be any good reasons for considering them to be abstract objects. They are a very bad match if we are considering Moreland’s view, which is the only thing Loke references, and he gives no explanation of what he means independently of that.


A response to MaverickChristian: God and Time

0. Introduction

In this post, I am going to respond to ‘MaverickChristian’, who wrote a blog post about my debate with Luke Barnes. In particular, I am going to focus on the last of three sections of his response, which is all about an argument I made about God being both timeless and causing the universe to exist.

  1. God and time – a problem for fine tuning

The fine tuning argument purports to show that the explanation of the physical universe is that it was designed by a divine mind, rather than is something which came about by pure chance. But there is a sort of dilemma here.

God has to be, in some sense, outside time for this inference to make sense. After all, if he were (entirely) located within time, it seems problematic to imagine that he created time. God would already have to be contained within the thing he is supposed to be creating, which makes it seem like bootstrapping. Yet, if God is outside time, how can he stand in any causal relation to anything? Causes are things that take place in time. So, either way round is problematic.

This is the basic problem that I tried to present to Barnes in our debate, and it is the bit that MC is going to respond to.

Just to make things a bit clearer, I am going to make reference to a book called ‘God and the Nature of Time‘ by Garrett DeWeese. He is a professor of philosophy and philosophical theology at the Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.  I’m doing this partly as an effort to help MC drop his guard a bit. The objections I raised are also raised by Christians. Not just Christians, but Christians who teach at the same department as William Lane Craig, as Craig seems to be a favourite of MC. I will come back to Craig’s personal view at the end. My point in using DeWesse to illustrate the issues is to show that one can be a devout Christian and a professor of philosophical theology and still advocate the argument I was making in my debate with Barnes about God and time. (I also find DeWesse’s book very clear and well argued. I don’t agree with him on everything, but we agree on the main thrust of the argument in this post).

Here is how DeWesse sets out the basic problem:

“On the one hand, it would seem that if God created time, he himself must somehow transcend time. On the other hand, it would seem impossible for a God outside of time to interact with his creation at moments of time. This, in a nutshell, is the problem.” (DeWesse, God and the Nature of Time, p. 1)

Clearly then, I am talking about the same problem as DeWesse.

2. A timeless mind

I actually made two arguments in the section of the debate that we are looking at here, and unfortunately, MC seems to conflate them and switch back and forth between them quite often.

The first argument was about a non-temporal mind. I said that a timeless mind seems incomprehensible to me, and so therefore is an unattractive candidate as an explanation for the fine tuning. The argument is not supposed to be ‘I can’t understand what it means, therefore it is impossible that it exists’. That would be a bad argument indeed. I was merely trying to express one of the reasons I am unable to consider the theistic explanation of fine tuning as an attractive option when picking explanatory hypotheses; how can I consider something to be a good explanation if it makes no sense to me? Anyway, I think MC accepts this type of response, after initially thinking I was making the bad argument from above. He says:

“Malpass gave no argument for his claim that a mind is necessarily a linear sequence of phenomenological experiences. At first I thought his inability to personally conceive of it might be one of his reasons for thinking this (see e.g. 1:26:44 to 1:27:46), but from the comments on his YouTube channel this doesn’t appear to be the case, despite sort of acting as if this were a reason to doubt such a timeless being in the debate (see 1:29:27 to 1:29:31).”

Anyway, we can forget about this point from now onwards. The real disagreement is about my second argument, which I think is more forceful.

3. A timeless cause

I suggested that there is something incoherent about the idea of a timeless agent causing the universe to exist. My reasoning is like this: a cause is a type of change, but a timeless being cannot change. Proposing a timeless being causing something to happen is rather like proposing a changeless being changing in some way. For that reason, it sounds to me like a married bachelor.

Despite that bit of reasoning being clear enough to me, MC makes the following comments:

My objection isn’t that Malpass gives bad arguments for these claims, but that he gives no arguments for these claims.


Malpass also gave no argument for his claim that a timeless entity causing events requires entering a temporal relation in a way that makes it not timeless.

I didn’t give an argument in premise/conclusion form, but I did try to explain the reasoning in a way that is similar to above.

Here is one way of stating the idea as an argument, seeing as this is what MC is complaining about:

  1. A cause is a type of change.
  2. Timeless things cannot change.
  3. Therefore, a timeless thing cannot (be a) cause.

4. Supporting the first premise

The first premise seems pretty straightforward, yet it could be challenged I guess. It’s hard to think of what a cause could be that isn’t a type of change though. Here is how DeWesse describes causation in the intuitive way:

“Causes bring about their effects; or, in the usual counterfactual reporting of such an event, if the cause had not occurred, the effect (other things being equal) would not have occurred either. Strongly implicated in this common notion of causation is the idea that causes are, or in some senses contain, power. So unless some other power intervenes, the power of (contained in) a cause will bring about a change in a state of affairs” (De Wesse, God and the Nature of Time, p 40, emphasis mine)

If MC is talking about a cause which doesn’t involve a change of any type, it looks like it has to be very different from this normal type of cause. It seems hard to know how to think of a cause that isn’t a change like this. The intuitive notion of cause clearly classifies it as intimately related to the notion of change.

One might think that we could find one of the Aristotelian notions of cause to use here. These are the formal, material, final and efficient causes. It seems quite clear that the type of Aristotelian cause that is relevant in the claim that ‘God caused the universe to exist’ is the efficient cause. The claim is not that God is the material out of which the universe is made (the material cause), or the telos, or end, towards which the universe is directed (the final cause), or the form or account of what it is to be the universe (the formal cause). That leaves the efficient cause as the only one left. But Aristotle explains the efficient cause as “the primary source of the change or rest” (emphasis mine), and also that it is “That from which the change or the resting from change first begins” (Metaphysics, V, 2, emphasis mine). Thus, efficient causation is intimately tied via its definition to the notion of change as well.

What relevant notion of cause is there that does not involve change?

A closely related issue is that in the special theory of relativity, time and causality are shown to be very closely related to one another. Take this diagrammatic explanation of light-cones (taken from here):


The point-event A has a ‘future light-cone’, which is all other point-events which could be influenced by a causal signal emanating from A at up to the speed of light. The future light-cone contains everything that could be an effect of A. Similarly, the past light-cone is all those point-events which could have causally effected A. Events outside either light-cone are not causally related to A. Thus, special relativity shows us one way in which temporal relations and causal relations are very closely related to one another. Again, to quote DeWesse:

“Our grasp of the concept of causation may be incomplete, but it surely seems to involve temporal notions (even if simultaneous causation is possible).” (DeWesse,  God and the Nature of Time, p 159)

Thus, if the notion of cause in play involves no change, then it is very unlike the intuitive notion of cause. Nor can it be the Aristotelian efficient cause. Nor can it be anything like the notion of cause that we find in the heart of our best theory of space and time (special relativity being at the heart of general relativity).

5. Supporting the second premise

Equally, the second premise seems pretty straightforward. Change means something like having a property at one time, and not having it at another. A banana goes from being green at one time to being yellow at another. If a timeless being doesn’t exist at any times, then how can they change?

Here is an argument that DeWesse uses to support premise 2:

“For x to change is for x to have a property P at t1 that it does not have at t2. But for this to be true, x must occupy a location in a B-series (that is, stand in a B-relation) such that the state of affairs x’s-having-been-P-at-t1 is earlier than the state of affairs of x’s-not-having-been-P-at-t2. But … atemporal entities do not stand in B-relations. Therefore, atemporal entities must be changeless” (p. 249)

It’s not quite clear which of these two premises MC wants to challenge. Each seems pretty intuitive to me. We have a pretty clear intuition about how causation is temporal and involves change, and we have a pretty clear idea about what it means for something to change. And it is not just me who thinks this. De Wesse clearly seems to follow my intuitions here pretty closely as well.

6. MC’s model

MC makes a response to this. He wants to argue that there is a consistent way of modelling the situation which involves God being timeless, yet also causally interacting with the universe (such as causing it to exist, but presumably also interacting through things like causing miraculous resurrections occasionally, etc).

MC’s characterisation of the A- and B-theories leaves a lot to be desired. He makes the following comments:

On one view of time, called the B-theory of time (also called tenseless theory of time or the static view of time), all moments in time are equally real. This contrasts with the A-theory of time (also called the tensed theory of time or dynamic view of time) in which only the present is real, and things go out of existence when they existed in the past but no longer do (similarly, things can also come into existence as time progresses).

This explanation conflates various closely related views, which for clarity should be kept distinct. The distinction between the A- and B-theories is not the same as that between presentism and eternalism, which is about whether only the present exists, or whether all times exist). It is not the same as the distinction between static and dynamic time, which is about what the fundamental analysis of change is.

Here is how DeWesse describes the distinction between the A- and B-theories:

“The A-theory of time claims that time is defined by the properties of pastness, presentness and futurity; whereas the B-theory claims that time is defined by the relations of earlier-than, simultaneous-with and later-than.” (DeWesse, God and the Nature of Time, p. 16-17)

Unfortunately, MC not being clear about these distinctions is going to make things difficult as we move forward.

MC thinks he has a potential model for how God could be timeless and also causally interact with our universe. Here is what he says about that model:

“One view of God being timeless is that the B-theory of time is true and God transcends space and time, seeing all of the past, present, and future at once. For a timeless entity, there is no change; only being and nonbeing. Since God is outside time, he himself experiences no change and (at least in a metaphorical sense) everything happens “all at once” to him (God’s thoughts, intentions, beliefs, experiences, powers, etc. do not have phases of existence ordered by the relations “earlier than” and “later than”). God can causally interact with the physical space-time of our universe, including creating the universe, but he is not subsumed by it. Call a theist who accepts this view a timeless theist.”

