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Draft chapter for comments, please (4.900 words)


Humanists embrace atheism or at least agnosticism. Some believe that belief in a god or gods is not particularly rational or justified. Others go further, insisting that belief in God is actually downright irrational.

Those who believe in God, on the other hand, while maintaining their belief is a “faith position”, nevertheless typically suppose their belief is not unreasonable. Believing in God, they suppose, is not, say, like believing in Santa or in fairies - it is much more reasonable than that. Perhaps God’s existence cannot be conclusively “proved”. But that God exists is, they think, at least a fairly reasonable thing for a modern, educated adult to believe.

But if belief in God is far more reasonable than, say, belief in fairies, what makes it more reasonable? Theists respond to this question in a variety of ways. Some attempt to offer some sort of rational argument for the existence of God.

There are many such arguments for the existence of God. It is of course impossible to do justice to all these arguments in the short space available here. Instead, I will provide illustrations of the two of the most popular kinds of argument for God’s existence, and indicate where humanist critics believe those arguments fall down. I begin with an example of a cosmological argument, and will then move on to arguments from design, including two contemporary versions based, respectively, on irreducible complexity and fine-tuning.

My aim is to provide a brief overview of the some of the problems and objections such arguments typically face.

The cosmological argument: Why is there anything at all?

Most of us have at some time or other looked up at the starry heavens and been struck by the thought – “Where did all this come from? Why is there something, rather than nothing?” This is a profound question – a question worthy of serious contemplation.

Scientists have, of course, developed theories about how the universe began. Currently, most scientists believe the universe began roughly 13.5 billion years ago with the Big Bang – an event with which not just matter and energy, but time and space, began.

However, such scientific answers appear merely to postpone the mystery rather than solve it. For of course we now want to know – but why was there a Big Bang? Why was there - is there - anything at all?

We seem at this point to be faced with a question that, necessarily, science cannot answer. Science explains natural phenomena by pointing to other features of the natural world – such as the laws of nature. For example, ask a scientist why the water froze in the pipes last night, and they may point out that (i) it is a law of nature that water freezes below zero, and (ii) last night the temperature of the water in the pipes fell below zero. That would explain why the water froze. But what explains why there are any laws of nature in the first place? Indeed, what explains why there is a natural world at all?

It is at this point, of course, that God and religion are supposed to enter the picture. God, it is suggested, explains what science cannot – why there is anything at all. The existence of God provides the only, or at least the best available, explanation for the existence of the universe.

While many theists admit that this does not constitute a conclusive “proof” of God’s existence, many believe such “cosmological” arguments – arguments that infer the existence of God as the only, or at least best, explanation of why the universe exists – do at least lend their belief a good deal of rational support.

But what explains God’s existence?

One obvious difficulty with this particular answer to the question “Why is there something, rather than nothing?”, as it stands, is that by introducing God we appear to have introduced just another “something” the existence of which now has to explained. What explains God’s existence? We have, it seems, merely pushed the mystery back a step, rather than solved it.

A standard theistic response to this objection is to insist that, unlike the natural world, God is a necessary being – something that, by its nature, cannot but exist. So with God, the search for the ultimate explanation of why there is anything at all comes to a satisfying end – there is no need to look behind God for a further something accounting for his existence (and then a further something behind that something that accounts for its existence, and so on ad infinitum). With God, we reach the end of the line.

Other problems with the cosmological argument

The kind of cosmological argument sketched out above runs into several well-known difficulties. I shall outline just three.

First, the argument assumes that the question “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” actually makes sense. But does it? On closer examination, it is not so clear that it does. But then it does not require an answer. Here is one line of thought leading to the conclusion that the question is actually nonsensical.

Often, when we talk about there being “nothing”, we mean there exists, say, an empty bit of space. “When I say, “There’s nothing in my cup”, I mean that, right now, the space inside my cup is empty. And when I say, “I am doing nothing right now”, I mean that, at this moment in time, I am not doing anything. The spatio-temporal world supplies, as it were, the stage on which such examples of something or nothing might appear.