The problem I have with this is that it is just hard to know what he is trying to say.

Firstly, the language used is very sloppy. Take the opening sentence: “One view of God being timeless is that the B-theory of time is true and God transcends space and time, seeing all of the past, present, and future at once.” But if the B-theory is true, then the terms ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ do not pick out objective features of the world at all. Those terms are part of the A-theory. If the B-theory were true, then there would be no such thing as the ‘past’, ‘present’ or ‘future’ for God to see.

Secondly, it is not clear why MC is talking about the way in which God experiences change. We are supposed to be getting an explanation of what it means for God to be timeless, and speculating about what a timeless being’s experiences would be like only seems to make the issue harder to explore. I think that MC is probably doing this because he is not keeping my two arguments apart. The first of those was about God’s mind not being a temporal sequence. It seems like MC is bringing that in here for some reason, even though it is not relevant. Let us suppose for the sake of the argument that God’s mind is not a temporally extended sequence of experiences. Still, the question remains how such a being can change, or causally interact with anything. Telling me that God has his experiences ‘all at once’ (whatever that is supposed to mean) rather than in a sequence, does not address the issue at hand.

Thirdly, I take it that this passage is supposed to be cashing out what it means for God to be timeless, given that it starts with the words “One view of God being timeless is…”. Yet, we do not get anything like a usable definition of what is meant by this term. We get various expressions, such as “God transcends space and time”, “God is outside time”, and “everything happens ‘all at once’ to him”, etc. Yet, these expressions are hardly easier to understand than the bare assertion that God is timeless.

The closest we get is the following:

A theist might instead define “timeless” as “not having phases of existence related to each other by earlier and later.”

In a footnote, MC says:

Christian philosopher of time William Lane Craig defines God being “timeless” in much the same way.

Unfortunately, he isn’t actually quoting Craig here. There is no page number for the reference. Under the footnote, he says “Craig, William Lane; Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship To Time (Illinois: Wheaton, 2001)”. Is this where the notion that God is timeless iff he doesn’t have phases of existence related to each other by earlier and later is coming from? It’s hard to tell because MC isn’t referencing properly.

As a definition of what it means to be timeless, it is rather unhelpful as it stands though. Presumably the idea is that if the B-theory is true, then an entity is timeless if it doesn’t have “phases of existence related to each other by earlier and later”. But because MC doesn’t add the antecedent condition in, we are faced with a problem. That’s because, if the A-theory is true, then strictly speaking, the relations of ‘earlier-than’ and ‘later-than’ do not exist. So it seems to follow from MC’s characterisation above that if the A-theory is true, and there are no ‘earlier-than’ or ‘later-than’ relations at all, then God is timeless, because he would not have “phases of existence related to each other by earlier and later”. But it seems wrong to say that if the A-theory is true, then God is timeless. I’m pretty sure MC does not intend this to be the case. It seems hard to imagine that Craig puts it in quite the way that MC does either.

A much more promising strategy, it seems to me, is to propose that God being timeless means something like the following:

God exists, but not at any time.

Here is how DeWesse puts it:

A is an atemporal entity iff A as no A-properties and stands in no B-relations” (DeWesse, God and the Nature of Time, p. 247)

This definition has the benefit of being very succinct, and not involving the unnecessary complication of being about God’s internal experiences. It also has the benefit of being neutral regarding the A- and B-theories.

I can see no reason to prefer MC’s characterisation of what it means for God to be timeless to DeWesse’s. In fact, I think MC really means something very similar, as this seems to be the most charitable way of reading the phrases “God transcends space and time” and “God is outside time”. These seem to mean something similar to God having no A-properties and no B-relations. If so, it is important to realise that God can be atemporal regardless of whether the A- or the B-theory is true; the two issues are logically distinct. For some reason MC asserts the conjunction of God being atemporal and the B-theory being true: “the B-theory of time is true and God transcends space and time”. I’m not sure if he is doing this because he wants the B-theory to be true on his model for some particular reason, or just that he mistakenly thinks God could not be atemporal if the A-theory were true. I’m tempted to think it is the latter, given his fudging of some of the basic distinctions in play here so far.

7. Causation in MC’s model

Let’s just say then that MC’s model is that God is atemporal in DeWesse’s sense (has no temporal properties or relations), and that the B-theory is true. MC goes on to assert that on this model:

“God can causally interact with the physical space-time of our universe”

There is no analysis given of what ‘causally interact’ means in this context, and MC seems to take for granted that a timeless being could causally interact with things. Yet, as we saw above, most intuitive notions of cause are closely related to the notion of change, and our best scientific theory of spacetime tells us that causation is a type of temporal relation. How is it then that MC thinks that the atemporal God, along with the B-theory, can causally interact with the universe?

The closest we get to an answer is when he says the following:

“Consider what would happen if a timeless God interacted with the physical spacetime of the universe on a B-theory of time, ceteris paribus … From God’s perspective, multiple instances of causally interacting with the universe at different times would be analogous to having multiple fingers simultaneously submerged in different places in a flowing creek”

The problems with this account are more obvious now we have given the more succinct and clear definition of God’s timelessness.

Firstly, MC is still focusing on what God’s experience of timeless causation would be (“from God’s perspective”), rather than explaining what it means to be timeless and causally interact.

Secondly, he is explaining how multiple causal interactions would be experienced by God, when what we want is an account of how even a single occurrence of causation is supposed to work. What does it mean for him to even have one ‘finger in the creek’? If the creek is supposed to be the river of time, then having a finger in it means that God has a temporal property of some type. If God intervened in the world to create it at t0 (if he has a finger in the river of time at t0), and if the time of me writing this blog post is t10, and if the B-theory is true (which he said it was on his model), then God is in a B-relation to the event of me writing this blog; his causal act is earlier than t10. But that directly contradicts DeWesse’s definition of what an atemporal being is; a temporal being stands in no B-relations. It seems to me that a timeless being cannot have even one finger inside the creek of time.

Maybe MC will object that though God’s causal influence is felt at t0, he is not present at t0 on this model. This would solve the problem only by making another in its place. In virtue of what is it God, rather than something else, or nothing at all, that is responsible for the cause at t0, if God doesn’t exist at t0 to do the causal influencing himself? If the cause is present without God, then it is hard to see how this qualifies as God causing something at all. To avoid this second mystery, God has to be present while the cause is happening, and that just puts us back to him standing in B-relations again.

MC goes on to develop another analogy:

“God would experience the universe as a whole just as an animator can see all the frames of a short cartoon all at once. Just as an animator can causally affect each frame of the animation without being fully in the animation, God would causally interact with physical spacetime without being wholly subsumed by it”

Again, for some reason we are talking about God’s experience of time, rather than being given any analysis of how it is that God can be timeless yet interact with something. But more significantly, the analogy presupposes temporal passage. The reason that an animator can cut up her frames of film (and rearrange them how she wants, etc), is that the animator is a being who is in time. First her film is connected, then she cuts it up, and then after that she rearranges the pieces. The analogy presupposes not a timeless agent, but a temporally situated agent.

One possible response would be to consider the timeline of the animation, and the timeline of the animator, as being two distinct temporal sequences. Maybe there is normal time, and meta-time. I think this is about all that the analogy can buy you, and I think it is really no help whatsoever here.

One problem is that it undermines the explanatory power of the theistic hypothesis in the first place. To see this, we can use an argument favoured by fine tuning advocates. Some people have postulated that our universe could be a simulation run by a being in another universe. This is often dismissed by proponents of fine tuning not really being explanatory. Consider Barnes:

“At face value, we’re just moving the problem up a level. Why does this universe permit life? Because it is the product of a universe that permits life, and and computers and simulations. Guess what my next question is?” (Barnes, A Fortunate Universe, p.373)

The implication is that his question is going to be: ‘who designed the being who is running the simulation?’ What we are trying to do, with the fine tuning argument, is judge hypotheses that are supposed to explain the existence of the universe as we find it. Postulating that there is some other universe somewhere which explains this via the simulation of a being in that universe, just pushes off the question of why this larger universe exists. We are not answering the real question, but just putting it off.

Similarly, if we say that God created time, but that to make sense of this claim we have to postulate a meta-time for him to act in, then we seem to just be ‘moving the problem up a level’. Where did that meta-time come from? Did God create that? We are right back to our original puzzle, because if God is in meta-time, how can he also have created it? If he is outside meta-time, how could he causally interact with it? Exactly the same problems we started with reappear at this meta-level. So postulating a meta-time doesn’t help here. However, it is the best the animator analogy seems to get you.

But really, it doesn’t even get you this. The situation we are supposed to be explaining (the one that MC wants to show is not contradictory) is a timeless agent acting. But the animator isn’t a timeless agent; she exists in time, cutting up her frames of film and rearranging them. It is a scenario that doesn’t feature a timeless agent at all. We want an explanation of how a timeless agent can act, but we are given an example of a temporal agent acting. That’s no help. Thus, this metaphor is obfustacing, rather than illuminating.

And this is really the root of the problem here. Recall, MC says that:

“Since God is outside time, he himself experiences no change and (at least in a metaphorical sense) everything happens ‘all at once’ to him”

What we have is an account that tries to paint a picture of God being timeless, but also interacting with the world, which has to resort to blatantly temporal vocabulary in order to make it work. ‘All at once’ is a temporal relation – two things happening together is what it means for them to be simultaneous. If we read that literally, then it would be obviously contradictory; God cannot be timeless (stand in no B-relations) yet also have everything happen all at once for him, because that means them all happening at the same time (which is a B-relation). If God doesn’t exist at any time, then neither does his experiences happen all at the same time. But if we insist on this being taken literally, then what is left of the metaphor? Nothing at all, it seems to me. The metaphor only seems to work because it is just an attempt to have your cake and eat it too.

So, we really haven’t been given anything like a workable model of how God could be timeless and causally interact with the universe.

8. Craig’s view

At the end of the post, MC makes it clear that he adheres to Craig’s view of God and time. (In some sense there is an irony to MC’s name. It’s not very ‘maverick’ to hold to the same position as the most mainstream Christian philosopher’s view on this subject. ‘Predictable Christian’ might be a more apt name. Anyway…)

Craig defends a sort of hybrid view of God’s relation to time and creation; God is sort of both timeless and temporal. The promise of Craig’s approach is that it seems to be a way to get around the problem we started with, namely how a timeless being could create the universe.

Craig’s view can be found here. As he says in the very last line:

“…the proper understanding of God, time, and eternity would be that God exists changelessly and timelessly prior to creation and in time after creation.”

On this view, God is timeless sans (or without) creation, and then temporal since creation. God ‘enters into’ time and ‘becomes’ temporal.

This view is baffling to many commentators, and this is because on their face, ‘entering into’ and ‘becoming’ are paradigmatic temporal activities. Craig even uses the phrases ‘prior to’ and ‘after’, which look like the B-relations of earlier-than and later-than. It seems a lot like MC’s proposal, in the sense that temporal vocabulary seems required to cash out how a timeless entity can causally interact with the world.

But there is another worry. The issue requires us to say explicitly what it means to be a temporal entity. Again, DeWesse provides a clear definition:

T is a temporal entity iff T possesses an A-properties or stands in a B-relation to some other entity” (DeWesse, God and the Nature of Time, p. 244)

Given the definitions of temporal and timeless, one cannot be both. A is timeless iff A is not temporal. This produces a problem for Craig though, and something close to a contradiction in the view.

Take the sentence:

a) The number 9 is a timeless entity

If a) is true at any time at all, then the number 9 does not exist at any time. Were (somehow) the number 9 to exist at some time t’, and then disappear again, we would say that a) was false, at all times. The number 9 is not an atemporal entity if it exists at any time. For a) to be true, 9 exists at no times at all.

If that is right, then we should be able to say the same sort of thing about the following:

b) God is a timeless being

If b) is true at some time, t, then it should be true at all times, t’, as well. We can run the same sort of reasoning. Suppose that God briefly popped into time, but only for one instant. This would be enough to make b) false at all times. So if b) is true at any time, it must be true at all times.

But consider the following:

c) God is a temporal being

Craig thinks that ‘since’ creation, God became temporal, and remains temporal. Since time began (at t0), when God ‘entered into’ time, God stopped being a timeless entity, and became a temporal entity. So c) should be true now, for Craig, because God exists temporally now.

So the problem seems to be that both b) and c) are true right now. God being timeless sans creation, and God being temporal since creation, actually seem to entail mutually exclusive propositions. Namely, the proposition ‘God is a timeless being’ is true at all times, and ‘God is a temporal being’ is true at all times, on Craig’s account. But that means that God both exists at no times, and exists at some times. That is a contradiction. How is this to be avoided?

In fact, DeWesse poses this very problem:

“[Craig’s view] seems to entail the following conjunction: ‘God is (tenselessly) timeless and God is (present tense) temporal.’ … statements made about timeless entities are made at a time, and a truth value may be assigned at that time; a proposition about timeless entities that is tenselessly true is true now. If this is correct, then if God is (tenselessly) timeless, then it is true that God is timeless now, and that clearly contradicts the second conjunct” (DeWesse, God and the Nature of Time, p.270)

Interestingly, DeWesse put this point to Craig on ReasonableFaith. Here it is. ‘Garry’ is Garrett DeWesse. Part of Craig’s reply is as follows:

Now not all propositions about atemporal entities are tenseless, e.g., 3 is the number of apples on the table. That is true right now. The tenseless version of this arithmetical statement will also require a temporal index, e.g., 3 is the number of apples on the table at 2:00 p.m. PST, December 26, 2007. Even pure mathematical statements have implicit temporal indices indicating the times at which they are true. This is evident in that if time has a beginning or end, they are not true at times that don’t exist.

This is right, of course. Tenseless propositions require a temporal index to get a truth-value. The point though was that ‘God is a timeless being’ is true at all temporal indexes if it is true at any. Craig goes on to say:

Now God’s state of existing timelessly sans creation can serve logically as a sort of temporal index. So God exists timelessly sans creation is tenselessly true and therefore true at all times. So it is true now.

It is helpful to be clear about what Craig is saying here. He is leveraging the index, ‘sans creation’, as a way of avoiding the contradiction I outlined above. Think about the banana example from earlier on. One and the same banana is green all over and yellow all over, which seems like a contradiction. But this is not a real contradiction, because there is a temporal index which distinguishes the stages of the banana from each other; the banana is green at t1, and yellow at t2. There is nothing contradictory about being green at one time and yellow at another. So the temporal index avoids the apparent contradiction here. This is how Craig is using the index. It isn’t a temporal index as such (‘sans creation’ isn’t a time), but it serves as a way of distinguishing being temporal and atemporal; God is atemporal sans creation, and temporal since creation. In exactly the way that the banana example isn’t really a contradiction, neither is the God case either.

In a sense, that does get out of the problem. However, it is not an impressive result, for two reasons.

Firstly, if ‘sans creation’, and by extension ‘since creation’, are pseudo-temporal indexes, then that means they can be used as temporal indexes, even if they aren’t really temporal indexes. But this is a double-edged blade. They cannot only be used like this when it gets Craig out of trouble, but not also to put him back into trouble. And they can put him back into trouble.

There are lots of different indexes that get used in formal semantics. For instance, if the language you are analysing involves first person pronouns, i.e. “I”, then there is need for a ‘speaker of context’ index. “I am called Alex” is true if the value of the speaker index is me, but it is false if the value of the speaker index is Dave Grohl. Evaluating the same sentence with different values for the speaker index can provide us with different truth-values, as we just saw. Similarly “the banana is yellow” is false if the value of the time index is t1, but it is true if the value of the time index is t2.

The thing to note though is that if a proposition has a different truth-value with different values of the time index has a special name for it; we call that ‘change’. Varying the value of the speaker index, for example, is not ‘change’. We don’t have a word for that at all. But when Craig says that the ‘sans creation’ index is “a sort of temporal index” it makes the result of changing the value of this index ‘sort of a change’. To the extent that it is like a temporal index, it is a change. If Craig just means it to be analogous to a time index in the sense that it is a semantic index more generally, then varying its value is not a change. But then it isn’t ‘sort of’ a temporal index at all, any more than the speaker of context index is a temporal index. It’s just an index. It’s just not quite clear exactly what relation Craig wants the ‘sans creation’ index to have to the temporal index. I suspect he wants it to have a very loose relationship, to avoid the result of varying it as a change.

There is a deeper problem with the proposal though. Imagine Bill pours himself a beer from a can into his glass. It’s a hot day, and Garry looks like he could do with some as well, but that was the last beer. So Bill takes pity on Garry, and pours half his beer into Garry’s glass. Now, ask yourself the question: is all of the beer in Bill’s glass? Well, intuitively the answer is no; some of it is in Garry’s glass. But now imagine that you are allowed to use the index ‘sans Garry’s glass’ to mean ‘not in Garry’s glass’. Should we think that the following is true:

d) All of the beer, sans Garry’s glass, is in Bill’s glass

Well, if we simply introduce the index as defined above, then d) is true. However, it being true shouldn’t distract us from the fact that not all of the beer is in Bill’s glass. If we think of the situation simpliciter, we can see that some of the beer is in Garry’s glass, and that entails that not all of the beer is in Bill’s glass. The index doesn’t help us describe things as they really are, but introduces a more artificial way of talking about the situation.

The lesson of this is that we can always introduce an index to cook up any semantic result we want. The game though is in thinking about the real indexes, the ones we cannot do without; not the ones that are helpful merely to score a point.

How does this relate to Craig’s proposal? Well, even though God is timeless sans creation, if we think about the situation simpliciter, we can see that God is just not timeless. That’s because God exists at a time (indeed, at every time). If we ignore all the times he exists at, then it is true (on Craig’s view) that God also has a mode of existence that is independent of time. For example, had God not made the universe at all, then he would have existed atemporally. But because he did make time, and entered into it, that means he is not atemporal. In reality, Craig’s view of God is not a version of atemporality, but merely a version of temporality. Only in an ersatz sense is God atemporal; only in the same way that all the beer is in Bill’s glass. In reality, God exists in time on Craig’s view, just as in reality some of the beer is in Garry’s glass.

What this means is that it isn’t an example of a timeless God causally interacting with the universe. It’s an example of a God who exists in time interacting with the universe. For that reason, it isn’t a counterexample to the claim that a timeless God couldn’t causally interact with the universe.

10. Conclusion

At the end of all this, I think my view is pretty clear. A timeless being cannot cause anything to happen, because it requires that being to have A-properties or B-relations; it requires the entity to exist at a time. MC didn’t provide a coherent explanation of how this is supposed to work. He helped himself to blatantly temporal metaphors whenever he got close to addressing the central point. He clearly favours Craig’s view, but Craig’s view isn’t an example of a timeless God, and so isn’t an example of a timeless God causally interacting with the universe.