When we ask, “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” we are talking about a much more radical sort of nothing – what we might call absolute nothing. Not only is there no stuff and nothing going on, there’s no time or space in which any stuff could exist or anything could go on. The stage itself has now been removed.

This is a very profound and baffling sort of absence – so baffling it is not entirely clear the notion of absolute nothing even makes sense (it certainly raises some intriguing questions, such as “What is the difference between thinking about absolute nothing, and not thinking about anything?”).

It is tempting to say, “But of course the notion of absolute nothing makes sense. It’s just the notion of what there used to be, before anything existed.” But actually, absolute nothing is not what there used to be. There never was a time when there was absolutely nothing.

However, let’s concede, for the sake of argument, that the notion of absolute nothing does make sense, and that so does the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Our cosmological argument still faces other difficulties.

A second difficulty is this: the notion of necessary existence is by no means uncontroversial. Indeed, many philosophers have struggled, and failed, to make sense of the idea that anything could exist as a matter of necessity. One difficulty is that what is essential or necessary appears ultimately to be a product of our linguistic practices and ways of conceptualizing things.

For example, it is a necessary condition of something’s being a stallion that it be both male and a horse, because that is the definition of stallion. Being both male and a horse are, if you like, built into the concept of a stallion.

So if God, or something else, exists as a matter of necessity, then that would only be because God is defined or conceptualized that way, as something that exists. But of course, neither existence nor necessary existence can be conceptually guaranteed in this manner. If I define Woozle as the human who walked on the surface of the planet Mars in 2010, well then I know that if anyone is Woozle, then they walked on the Mars in 2010. But of course there is no such person as Woozle. No one has yet walked on Mars. And note that I certainly cannot guarantee such a person exist simply by adding existence to my definition like so: Woozle is the person who walked on the surface of Mars in 2010 and exists. Similarly, even if existence were included in the concept of God (and perhaps it is), that would not entail that any such being exists, let alone necessarily exists.

However, even if both these objections can be dealt with, there remain other formidable problems with our cosmological argument, including this: that even if the argument did succeed in establishing the existence of a necessary something-or-other behind the universe, it is, as it stands, a huge and unjustified further leap to the conclusion that this something-or-other is, say, something like a person, a person who listens to our prayers, who has moral properties such as supreme goodness, who performs miracles, and so on.

Our cosmological argument, as it stands, no more supports belief in, say, the Judeo-Christian God than it does belief a supremely powerful and morally ambivalent God, or indeed innumerable other gods and something-or-others. Which, of course, in each case, it barely supports, if at all.

Arguments from design

Let’s now turn to arguments from design (an unfortunate title as the claim that the universe was designed is a conclusion of these arguments, rather than their starting point – “arguments to design” would be better). These arguments begin with the observation that the natural world, or items within it, appears to have certain remarkable features – such as order and purpose. They conclude that, as God is the only, or at least the best available, explanation of those features, God exists.

Perhaps the best-known argument from design is that presented by William Paley in his Natural Theology, published in 1802. Paley argues that, were one to find a complex object such as a watch lying on the ground, it would be unreasonable to suppose that the watch came to exist by chance, or that it had always existed in that form. Given the clear purpose of the watch – to tell the time – and its highly complex construction geared to fulfilling that purpose, it is reasonable to suppose the watch was fashioned by an intelligent being for that purpose. But if that is a very reasonable conclusion to draw in the case of a watch, then surely it is no less reasonable to draw the same conclusion in the case of, say, the human eye, which also has a purpose for which it is exquisitely engineered. That intelligent designer, supposes Paley, is God.

That a biological organ such as the human eye must have some sort of designer was accepted by very many, including even the scientist Charles Darwin, up until Darwin developed his own alternative evolutionary account of how the eye appeared.