The ‘God can do anything’ objection

0. Introduction

Since I had my debate with Luke Barnes, I have received quite a few questions about different objections to fine tuning, and easily the most common one is the ‘but God could do anything’ objection. The idea is like this. God could have made a world in which there was ‘corse-tuning’. In such a world, the laws of physics are such that if you varied the values of things like gravity, the entropy of the early universe, the mass of the electron, etc, you would still have circumstances in which life as we know it could survive. Why think that if God existed then we should expect to find fine tuning? Surely, fine tuning is evidence against God? I take it this is the ‘God could do anything’ objection.

Here is Hans Halvorson making pretty much this argument. Here he is making the same sort of argument again. The relevant section involves an analogy:

“Suppose that you’re captured by an alien race whose intentions are unclear, and they make you play Russian roulette. Then suppose that you win, and survive the game. If you are convinced by the fine-tuning argument, then you might be tempted to conclude that your captors wanted you to live.

But imagine that you discover the revolver had five of six chambers loaded, and you just happened to pull the trigger on the one empty chamber. The discovery of this second fact doesn’t confirm the benevolence of your captors. It disconfirms it. The most rational conclusion is that your captors were hostile, but you got lucky.

Similarly, the fine-tuning argument rests on an interesting discovery of physical cosmology that the odds were strongly stacked against life. But if God exists, then the odds didn’t have to be stacked this way. These bad odds could themselves be taken as evidence against the existence of God.”

This is an interesting argument. I think it is a good argument. However, I think it is not the slam-dunk that some people seem to think it is. It shows that in some sense, the existence of God is very very unlikely. However, it really poses no objection to the fine tuning argument as such.

In this post, I want to explain why this is the case.

  1. Doing the maths

Part of explaining the power, and limits, of this argument requires doing a bit of maths. Firstly, we need to set out the terms involved. The idea of fine tuning is that if we vary the physical parameters of the universe by a tiny amount, then the universe becomes hostile to life as we know it. Roger Penrose expresses the odds against this happening as less than one part in ten to the power ten to the power one hundred and twenty three, or: 

1 / lklk

That is a stupidly small number!

Let’s call this fact F (for Fine tuning). Let’s call the fact that the universe is hospitable to life L, and let’s call the hypothesis that God exists G. Not all cosmologists accept the fine tuning of the universe, but a lot of them do (in some sense or another at least). Regardless of whether it is true, we can agree that if it were true, then the chances of life existing, as it were by chance, are low in the following sense, and using Penrose’s numbers:

  1. P(L | F) = 1 /  lklk

(The probability that the universe would be life-permitting, given fine tuning, is stupidly low)

Let’s also say that, because God is good, and because life is good, God favours universes that are life-permitting, in the following sense:

2.   P(L | G) > P(~L | G)

(The probability that the universe would be life-permitting given that God exists is higher than the probability that the universe would not be life-permitting given that God exists)

However, if you believe in both God and fine tuning (as people like Robin Collins or Luke Barnes do), then you believe in something only a tiny bit more likely than that the universe is life permitting by pure chance. This is what the ‘God can do anything’ objection’s most interesting implication. Here is how it works.

Firstly, let’s add in the fact of fine tuning into the conditional hypothesis in 2:

3.   P(L | G & F) > P(~L | G & F)

The idea is that the proponents of fine tuning who are also theists believe both G and F to be true. F is part of their background knowledge, as it were, so we can add it in to the right side of each conditional probability. The fact of life is more likely on God and fine tuning, than no life is on God and fine tuning. Now, we can use the conditional probability formula (see it here) to express P(L | G & F) differently. The formula says:

P(A | B) = P(A & B) / P(B)

In our case, A = L and B = G & F. If we plug them in, we get:

4. P(L|G & F) = P(L & G | F) / P(G | F)

(The probability that the universe is life permitting, given God and fine tuning, equals the probability that the universe is life permitting and God exists, given fine tuning, divided by the probability that God exists given fine tuning)

We can do exactly the same thing for the other side of 3 (which just uses ~L instead of L):

5.  P(~L|G & F) = P(~L & G | F) / P(G | F)

3 says (effectively) that 4 > 5, so we can restate 3 as:

6.  P(L & G | F) / P(G | F) > P(~L & G | F) / P(G | F)

Each side of 6 has the same denominator, namely P( G | F). So we can eliminate that as follows:

7.  P(L & G | F)  > P(~L & G | F)

All we have done so far is basic algebra, and we have an inequality which says that the probability that the universe would be life permitting and that God exists, given fine tuning, is greater than that the universe would not be life permitting and that God exists, given fine tuning. This enables us to make a rather nice move here (which is where all this maths starts to become interesting). The probability that God exists given fine tuning, P(G | F) is equal to P(L & G | F) + P(~L & G | F). This is because L and ~L constitute all the possibilities for L that there are, so if we consider both of them in there, then it means we can basically just remove them from the equation. So,

8. P(G | F)P(L & G | F) + P(~L & G | F)

And we can get P(L & G | F) + P(~L & G | F) (i.e. the right side of 8) by simply adding P(L & G | F) to each side of 7, as follows:

9. P(L & G | F) + P(L & G | F)  > P(L & G | F) + P(~L & G | F)

So the right side of 8 just is the right side of 9 (which is why they are both orange). 8 says that P(G | F) equals P(L & G | F) + P(~L & G | F), and 9 says that this is less than P(L & G | F) + P(L & G | F). Because of 8, we can substitute P(G | F) for P(L & G | F) + P(~L & G | F) in 9:

9′. P(L & G | F) + P(L & G | F) > P(G | F)

We can simplify P(L & G | F) + P(L & G | F) into 2 x P(L & G | F). What this shows is that the left side of 8 is less than 2 x P(L & G | F), i.e.:

10.  2 x P(L & G | F) > P(G | F)

It is obvious that P(L & G | F) cannot be more than P(L | F) (the probability of two propositions on a hypothesis cannot be more than the probability of one of them on that same hypothesis); so P(L & G | F) ≤ P(L | F). So, because of 10, we can say that P(G | F) must be less than 2 x P(L | F). We know from Penrose what P(L | F) was; it was the stupidly small number lklk. So we can say that the probability that God exists given fine tuning is no more than twice the probability of life given fine tuning:

11.  P(G | F) ≤ 2 x lklk

This is the mathematically rigorous way of saying that fine tuning makes the existence of God very very unlikely.

2. What does this mean?

What this shows is that if you think that a) fine tuning makes life happening by chance as unlikely as lklk, and b) you think that God would favour life permitting universes, then you should also think that c) the probability that God exists is no better than twice 1 / lklk. We have effectively put an upper limit on the conditional probability of God existing given fine tuning, and that limit is twice that of life existing by chance given fine tuning (which is the number fine tuning advocates are always keen to stress is so stupidly low).

Even if we think of the very top of this limit, we can see that it is not much help. Two times 1 / lklk is not as small as one times 1 /  lklk (obviously), but because 1 / lklk is such a stupidly low number, the upper limit is also stupidly low. 2 x stupidly low is still stupidly low. In that case, we might think, fine tuning is pretty good evidence against God. This, it seems to me, is the strength of the ‘God could do anything’ objection. It makes the probability that God exists look stupidly low.

3. The ‘God could do anything’ objection and the fine tuning argument

Yet, how does this result fit into the fine tuning argument? What impact does it have? Recall, that fine tuning argument goes like this (where N is naturalism):

  1.    P(L | N & F) << 1
  2. ~(P(L | G & F) << 1)
  3. Therefore, L is evidence of G over N.

Using our numbers, we can restate the the first two premises as follows:

  1. P(L | N & F) = 1 / lklk
  2. P(L | G & F)  ≤ 2 x (1 / lklk)

We don’t know that the second probability is actually twice the first, but it could be for all we have found out. So long as it is more than the probability in the first, then we can use the likelihood principle and infer the conclusion still. So we have not cut off the argument as such.

Even given all the maths we did above, we have not established that premise 2 is false. All we did was limit how much more likely than premise 1 it could be (it is at most twice as likely). But another way of saying this is that the second premise could be twice as likely as the first, which still enables us to infer the conclusion. And this is where the weakness of the ‘God could do anything’ objection is plain to see. Even if we grant it, we really have no good objection to the fine tuning argument. It isn’t itself a reason to doubt either premise or the inference to the conclusion.

What the fine tuning argument shows is not that God exists. It is not even really just supposed to be evidence that God exists. It is evidence that supports the hypothesis that God exists over the hypothesis that naturalism is true. It is about comparing two hypotheses together and picking the one with the higher probability. This conclusion is very weak, and this means that it is very hard to argue against. Even if fine tuning is evidence that makes the existence of God very unlikely, this is not a rebuttal to the fine tuning argument because it gives us no reason to suppose that life is more likely on naturalism. We need to remember that we are comparing two hypotheses here. Indeed, the upper bound is higher than on theism, so if anything it gives us some very limited reason to think that the fine tuning argument is actually correct, and no reason to doubt it.


Luke Barnes very helpfully sent me a copy of the unpublished paper ‘A probability problem in the fine tuning argument’ by Hans Halvorson, where I got the basic outline of the maths involved in this argument. I’m also indebted to HughJidiette for helping me get my head around the maths.

Fine tuning, and divine attributes

0. Introduction

I’ve been thinking a lot about fine tuning recently. One way the fine tuning argument (FTA) is presented is by Robin Collins. He writes a lot about fine-tuning, and sometimes the argument is presented differently. Sometimes the idea is that the probability of fine-tuning is low on naturalism, but not low on theism. That version of the argument is presented here (we will come back to it later). Alternatively, the idea is that given fine-tuning, the probability of a life-permitting universe (LPU) is more likely given theism than given naturalism. I am going to look at an example of the second version of the argument in this post. You can see it being elaborated here.

Collins says that the ‘core’ fine-tuning argument is that:

“given the fine-tuning evidence, LPU strongly supports T over the NSU [naturalised single universe]” (p. 205).

The ‘fine-tuning evidence’ he refers to is the finding in contemporary cosmology that

“the laws and values of the constants of physics, and the initial conditions of any universe with the same laws as our universe, must be set in a seemingly very precise way for the universe to support life” (p. 204).

Given this evidence, the fact that there is life is more likely given theism than given naturalism (or the naturalised single universe hypothesis). We can put this as follows. The fact that the universe is life permitting (LPU) is more likely given theism than given naturalism:

i)   P(LPU | T) > P(LPU | N)

If i) is true, the LPU is evidence of theism over naturalism.

This uses what is sometimes called the ‘Likelihood Principle’, according to which evidence e counts supporting a hypothesis h1 over h2 if the probability of e given h1 is greater than the probability of e given h2. In our case, the fact that this universe is life-permitting counts as evidence for theism over naturalism because the probability that the universe would be life-permitting given theism is higher than the probability given naturalism. Fine-tuning is evidence of theism over naturalism because i) is true.

It is not just that LPU is more likely under theism than naturalism for Collins. He claims that the probability given naturalism is vanishingly small, whereas it is not vanishingly small under theism. This means that it is vastly more likely on theism than naturalism.

We can state the argument like this (where x << y means that x is “much, much less than” y):

  1.    P(LPU | N) << 1
  2. ~(P(LPU | T) << 1)
  3. Therefore, LPU strongly supports T over N

So the argument goes.


  1. The problem of elaborated hypotheses

Collins explains one way that the argument can be objected to at this stage is by building more into the hypotheses. He explains this as follows (p. 209):

“One problem with using simply the Likelihood Principle is that whether or not a hypothesis is confirmed or disconfirmed depends on what one builds into the hypothesis. For example, single-universe naturalists could prevent disconfirmation of their hypotheses by advocating the elaborated naturalistic single-universe hypothesis (NSUe), defined as NSU conjoined with the claim that the universe that exists is life-permitting … Similarly, theists could avoid any question about whether LPU is probable on T by constructing an elaborated theistic hypothesis (Te) which builds in the claim that God desired to create such a universe: Te = T & God desires to create a life-permitting universe.” (p. 209)

The way this works is like this. We had said that the probability of a life permitting universe given naturalism, P(LPU | N), was (much) lower than given theism, P(LPU | T). But if we expand N to include the claim that the universe is life permitting, then its probability equals 1. That’s just because P(LPU | N & LPU) = 1; the probability that the universe is life-permitting, given naturalism and the fact that the universe is life-permitting, is 1. Thus, we can manufacture a very high probability (a maximally high probability) by elaborating the N hypothesis in this way.

Interestingly, Collins doesn’t do quite the same thing when it comes to the elaborated theistic hypothesis. He doesn’t simply conjoin T and LPU. Rather, he combines T with a claim about God’s intentions. This produces the result that the probability goes to 1, just like with the elaborated naturalistic hypothesis, but in a slightly more circumspect manner.

Collins’ definition of the T hypothesis is just this (p. 204):

“there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, everlasting or eternal, perfectly free creator of the universe whose existence does not depend on anything outside itself.”

The implicit idea seems to be that if God is omnipotent, then whatever he wants to be the case follows by necessity. An omnipotent being couldn’t fail to actualise something they intended to actualise, for this would be a failure and thus a lack of power. Something like this seems to be going on here. If so, then adding on a claim about God’s desires has the consequence that the desired thing happens. So “T & God desires to create a life-permitting universe” entails LPU.

We will come back to this, but for now just note that to be exactly paralleling the move made when elaborating the naturalistic hypothesis, Collins should have made the elaborated theistic hypothesis simply T & LPU. That way, P(LPU | T & LPU) = 1, just like with the elaborated naturalistic hypothesis.

So far, the idea with elaborated hypotheses, however they are constructed, is that one can make LPU given the elaborated hypothesis have a maximally high probability by packing in more information to the conditional hypotheses. This would be a way of denying premise 1 of the argument, and denying i); we would be denying that LPU given naturalism is much less than 1, because it would be exactly 1, and we would be denying that the probability of LPU is greater given theism than given naturalism, because both elaborated hypotheses would be exactly 1. If we allowed the elaborated hypothesis move, the fine-tuning argument grinds to a halt with a stalemate, with both parties having epistemically equivalent hypotheses.

2. Probabilistic Tension

The way Collins proposes to deal with the problem of elaborated hypotheses is via the notion of ‘probabilistic tension’. He is saying that there is a way of telling between N and T; elaborated-N suffers from probabilistic tension, but elaborated-T does not. And he thinks that suffering from probabilistic tension is a ‘black mark’ against a hypothesis. If he is right about this, we would be able to discard elaborated-N and break the stalemate.

He defines probabilistic tension as follows:

“A hypothesis h suffers from probabilistic tension if and only if h is logically equivalent to some conjunctive hypothesis, h1 & h2, such that P(h1|h2) << 1: that is, one conjunct of the hypothesis is very unlikely, conditioned on the other conjunct.”

His example to bring out the idea here is with a murder trial. Imagine that fingerprints matching Alvin’s are found on the murder weapon. This strongly confirms the ‘Alvin is guilty of the murder’ hypothesis over the ‘Alvin is innocent of the murder’ hypothesis, because the probability that fingerprints matching Alvin’s would be found on the weapon given the innocence hypothesis is very low compared with given the guilt hypothesis. However, Collins goes on to say:

“Such matching [of fingerprints], however, does not confirm the guilt hypothesis over what could be called an “elaborated innocence hypothesis” – that is, an innocence hypothesis constructed in such a way that the matching of the fingerprints is implied by the hypothesis. An example of such a hypothesis is the claim that the defendant did not touch the murder weapon conjoined with the claim that someone else with almost identical fingerprints touched the weapon. This hypothesis entails that the fingerprints will appear to match, and hence by the Likelihood Principle the apparent matching could not confirm the guilt hypothesis over this hypothesis.”

So the idea is that we build into the innocence hypothesis the claim that Alvin did not touch the weapon (~A) and that his identical hand twin, Calvin, did touch the weapon (C). The elaborated innocence hypothesis is: ~A & C. This conjunctive hypothesis entails the evidence about the fingerprints, and means that the evidence about the fingerprints being on the weapon are not higher on either elaborated innocence or guilt hypotheses. They are equal.

However, Collins goes on to explain what he thinks is wrong with this:

“Nonetheless, this elaborated innocence hypothesis suffers from severe probabilistic
tension: one conjunct of the hypothesis (that some other person with almost identical fingerprints touched the weapon) is very improbable on the other conjunct (that the defendant is innocent) since it is extremely rare for two people to happen to have almost identical fingerprints.”

If I knew that Alvin has an identical hand twin who touched the weapon, then finding out that fingerprints that match Alvin’s would not make the elaborated innocence hypothesis seem surprising. It isn’t particularly surprising, given the fact that Calvin did touch the weapon, that Alvin is innocent and did not touch the weapon. The evidence doesn’t make this look bad at all. So one way of conditionalising the propositions doesn’t generate probabilistic tension.

However, if we conditionalise the hypotheses the other way round, things look very different. If I know that Alvin is innocent and didn’t touch the weapon, then I would still be surprised to find out that he had an identical hand twin. It is so unlikely that he would have an identical hand twin, that I would expect some other explanation of the fingerprints. Maybe someone messed up the lab results, or that the police are trying to set Alvin up by faking the fingerprint evidence, etc. My knowing that fingerprints matching Alvin’s are on the murder weapon does not lead me to expect that he has an identical hand twin who touched it. It is for this reason that the elaborated innocence hypothesis suffers from probabilistic tension. One hypothesis conditional on the other is very unlikely.

3. Fine Tuning and probabilistic tension

How does this relate to our previous topic? It works like this. The elaborated naturalistic hypothesis is simply the conjunction of the naturalistic hypothesis, N, and the claim that the universe is life permitting, LPU, i.e. elaborated-N = N & LPU. But, as premise 1 of Collins argument claims, the probability of LPU given N is very close to 0. Thus, the two conjuncts that comprise elaborated-N possess probabilistic tension. One of them, conditional on the other, is very unlikely.

However, claims Collins, the elaborated theistic hypothesis does not suffer from this problem. That hypothesis is comprised of the theistic hypothesis, T, conjoined with the claim that God desires to create a life permitting universe. If we were to conditionalise one on the other, we would find that their probability were nowhere near 0, and thus the elaborated theistic hypothesis would not suffer from probabilistic tension. This would allow us to distinguish between the two elaborated hypotheses and avoid the stalemate we found above.

Here is where I want to object. I have two objections.