The mechanism Darwin realized could account for the gradual evolution of the eye is natural selection. When living organisms reproduce, their offspring may differ slightly in inheritable ways. Plant and animal breeders take advantage of these chance mutations to breed new strains. For example, a dog breeder might select from each generation of a dog those that are largest and least hairy, eventually producing a whole new breed of huge, bald dog.

Darwin’s great insight was to recognise that the natural environment in which organisms are located will, in effect, also select among offspring. Organisms with a chance mutation that enhances their ability to survive and reproduce in that environment will be more likely to pass that mutation on. Organisms with a mutation that reduces its chances of surviving and reproducing in that environment will be less likely to pass it on. And so, over a many generations organisms will gradually adapt to their environments. Indeed, under certain condition, a whole new species may emerge.

Darwin called this mechanism “natural selection”, contrasting it with the “artificial selection” used by dog and plant breeders. Unlike artificial selection, natural selection does not require an intelligent mind to guide the selection process towards a particular end. Selection is now taken care of entirely by blind, unthinking nature.

There is overwhelming fossil and other evidence both that the human eye did, indeed, evolve gradually over millions of years, beginning perhaps with the chance appearance of a single light sensitive cell in an organism living many millions of years ago, and that natural selection is the main mechanism that drove this evolutionary process. In fact, eyes provide such obvious survival value to organisms that they have evolved independently at least forty times.

The discovery of the mechanism of natural selection led Darwin to reject Paley’s argument from design. Darwin wrote:

The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.

While the development of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and, later, the theory of genetics (including the theory of genetic drift, another mechanism involved in driving the process of evolution), resulted in a decline in the popularity of arguments from design, such arguments have recently been making something of a come back. Two popular, more recent variants of the argument from design are outlined below.

The argument from irreducible complexity

Some, such as Professor of Biochemistry Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, argue that there are certain features of biological organisms that Darwin’s theory of natural selection cannot explain. While Behe accepts that new species evolve and that natural selection plays a role in this, he maintains that some biological systems are irreducibly complex, and so cannot have evolved by natural selection.

By an irreducibly complex system Behe means

a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. P39

Behe uses the mousetrap to illustrate. Take any one part away – the base, the spring, the cheese, etc. – and the entire mechanism fails to function.

According to Behe,

an irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution. (p. 39).

It seems there are irreducibly complex systems in nature. Behe provides a number of illustrations, including a certain sort of bacterial flagellum – a whip-like appendage bacteria use to propel themselves. Each flagellum has at its base a kind of molecular motor drive comprising several parts each of which is essential if the flagellum is to work.

Why does Behe suppose that an irreducibly complex system such as this flagellum cannot evolve gradually by natural selection? Because, thinks Behe, there can be no reproductive or survival value to having only a part of the system. So it cannot evolve by stages. And the probability of the entire system spontaneously appearing in a single generation as a result of chance mutation is so low that it is far more reasonable to suppose some sort of intelligent designer lent a helping hand.

Behe’s argument for intelligent design is popular in certain religious circles. Some maintain that because the scientific community is currently divided on the question of whether some intelligence played a role in the emergence of life, the theory of intelligent design should be taught in schools alongside the theories of evolution and natural selection. This suggestion is designed to appeal to our sense of fairness – surely it is only fair that both sides in a scientific controversy should get a hearing?

The truth, however, is that the “scientific controversy” about intelligent design is a myth. There is no scientific controversy. Behe’s arguments have been entirely scientifically discredited.

In fact, plausible natural mechanisms by which all of Behe’s examples of irreducibly complex systems have been constructed. Some were known even before Behe published his book.

As Professor of biology Kenneth R. Miller points out, one of the ways in which natural selection can produce irreducibly complex systems is by combining elements that have previously evolved by natural selection for other functions. Just because part of the flagellum is useless for propelling the organism around does not mean that it is has non-functional. Indeed, we know that some of the components of the bacterial flagellum do have functions elsewhere:

[Behe] writes that in the absence of “almost any” of its parts, the bacterial flagellum “does not work.” But guess what? A small group of proteins from the flagellum does work without the rest of the machine — it’s used by many bacteria as a device for injecting poisons into other cells. Although the function performed by this small part when working alone is different, it nonetheless can be favored by natural selection. REF
From Miller’s contribution to “Intelligent design?” Natural History magazine. April 2002.

In short, Behe’s key claim that having only part of an irreducibly complex mechanism can have no reproductive or survival value for the organism is simply wrong. If you suspect that Miller says this because he is an atheist, think again: Miller is religious. It is not, says Miller, anti-religious bias that explains why the scientific community reject Behe’s arguments:

In the final analysis, the biochemical hypothesis of intelligent design fails not because the scientific community is closed to it but rather for the most basic of reasons — because it is overwhelmingly contradicted by the scientific evidence. REF ibid

The physicist Lawrence Krauss writes…

The dishonesty of [intelligent design] lies in its proponents pointing to a controversy when there really is no controversy. A friend of mine did an informal survey of more than ten million articles in major science journals during the past twelve years. Searching for the key word evolution pulled up 115,000 articles, most pertaining to biological evolution. Searching for Intelligent Design yielded eighty-eight articles. All but eleven of those were in engineering journals, where, of course, we hope there is discussion of intelligent design! Of the eleven articles, eight were critical of the scientific basis for Intelligent Design theory and the remaining three turned out to be articles in conference proceedings, not peer-reviewed research journals. So that’s the extent of the "controversy" in the scientific literature. There is none.

To teach children that there is a scientific controversy about intelligent design would be to teach them a simple falsehood. The fact that schools have taught children this, whether or not in science class, is an educational disgrace.

The fine-tuning argument

Many leading scientists believe that our universe is, in a sense, “fine-tuned” for life. It has been suggested that for life to emerge in the universe, the laws of nature and initial conditions of the universe have to be just so. Had certain forces been slightly stronger or weaker, or certain dimensions or quantities values slightly smaller or larger, life either could not, or would have been very unlikely to, emerge. Here, for example, is Stephen Hawking:

The remarkable fact is that the values of these [fundamental] numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life. For example, if the electric charge of the electron had been only slightly different, stars either would have been unable to burn hydrogen and helium, or they would have exploded.

It is often said that the probability of the universe having such a combination of features just by chance is very small indeed. So small, in fact, that some believe it more reasonable to suppose that some sort of intelligent agent deliberately designed the universe this way. This intelligence, many will add, is God. God supplies a satisfying explanation for what would otherwise be an extraordinarily improbable set of coincidences. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that God exists.

To what extent do these and other observations of the natural world really support belief in God? Hardly, if at all.

To begin with, note that the claim that the universe is significantly fine-tuned is not entirely scientifically uncontroversial.

For example, some scientists believe there may well be a multiverse – a plethora of universes governed by a wide range of different physical laws. If there is a multiverse, then it’s not particularly unlikely that there should happen to exist a universe that has the Goldilocks property of being “just right” for life.

Even if there is only one universe, a number of scientists in any case question whether there is only a very narrow range of physical parameters within which life might plausibly emerge. Physicists including Victor Stenger, Anthony Aguire, and Craig Hogan have studied those universes that result when six cosmological parameters are simultaneously varied by several orders of magnitude, and have found that stars, planets and life are likely within many of them.

According to these physicists it is by no means scientifically obvious that there is only a very narrow set of physical parameters within which life might arise.

But still, let’s concede, for the sake of argument, that the science on which cosmic fine-tuning arguments are based has been established beyond reasonable doubt.

There are many more problems. A key idea on which fine-tuning arguments rely – that we can talk intelligibly about the universe and its basic features as being either “probable” or “improbable” – has also repeatedly been challenged by philosophers (including religious philosophers such as Tim and Lydia McGrew, who have no particular anti-religious axe to grind). REFERENCE

Still, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, both that the universe is significantly fine-tuned for life, and also that it is highly improbable it should have such life-supporting features just by chance. To what extent would this fact support belief in the existence of some sort of transcendent, intelligent being who deliberately designed the universe that way?