Firstly, if we mirrored the elaborated naturalistic hypothesis, we would find ourselves in the same boat, and we would not avoid the stalemate. What I mean is that if the elaborated theistic hypothesis were merely the conjunction of T and LPU, then we have reason to think that the hypothesis does suffer from probabilistic tension. Let’s remember what the T hypothesis is. Collins defines the hypothesis as the claim that:

“there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, everlasting or eternal, perfectly free creator of the universe whose existence does not depend on anything outside itself.” (p. 204)

This thing has no intentions stipulated at all. It might desire a life-permitting universe, but it could desire anything. Without any information about what it desires, we should assign an equal probability to each possible universe that it could desire to create. So if we conditionalise LPU on T, we have no reason to expect the probability to be high. The probability that a God with no particular intentions would create a life-permitting universe is just the probability that this universe would come about by pure chance. The probabilities become exactly the same as on the original naturalistic hypothesis, which Collins was keen to stress is very, very close to 0. This would make premise 2 of Collins’ argument is false.

Think about it like this. Say there are two ingredients in my fridge, jam and spam, out of which there is enough to make a single-ingredient sandwich. You know that Alvin is a spam enthusiast, and that Calvin is a jam guy. Each of them likes their ingredient as much as the other likes theirs, and each hates what the other likes as much as the other hates what they like. The probability that the sandwich has spam in it, given that Alvin made it, is higher than given that Calvin made it:

P(S | A) > P(S | C)

Also, the probability that Alvin made the sandwich, given that it has spam in it is also higher than if it had jam in it.

P(A | S) > P(A | J)

This much is clear.

But if we consider the hypothesis that (Alvin or Calvin) made a sandwich, then we have no way of preferring either sandwich ingredient. The probabilities of either sandwich ingredient, given the disjunctive hypothesis is the same:

P(S| A v C)  =  P(J |A v C)

You would have to treat each possible ingredient of the sandwich as having equal probability. Without knowing what the sandwich maker wants, you can’t say what he will put in it.

Same thing with God, it seems to me. If we mirror the elaborated naturalistic hypothesis, then we don’t have any information about God’s desires in the hypothesis. T doesn’t mention his desires at all. We can suppose that he has some desires or other, if you insist, and then T becomes a disjunctive hypothesis, like with the sandwich example. We are effectively treating T as (either God who desires rocks, or God who desires black holes, or God who desires to be the only thing in existence…). Given such a hypothesis, we cannot expect any particular type of universe at all. For this reason, I think that premise 2 is false. The probability that the universe would be life-permitting, given the God hypothesis that Collins defines, is the same as if we picked one at random.

Of course, this is not how Collins went. He didn’t build the extended theistic hypothesis as (LPU & T). He said that the extended theistic hypothesis was the conjunction of T with a claim about God’s intentions. This would be like picking one of the disjuncts from my big disjunction above to go into the hypothesis; giving us information about what type of sandwich God desires to make.

But the elaborated naturalistic hypothesis suffered from probabilistic tension. If he wants to use the extended theistic hypothesis in place of the original premise 2, so as to avoid my objection from above, he better be able to avoid probabilistic tension. To establish this, he has to show that conditionalising T on the claim that God desires to create a life-permitting universe, or vice versa, is not very very close to 0. And it seems to me that it is. And this is where my second objection comes in. The extended theistic hypothesis is riddled with probabilistic tension.

Think about the probability that God has those very desires, given that he exists;

P(God desires LPU | T)

For all I know, God could have any desires. If I assume that I know that T is true, I should be extremely surprised to find out that he desires for life to exist. After all, he could have desired anything. As we saw already, the hypothesis T does not include any information about his desires, after all. Thus, out of all the possible things to desire, such as rocks, black holes, to be the only entity in existence, for there not to be life, etc, etc, he desired for there to be life. There aren’t just two possible sandwich ingredients. There is a seeming unlimited number of sandwich ingredients, and he happened to pick spam.

Knowing that “an omnipotent, omniscient, everlasting or eternal, perfectly free creator of the universe whose existence does not depend on anything outside itself” exists and then finding out that it desires life, it seems to me, is easily as surprising as knowing that Alvin didn’t touch the murder weapon and then finding out that he has an identical hand twin. There are just so many alternatives, and compared with the combined weight of all of them, God having any one particular desire is incredibly unlikely. Thus, I think that even on his own terms Collins’ strategy here fails. We should consider the original theistic hypothesis used in premise 2 to be false, and the extended theistic hypothesis, even if it doesn’t mirror the extended naturalistic hypothesis, to be full of probabilistic tension.

4. Ad hocness

Interestingly, Collins makes a move earlier on in the chapter which seems to anticipate this sort of response. He advocates for what he considers to be a restricted version of the likelihood principle:

“The restricted version limits the applicability of the Likelihood Principle to cases in
which the hypothesis being confirmed is non-ad hoc. A sufficient condition for a hypothesis being non-ad hoc (in the sense used here) is that there are independent motivations for believing the hypothesis apart from the confirming data e, or for the hypothesis to have been widely advocated prior to the confirming evidence.”

What he is advocating here is a restriction to the likelihood principle which means that you do not say that evidence supports hypotheses which are ad hoc, even if the evidence is more probable given the ad hoc hypothesis. He has a nice example to explain this, which I will quote in full:

“To illustrate the need for the restricted version, suppose that I roll a die 20 times and it comes up some apparently random sequence of numbers – say 2, 6, 4, 3, 1, 5, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1, 6, 2, 4, 4, 1, 3, 6, 6, 1. The probability of its coming up in this sequence is one in 3.6 × 1015, or about one in a million billion. To explain this occurrence, suppose I invented the hypothesis that there is a demon whose favorite number is just the aforementioned sequence of numbers (i.e. 26431564321624413661), and that this demon had a strong desire for that sequence to turn up when I rolled the die. Now, if this demon hypothesis were true, then the fact that the die came up in this sequence would be expected – that is, the sequence would not be epistemically improbable. Consequently, by the standard Likelihood Principle, the occurrence of this sequence would strongly confirm the demon hypothesis over the chance hypothesis. But this seems counterintuitive: given a sort of commonsense notion of confirmation, it does not seem that the demon hypothesis is confirmed.”

One way of thinking about the points I was raising above is that conjoining the T hypothesis with some particular fact about God’s intentions is ad hoc in exactly the way that the daemon hypothesis is for the dice rolls. We can make the example even more straightforward. Imagine I roll a die once and it is a 6. What is the probability that this would happen given naturalism? Presumably, the chances are one in six, or 0.16666…, which is just to say that it has the probability of happening by chance. What about on the elaborated T hypothesis which consists of T & God desiring for this die to land 6? Well, it wouldn’t be surprising at all for an omnipotent being who desired the die to land 6 to ensure that it landed 6. Far more likely than me rolling a 6 by chance anyway. So we should think that me rolling a die and it landing 6 is evidence of God, which is absurd.

If Collins wants to say that the daemon hypothesis is ruled out for being ad hoc, he should also say that the ‘God who desired me to roll a 6’ hypothesis should be ruled out because it is ad hoc as well. But it is far from clear that he can say that his elaborated theistic hypothesis is not ad hoc. He makes the following remarks:

“Now consider a modification of the demon case in which, prior to my rolling the die, a group of occultists claimed to have a religious experience of a demon they called “Groodal,” who they claimed revealed that her favorite number was 2643156432162441366, and that she strongly desired that number be realized in some continuous sequence of die rolls in the near future. Suppose they wrote this all down in front of many reliable witnesses days before I rolled the die. Certainly, it seems that the sequence of die rolls would count as evidence in favor of the Groodal hypothesis over the chance hypothesis. The relevant difference between this and the previous case is that in this case the Groodal hypothesis was already advocated prior to the rolling of the die, and thus the restricted Likelihood Principle implies that the sequence of die rolls confirms the Groodal hypothesis”

The difference between the first daemon hypothesis and the second is that in the first we roll the die and then construct the hypothesis afterwards, whereas in the second the group of occultists have received their number in advance of the rolling of the die. This stops the hypothesis being ad hoc; it wasn’t generated merely to fit the data. It made a  prediction that was extremely unlikely to be verified, but was.

But let’s think about Collins’ extended theistic hypothesis, T & God desires a life permitting universe. That surely makes no prediction. It is ad hoc in exactly the way that the first daemon hypothesis was – being constructed after the event merely to explain the data we already had. There cannot be a hypothesis postulated before the discovery that this universe is life permitting, and this means that there cannot be a claim about God’s intentions that raises the probability that this universe is life permitting that avoids being ad hoc in the way that Collins describes. So, not only does it suffer from probabilistic tension, it is also ad hoc. It violates both conditions he sets out. Even the non-elaborated theistic hypothesis does not raise the probability of LPU, as I argued above.

One might appeal to a prior notion of God that involves moral goodness, or appeal to an argument that purports to prove not only that God exists but that he has moral goodness. Possibly. It seems to me that simply already thinking that God is good, or already thinking that he already exists and is good, shouldn’t be what stops a hypothesis from being ad hoc. If always happen to irrationally believe that it is exactly 8:30 in the morning, and then I find a stopped clock on the beach that says it is 8:30, I cannot use my prior belief that it is 8:30 as reason to think that the clock happens to be showing the right time. Even though I already hold the belief, I should expect that the clock is showing the wrong time. This would be completely different if my prior belief in what time it was had a good independent reason to it. That would license me from inferring that the clock happens to be showing the right time. If Collins wants to say that his conception of God just happens to have the notion that he wants to create LPU, then unless he has a reason for this prior belief, it cannot be used to avoid the ad hoc charge, it seems to me. You don’t get to justify your belief merely with the fact that you already believe it. And it seems to me that the belief that there is a good God who really exists is not supported in anywhere near as good terms as the occultists had for Groodal.