Does the transcendent intelligence hypothesis even make sense?

A further objection to the fine-tuning argument – made by Richard Dawkins and others - is that by appealing to a cosmic intelligent designer, we are appealing to a being who must be at least as complex, and so at least as improbable, as the universe he is supposed to have designed. If the complexity of the universe should lead us to suppose it has a designer, shouldn’t the complexity of the designer lead us to suppose that designer had a designer, and so on ad infinitum?

But even if we also set this objection to one side, there remain other, perhaps deeper, difficulties. First of all, it is by no means obvious that the idea of a transcendent intelligent designer even makes sense.

Human beings explain features of the world around them in two main ways. One way is to supply naturalistic explanations that appeal to features of the natural world, such as natural events, forces and laws. The explanations of physics and chemistry fall into this category. The other way is to offer intentional explanations – explanations that appeal to the beliefs and desires or more or less rational agents. Why is there a tree in this spot? Because Ted wanted to see a tree from his bedroom window, and so planted a sapling here correctly supposing it would grow into a handsome tree.

When we are unable to explain something naturalistically, it is, of course, tempting to look for an intentional explanation instead. When we could not offer naturalistic explanations for why the heavenly bodies moved about as they did, we supposed that they must be, or must be moved by, agents - gods of some sort. When we could not otherwise explain diseases and natural disasters, we put them down to the actions of malevolent agents, such as witches and demons. When we could not provide naturalistic explanations for the growth of plants and the cycle of the seasons, we again invoked agents – sprites, fairies, and gods or various sorts.

As our scientific understanding of the world has increased, so the need to invoke witches, fairies, demons and other such agents to account for features of the natural world around us has diminished. However, when we ask: why does the natural world exist at all, and what explains why it has the fundamental laws does? such naturalistic explanations are unavailable. So an explanation in terms of the activity of some sort of transcendent agent can seem attractive, even inevitable.

But does such an explanation even make sense? Suppose I claim that there exists a non-spatial mountain. It’s a mountain – with a sharp summit flanked by steep valleys and crags. Only this mountain is not located or extended in space at all. It does not have spatial dimensions. The mountain transcends our spatial world.

You might well ask me why I suppose there is any such mountain. And if I cannot give you good reasons, you will rightly be sceptical. But actually, isn’t there a rather more fundamental problem with my claim that such a mountain exists? Can’t we know, even before we get to the question of whether there is any evidence for the existence of such a mountain, that there can be no such thing?

For the very idea of a non-spatial mountain makes no sense. My hypothetical mountain has a summit, valleys and cliffs, but these are all features that require spatial extension. A summit requires that one part of the mountain be higher than another. A valley must be lower than the surrounding terrain. The concepts of a mountain, a summit, and so on are concepts that can only sensibly be applied within a spatial context. Strip that context away and we end up talking nonsense.

But if we now turn to the concept of a transcendent designer, does that make any more sense? The concept of an agent has its home within a temporal setting. The concept of an agent is the concept of someone or thing with beliefs and desires on which they might more or less rationally act. But actions are events that happen at particular moments in time. And beliefs and desires are psychological states that have a temporal duration.

Now when we suppose that the spatio-temporal universe was created by God, we are presumably supposing it was a non-temporal agent – an agent that does not (or at least did not then) exist in time. For of course there was not yet any time for the agent to exist in. But if desires are psychological states with temporal duration, how could this agent possess the desire to create the universe? And how did it perform the act of creation if there was not yet any time in which actions might be performed? It is hard to see how talk of a non-temporal agent makes any more sense than talk of a non-spatial mountain.

We might sidestep these puzzles by supposing that God exists, and has always existed, in time. This provides God with the necessary temporal setting in which he might form the desire to produce a universe, draw up a design, and perform the act of creation. But it throws up a host of other puzzles, such as: why did God wait so long before creating the universe (presumably, if God did not have a beginning, an infinitely long time)? And what was he doing in the meantime?

Or we might, as many theists do, insist that talk of an intelligent designer or agent should not be understood literally. They are positing not an agent or designer, but something merely analogous to an agent or designer. But if such talk is to be understood analogically rather than literally, how exactly is it to be understood?

Suppose I claim that there is a non-spatial mountain, because I suppose only the existence of such a mountain can explain certain observed phenomena. My critics point out that the notion of such a mountain makes no sense. I insist they are interpreting me far too crudely and literally. I am talking about something that is merely analogous to a mountain. My appeal to analogy hardly gets me out of trouble, of course, for I now have a duty clearly to explain (i) precisely what my intended analogy is, (ii) how my analogy is supposed to avoid the charge of nonsense that has been levelled at talk of a “non-spatial mountain” understood literally, and also (iii) how this something-that-is-merely-analogous-to-a-mountain is supposed to retain the relevant explanatory powers that a real, spatially-extended mountain would possess. If I cannot supply these explanations, I will likely stand accused of obfuscation and evasion, and with some justification.

The same, of course, goes for those theists who attempt to sidestep the charge of nonsense by maintaining they are being interpreted far too crudely and literally – they are merely invoking something analogous to an intelligent designer. They, too, have much explain. Can they provide the relevant explanations? It is not clear to me that they can. Such appeals to analogy seem to many commentators, myself included, to bring the debate about intelligent design, not up to the level of profundity, but down to the level of obfuscation and evasion.

Why a god? And why that god?

Even if we set all these objections to one side, there remains what is possibly the most damning of all. Which is that it is a huge leap from the conclusion that the universe is the product of an intelligence to the conclusion that this intelligence is, say, the all-powerful and limitlessly benevolent God of love that Christians worship.

As the Templeton-prize-winning physicist Paul Davies points out at the end of his book The Goldilocks Enigma, even setting aside all the other difficulties:

“The other main problem with intelligent design is that identity of the designer need bear no relation at all to the God of traditional monotheism. The “designing agency” can be a committee of gods, for example. The designer can be a natural being or beings, such as an evolved super-mind or super-civilization existing in a previous universe, or in another section of our universe, which made our universe using super-technology. The designer can also be some sort of superdupercomputer simulating this universe. So invoking a super-intellect…is fraught with problems.” P300. The Goldilocks Enigma. Penguin books, London, 2007.

Davies is correct, of course. The even if the supposedly fine-tuned features of the universe did point towards a designer, they no more point towards the existence of the Christian God than they point towards the universe being a computer-generated simulation, or the creation of an earlier super-civilization, or, of course, some other sort of god.


anticant said…
This a generally excellent chapter - profound and concise.

One point which might benefit from amplification: You say "There never was a time when there was absolutely nothing." How can we be sure? If time and space started with the Big Bang, what was there before the Big Bang? What does it mean to say there must have been something, even if it was timeless and spaceless?

Is this just verbal quibbling, or the deepest mystery of all?
Stephen Law said…
thanks. the point is, if there was a time, then there wasn't absolutely nothing. I'll spell it out more....
steve_loir said…
One problem is that "absolutely nothing" is outside our experience. All our experience is temporal or spatial; even our mental processes have a temporal dimension. To imagine a nothing that has no time is impossible for us. So any answer to the question "what was there before the Big Bang?" is meaningless to us.
wombat said…
Re: Necessary beings

OK if we allow that the Universe got created by something else which was "necessary" there still does not seem to be a very strong argument for that something to be a God let alone the Biblical one. Why not simply assert that the big bang was necessary? In any case whatever one argues is "necessary" its only required attribute is "capable of having created the Universe", any other properties are superfluous surely?
Stephen Hawking described a good way to think about the kind of nothing you're talking about, I think. It's the kind of nothing that you get when you ask "What lies north of the North Pole?" It's the same kind of nothing that existed before the Big Bang.
Anonymous said…
Hi Stephen,

You say: 'A second difficulty is this: the notion of necessary existence is by no means uncontroversial. Indeed, many philosophers have struggled, and failed, to make sense of the idea that anything could exist as a matter of necessity. One difficulty is that what is essential or necessary appears ultimately to be a product of our linguistic practices and ways of conceptualizing things.