5. Background knowledge

My guess here is that Collins would reply that the conjunction of T with God’s desiring to create a life-permitting universe is not ad hoc because it is part of his background information. In this Collins makes the slightly different version of the argument I mentioned at the very start of this blog post. In this alternative formulation, premise 1 is:

“The existence of the fine-tuning is not improbable under theism”

So now we are conditioning fine tuning on theism (rather then LPU on theism). In a section where he outlines the support for the premises, Collins makes the following remarks, which look like they might apply to our premise 2:

[It] is easy to support and fairly uncontroversial. The argument in
support of it can be simply stated as follows: since God is an all good being,
and it is good for intelligent, conscious beings to exist, it not surprising or
improbable that God would create a world that could support intelligent life.
Thus, the fine-tuning is not improbable under theism.”

This new comment is from an older paper; in fact it is from a paper that is 10 years older – it is from The Fine Tuning Design Argument (1999), whereas we have been focusing on The Teleological Argument: An Exploration of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe (2009). So it seems that the evolution of Collins’ thinking has been to take the goodness of God out of the theistic hypothesis, because in ‘The Teleological Argument’ the theistic hypothesis was just “there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, everlasting or eternal, perfectly free creator of the universe whose existence does not depend on anything outside itself”, with no mention of God’s goodness or intentional states at all. Maybe he made this move in order to avoid problems like my second objection. If so then it is out of the frying pan into the fire, because the situation is just as bad without it.

6. Conclusion

So let’s take a step back for a moment and think about where we are. If we take the ‘bare’ theistic hypothesis as Collins’ describes it, then there is no mention of God’s desires. For this sort of entity, we have no reason to think that he would make any of the seemingly infinite number of possible sandwiches (so to speak) that he could make rather than any other. Each of them is equally vanishingly unlikely. Thus, premise 2 is false. But if we add in a particular intention, and modify premise 2 to avoid the problem, then we find that this solves that problem only by making the hypothesis both probabilisticly tense, and ad hoc by Collins’ own lights. No Christian has grounds anywhere near as good as the occultists had for believing in Groodal, and so I cannot see how the belief is anything other than wishful thinking here.

Fine tuning and consciousness

0. Introduction

The fine-tuning argument begins with the observation of fine-tuning, which is the phenomena that if the values of the parameters in fundamental physics were varied by even a tiny amount, the universe would be inhospitable. As Craig puts it:

“If the gravitational constant had been out of tune by just one of these infinitesimally small increments, the universe would either have expanded and thinned out so rapidly that no stars could form and life couldn’t exist, or it would have collapsed back on itself with the same result: no stars, no planets, no life.”

This couldn’t merely be a product of chance, as the chances are so remote. Neither could it be a matter of necessity, as it seems paradigmatically contingent. Thus, it must be the result of design; it must be the product of some intentional process by the designer of the universe.

Here I want to point out a move that is made in a certain part of the argument, and a concession that it tacitly requires which rules out the conclusion.

  1. Minds and brains

It seems pretty certain that if one varied the values of some of the fundamental physical parameters, the result would be a universe that was inhospitable to complex physical objects, like our bodies. Let’s set aside the question of whether ‘life’ with radically different types of bodies could exist in these weird circumstances. Let’s assume that the answer to this is also: no. Let’s just grant for the sake of the argument that the only situations in which they could occur is in situations very similar to this one.

I think that even when we have made these concessions, what we have established is that physical objects, of a certain complexity, could not exist if we altered the value of gravity, by even a tiny amount, for the sorts of reasons Craig outlines above.

But at this stage there may be a response here along the following lines. Showing that physical objects like brains could not exist in these circumstances, one might think, does not show that minds could not exist in these circumstances. After all, one might believe that the mind and the body are distinct. One might be a substance dualist, or an idealist, for example. One might believe that the soul continues to exist after the demise of the body, either by being reincarnated in a new body or by existing in an immaterial realm, like heaven. If one held any of these views, then merely showing that brains couldn’t exist if gravity were different would not establish that minds could not exist in those circumstances. After all, minds can exist without bodies (or so the substance dualist, idealist or believer in the afterlife, will maintain).

The FTA argument at this stage would have an inferential step in it that looks like this:

  1. Complex physical objects (like brains) could not exist if gravity were different
  2. Therefore, minds could not exist if gravity were different

The dualist (or idealist, etc) is merely pointing out that the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premise. If minds can exist without bodies, then 1 can be true even if 2 is false. Thus, the inference is invalid.

What is required to bridge the gap from the claim that complex physical objects couldn’t exist in circumstance C, to the claim that minds could not exist in circumstance C, is the further premise that minds could not exist without bodies. Then the argument would become:

  1. Complex physical objects (like brains) could not exist if gravity were different
  2. Minds cannot exist without complex physical objects (like brains)
  3. Therefore, minds could not exist if gravity were different.

Without the new second premise, all fine-tuning established (even if we grant everything the apologist says about fine-tuning) is that brains could not exist if things were different. If minds can exist without bodies, then minds can exist regardless of the values of the fundamental parameters of physics. This would mean that the existence of minds is independent from the fine-tuning of the universe. Thus, for the FTA to be considered successful, we seem to be required to hold that minds depend on complex physical objects (like brains).

2. The importance of minds

Minds, as opposed to brains, we might think, are what is really important to God’s overall plan behind the design. Most forms of traditional theism hold that people are judged by God either by their works (whether they perform moral or immoral actions) or on the basis of their acceptance of Jesus as their personal saviour (the faith they have in Jesus). But it is minds that have the capacity to form intentions, which can be either moral or immoral. It is minds that can form the belief that Jesus is the saviour of the human race. It seems that all that is needed for this, on either the works or faith account, is that minds exist. And if that is the case, then the physical constants of the universe are irrelevant to this larger design. The existence of the physical universe doesn’t even seem to be required at all. In Berkeley’s idealism, for example, there are just minds, and no physical bodies at all. Yet, he thought that in this setting the divine judgement of human agent’s behaviour still makes sense. Faith in God and Jesus still makes sense for Berkeley, even though he thought that there was no physical universe (including physical brains) at all.

So for fine-tuning to have any relevance at all here, the apologist seems to have to insist that minds could not exist without bodies. Then, the fact that bodies (in particular brains) could not exist if physics were slightly different would also mean that minds also could not exist in those circumstances. And that would mean that moral assessments would be impossible, and so would the assessment of the level of faith that a person has, and with it the realisation of the whole divine plan would be impossible.

So the apologist wants to say something like this: look, God wants to have free agents who make moral choices, and have faith in Jesus (etc), and if gravity were even slightly different this would be impossible. That’s why it’s reasonable to infer design behind the fine-tuning.

3. Implications

Now, it seems to me that already there is a tension here. The proponent of the FTA seems to have to insist that brains are required for minds to exist. Otherwise, there argument doesn’t seem to have any relevance for the designed plan. Yet, if they do make this insistence, then they cannot consistently also maintain that there is an immaterial afterlife. You cannot say both that minds require brains, but that minds can exist even after the brain does not. If minds require brains, then you cannot have one without the other.

But the problem is deeper than this. Maybe the apologist will shrug this off somehow. Maybe in the afterlife we do have physical bodies of some sort (perfect ones, perhaps). But unless they want to say the same about God’s mind, they seem to be in a tricky situation. In this video clip, Craig affirms his belief that God is an immaterial yet intentional being. In doing so, he is making a very standard claim about God. God is, in some sense, a mind, but does not have a body (he is immaterial).

But this is precisely the sort of thing that our premise 2, which was required for the argument to go through, rules out. Just as you cannot rule out minds existing without the body, and then go on to affirm an immaterial afterlife, you also cannot rule out minds existing without the body and then go on to affirm that the universe was designed by an immaterial mind. If minds require bodies, then there are no minds without bodies, including God’s.

Thus, the proponent of the FTA is in a dilemma. Either minds can exist without bodies, in which case the physical fine-tuning of the universe is irrelevant to the existence of agents that God is interested in, or they cannot exist without bodies, in which case God (a mind without a body) cannot exist. Either fine-tuning is irrelevant, or God does not exist.

Epistemic extremism

On the most recent Atheist Experience (here), I think the hosts (Matt and Jamie) make some comments which go too far. I’m not sure if I have missed this before, or if it is a change in tone that has come up recently. Anyway, it seems to me to be a case of epistemic extremism.

In the show, they were talking to a recently de-converted ex-Christian, Ethan, about his newfound atheological engagement with missionaries and apologists. Ethan was explaining how he is now of the belief that there is no god. The caller had been trying to argue for this point in his conversations with Christians, rather than merely arguing that there is no good reason to believe in god. At about 28:17, the caller (wrongly in my opinion) suggests that “at some point eventually you have to make the decision about whether there is a god or there isn’t”. The hosts object to this comment quite strongly, both repeating “No” several times and shaking their heads.

It is at this point that Matt makes the following remark:

“I can be not convinced that there is a god and not convinced that there isn’t a god for my entire life”.

Now, what struck me about this is the use of the word ‘convinced’. It is a pretty strong epistemic modifier. To me, the modifier marks out the extreme ends of epistemic positioning. For instance, if p is the proposition that “some god exists”, and if epistemic confidence runs from 0 through to 10, then being convinced that p is true means something like being a 10. It really means you couldn’t be more confident of p. Similarly, being convinced that p is not true, means having a confidence level of 0 in p being true. Being convinced that p, or convinced that not-p, means being at the extremes of the epistemic scale for p.