For example, it is a necessary condition of something’s being a stallion that it be both male and a horse, because that is the definition of stallion. Being both male and a horse are, if you like, built into the concept of a stallion.'

I see no struggle or difficulty here other than that you switched topic from necesary existence to conceptual necessity. Anyhow one suggestion is that you could try to explain this notion of necessary existence by looking at contingent existence

For instance you could ask whether
something existing as a matter of contingency is a matter of our linguistic practices or due to the nature of the thing? For instance is it a matter of linguistic practice that humans come into and go out of existence? Things that come into and go out of existence, and depend on things other than themselves for their existence are said to exist contingently.

However, if you do think that humans are have the property of contingently existing then why is a matter of linguistic practice that there could be something that does not come into or go out of existence, or depend on anything else for its existence i,e, has the attribute necessary existence?

I agree that granted the concept of necessary existence makes sense(at least as much sense as the concept of contingent existence) it does not follow that anything instantiating the concept exists but this is distinct from the claim that you are making in the above quote which reads like some kind of (unwarranted) scepticism about the possibility of anything having necessary existence.

So [if you want to hold onto the asymmetry whereby necessary existence is merely a linguistic matter and contingent existence is not] why should hold that one of a pair of logical opposites be merely a matter of linguistic practice and another be a matter of the nature of things??

[Looks like a nice intro so far]
Kosh3 said…
Comments on the fine tuning section:

You say 'To begin with, note that the claim that the universe is significantly fine-tuned is not entirely scientifically uncontroversial.' and then go on to talk about mulitverses. Note that the two points are quite distinct: the existence of a multiverse changes nothing about the fine tuning of the universe - 'fine tuning' is supposed to be a neutral term, and not suggestive of a 'fine tuner'. If a multiverse exists, that won't change.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Stephen,

I like this because you raise a lot of interesting points and create food-for-thought.

A few points.

“There never was a time when there was absolutely nothing.” I assume you mean by this, that time would not exist when ‘there was absolutely nothing’. Since Einstein, most people accept that time and space are not independent, so if there is no space there is no time. One of the models for the big bang, that I’ve read about, is that one of the dimensions of a hypothetical 4-dimensioned space became time (though I can’t remember the reference). In the case of a spinning black hole, you get 2 event horizons and when you cross the first event horizon space becomes time-like and time becomes space-like (Cracking the Einstein Code by Fulvio Melia, 2009). So, mathematically at least, space and time can interchange.

The example of the ‘stallion’ is something that we can observe, whereas God only exists through inference, epistemologically. A rational explanation of God requires deduction, not direct observation, so I’m not sure it’s a good analogy. Are you saying that God, as a 'necessity', exists only because we couch it in that language (by definition) therefore it's a circular argument?

Don Cupitt, in Above Us Only Sky, says: “You can have more-or-less anything, provided only that you understand and accept that you can have it only language-wrapped – that is, mediated by language’s secondary, symbolic and always-ambiguous quality.” (Emphasis in the original.) Cupitt argues that: “…there is no meaning, no truth, no reality, and no knowledge without language.”

But this highlights something else that you don’t mention. Without conscious entities, like us, discussing the relevance or meaning of the universe is itself absurd. The only reason the universe has meaning is because it has consciousness. Without consciousness, it may as well be nothing.

Personally, the best attempt I’ve seen to tackle this conundrum is Paul Davies’ book, The Goldilocks Enigma, whom you quote at the end.