When put like that, Matt is saying that you could be some number between 1 and 9 through your whole life. And that is true. I don’t think that for each and every proposition, you should take up either a 0 or a 10 degree of belief for it. Almost every belief I have is somewhere between 1 and 9, so I am not convinced of very much really. So, as far as that goes, I agree with Matt’s statement.

But it also seems clear to me that this notion of being convinced of p is different (and should not be muddled together with) the notion of believing that p. For instance, last night put my bike in the bike shed in my garden, and I have not yet gone to look at it this morning. I certainly do believe that the bike is in the shed. But, I am not convinced that the bike is in the shed. Unfortunately, bike thieves do operate in this area from time to time. I think it is unlikely, though possible, that my bike has been stolen. I believe it is in the shed, but I am less than convinced about that.

In a similar manner, I am of the belief that god (the Christian God anyway) does not exist, but I would not say that I was convinced that he doesn’t exist. It seems very unlikely to me (less likely than my bike being stolen, even), but it is possible.

I believe without being convinced that my bike is in the shed; and I believe without being convinced that god does not exist.

Just like with my bike, I am pretty confident about whether god exists, but I am not at the extreme far end of the scale. Maybe my degree of belief is like a 1.5 out of 10, or something like that.

I think that Matt probably has a very similar position to me on this question. He is probably of the belief that the christian god doesn’t exist, without being convinced. We’ve talked several times about this sort of thing, so I feel like I know where he is coming from.

Richard Dawkins put himself as a six out of seven on his scale of disbelief. Dawkins own self-description is:

“Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.'” (Richard Dawkins, God Delusion, p. 50-51).

It seems to me that Dawkins is not convinced that god does not exist, but he is pretty solidly believing that God does not exist. He has a very strong belief, but he is not an extremist.

On the other side of the fence, we have William Lane Craig (about as far away from Dawkins as we can reasonably expect on the scale). Yet, even Craig declines to go all the way to the extreme of the scale. In this clip, he clearly states that he is not certain that god exists. Obviously, Craig thinks he has very good reasons to believe that god exists, and he does believe pretty strongly that god exists. Yet, it is wrong to put him at the extreme end of the scale either.

In some very important sense then, neither Dawkins nor Craig are convinced (in either direction) about whether god exists. While there may be people who do land on the epistemic scale at a point which is more extreme that either Dawkins or Craig, I think it is safe to assume that the vast majority of people are somewhere in between these two. Hardly anyone is more convinced than these guys, and even they are not convinced.

Matt’s criteria, of not being convinced either way, is so weak that it ends up covering people with such diverse opinions on the same topic as Dawkins and Craig, both of whom come under the description of being “not convinced that there is a god and not convinced that there isn’t a god”.

[As an aside, the definition of an atheist as someone who is “not convinced” that there is a god, is kind of absurd if it ends up classifying William Lane Craig as an atheist.]

Matt goes on to make the courtroom analogy:

“This person has been accused of a crime. Do you think he is guilty? No. Do you think he is innocent? No. Do you ever have to make up your mind? No.

Now, if we consider the standard of evidence in a court of law for very serious crimes, like murder, the standard used is ‘reasonable doubt’. It is true that given this standard, I would not be able to ‘convict’ most propositions as either being true or of being false. There is a ‘reasonable doubt’ about whether my bike is in the shed. Until I go and look to see if it is there, I am not able to make such a strong claim. Yet, I still believe (quite strongly) that my bike is in the shed. So I might not convict someone of being guilty of murder, yet still believe that they are guilty.

This makes me think that the courtroom analogy, and the notion of being ‘not convinced’ about the truth of a proposition, just obviously don’t track with the everyday sense of believing in things. We often believe things that we are not convinced in, and of which we wouldn’t be able to use the reasonable doubt standard to overcome. And I don’t see that this alone is irrational in any way. Am I being irrational for believing that my bike is in the bike shed, even though I am not convinced of it? I don’t think that is irrational at all.

Ethan replies to these comments, by referring to Jordan Peterson, who he claims just ‘tap dances around’ an issue, instead of laying out reasons to think it is true. At this point, Jamie jumps in and says:

“But if he is going to tap dance around, can’t he tap dance around and show weaknesses in the way that you have presented evidence for your claim? Wouldn’t it be better if you made him play defence on a battleground that very clearly he can’t hold?”

Jamie is clearly suggesting that Ethan shouldn’t make the claim that god doesn’t exist, but instead try to make his interlocutor ‘play defence’ for their claims. Then Matt joins in by saying:

“Ethan, by making the claim [that god does not exist], you have put yourself on a battleground that you can’t win”.

Here is where I think the main disconnect really kicks in. Matt’s claim clearly presupposes the idea that being convinced, or being beyond reasonable doubt, is the standard we should be using. But, if the claim is merely a belief claim, then this just seems wrong.

If I make a claim, like “I believe that god does not exist”, I do have a rational requirement to be able to justify that claim if someone challenges me on it. If I have no reason whatsoever, then (perhaps) that means that I cannot be rational in holding the belief. I could also have something which is a bad reason for having the belief. I need to be able to say something better than “Because I flipped the coin and got heads-up” for why I believe the proposition. So something is required (not nothing), and it needs to be a ‘good reason’ (not just flipping a coin, etc). But does it have to be enough to convince me? It seems obvious to me that the answer to that is: no. I can rationally believe something without being convinced of it. Think of the bike example. These make up the vast majority of our beliefs. Do we want to say that the vast majority of our beliefs are irrational, just because we are not convinced that they are true? I don’t think we do. Saying that we do sounds like epistemic extremism to me. It sounds antithetical to the sceptical, scientific, rational outlook the hosts usually try to defend.

But now Matt goes on to make some even more bizarre comments. He says to Ethan:

“Prove to me that you are not a mass murderer”

Ethan falters and confesses that he could not provide a proof of this that would convince Matt. But hold on a minute. What is the standard supposed to be here? Is Ethan only supposed to make claims that he has good enough reason to be convinced of, or to only make claims that he has good enough reason to convince Matt of? Which one is it?

Presumably, Ethan can be very confident, and have excellent reasons, to hold the belief that he is not a mass murderer. It seems almost unimaginable that you could forget such a thing. It’s logically possible, but it is way less likely than my bike being stolen, and there is nothing wrong with believing that the bike is in the shed. Ethan clearly has good enough evidence to rationally justify his own belief that he is not a mass murderer.

Can he justify it to Matt to the same extent? Well, possibly, but not over the phone in 2 minutes. What sort of significance are we supposed to derive from the fact that Ethan cannot summon up evidence over the phone to a complete stranger that he is not a mass murderer? Should we use this as a standard which means that Ethan shouldn’t claim to not be a mass murderer? This seems wrong to me. Ethan can certainly have the belief that he is not a mass murderer, and should be able to say outloud that he has the belief.

If I claim to be thinking about the number 7 right now, there is nothing (in principle) which could convince you beyond all doubt that I really am thinking of it. The same goes for all claims about the contents of our consciousness, such as that I am cold, or hungry, or like jazz music, or have a headache etc. I can be immediately aware of it, and to that extent I really am convinced of it, but I can give you no evidence beyond telling you. If you don’t believe me, there is nothing I can do to persuade you. But does that mean that we are not allowed (rationally) to report to others what we feel like, or what we are thinking about from time to time? Am I breaking a rule of sceptical discourse if I do so? I think not. Yet this does not meet Matt’s demand. I cannot prove to him that I am thinking of the number 7.

The standard for making a claim (most of the time) is not that you have enough evidence to convince your interlocutor. You do not have to be able to persuade them beyond a reasonable doubt. If you merely believe a proposition, without being convicted of it, then you have some justificatory burden if you make the claim, but it is not the same burden as it would be if your belief was at the extreme end of the epistemic scale.

If I said I was convinced that my bike was in the shed, it would be reasonable to expect that I have very good reason for the belief, such as that I was watching a live-feed camera showing the bike in the shed, etc. But if I merely claim to believe that it is in the shed, I need something less than that. I don’t need to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt to justify a belief in a proposition. I need some justification, but it needs to fit my confidence in the claim. So I believe the bike is in the shed because I remember putting it in there last night, I haven’t heard any noises that sound like bike thieves, I know that the crime level is low, etc. These are good reasons for having the belief. They justify the belief, even though they do not convince me. I have not “put myself on a battlefield I cannot win” by making the claim. Winning means having a reason that is proportionate to your degree of belief, not ‘being able to convince my interlocutor beyond a reasonable doubt’. So I just think Matt is wrong here. It isn’t a battlefield we cannot win on. If you believe god doesn’t exist, you can make that claim. You need something to justify it (to be rational), but you don’t need to convince me, and you don’t need to convince yourself.

Part of the reason for the seeming slide towards epistemic extremism may be simply sloppy presentation on the live show. We have all misspoken before, of course. But part of it seems to me like it might be caused by the apologetical atmosphere in general. An apologist has a very ambitious goal in mind, most of the time. They are not just defending the rationality of their beliefs, but actively trying to persuade non-believers. If your goal is to persuade me to change my mind about the truth of p, you need to have a very good justification for thinking that p is true. You need to have a better justification than you do to justify the claim that you merely believe that p.

Yet, we can see the epistemic extremism on display in the Atheist Experience in this episode as a conflation of these two different standards. Ethan can claim to believe that god does not exist, and he needs to have something to say about why he has this belief for it to be rational. But he does not have to produce the level of evidence that would be required to convince someone else to believe. These things are distinct.