Your description of a ‘non-spatial mountain’ does have an abstract counterpart in mathematics. Marcus du Sautoy, in Finding Moonshine; Mathematics, Monsters and the Mysteries of Symmetry, spends an entire book on multi-dimensional objects that only exist in the world of mathematics, not the physical universe. There is an ‘Atlas’ of these objects, the largest, called ‘The Monster’, having 808,017,424,794,512,875,886,459,904,961,710,757,005,754,368,000,000,000 symmetries in 196,883 dimensional space. One could argue that a mathematical Platonic realm could exist external to the physical universe.

The relevance to your argument is that abstract concepts do exist that are not in this universe, but it’s not an argument for God either. On the contrary, if nature’s laws are mathematically grounded, then the 'God' that created the universe is the mathematics itself and not a physical or non-physical entity made in man’s image or any other image. Davies also alludes to this point in God and the New Physics, which he wrote 20 years before The Goldilocks Enigma.

Regards, Paul.
Tim Stephenson said…
Just spotted a typo if this is going to be the published text:
"However, when we ask: why does the natural world exist at all, and what explains why it has the fundamental laws does?"
anticant said…
Paul, surely you mean "The only reason the universe has meaning is because WE have consciousness."?

The notion that the universe has a collective consciousness seems an unwarranted leap of faith to me.
Stephen Law said…
Thanks for these - very useful.

Quick response to narcissism...

The idea - not very clear in this draft, is that if we start with a leading view about necessity, that it is linguistic/conceptual in origin (not withstanding a posteriori truths - even Putnam still thinks the necessity of such a truth is linguistic in origin), then that raises a problem for the suggestion that God exists as a matter of metaphysical necessity.

The idea is not that we have no concept of metaphysical necessity that is not conceptual/linguistic in origin (which is how I think you have interpreted me). But rather that this is a leading philosophical theory about what accounts for the necessity of metaphysically necessary truths, that, if true, appears to rule out God having necessary existence.

However, in any case, I don't see how your strategy for deriving a conception of non- linguistically conceived) metaphysical necessity i.e. start with unproblematic conception of non-linguistically-conceived metaphysical contingency and use it to define metaphysical necessity) provides such a conception. For I am not committed to there being a notion of metaphysical contingency that is unproblematically given, from which the notion of metaphysical necessity might then be derived. The notion of metaphysical contingency is parasitic on that of metaphysical necessity.

The fact that we say, non-philosophically, that this child *depends* on that mother for its existence, or that this *might not have* exploded had the fuse not been damp, and so on, does not show we have such a pre-theoretic notion of metaphysical contingency, as it may be we are talking about other forms of contingency, e.g. causal, etc. (well, we obviously are, in these cases). Such talk does not manifest a grasp of metaphysical contingency.

Possibly what's confused things is I said, "many philosophers have struggled, and failed, to make sense of the idea". I did not mean they think it a vacuous concept, but rather, that it's not tenable on the theory of necessity (a conceptual/linguistic one) they believe to be true. I definitely need to make that clearer.
Anonymous said…

You say:

'if we start with a leading view about necessity, that it is linguistic/conceptual in origin (not withstanding a posteriori truths - even Putnam still thinks the necessity of such a truth is linguistic in origin), then that raises a problem for the suggestion that God exists as a matter of metaphysical necessity.'

Lets have a look at the argument that there is a problem here for the suggestion that God exists as a matter of metaphysical necessity rather than assume the conclusion of an argument as yet un-presented.

Because it certainly is not obvious what if anything follows from thinking that notions of metaphysical necessity/contingency is linguistic conceptual in origin.

Also I wonder that since suggest that metaphysical and contingent existence are parasitic on each other does this mean that you will draw your scepticism each way?

I take it as plausible that non-linguistic creatures can recognise the existence of their fellow kin is contingent i,e, that their kin come into and go out of existence prima facie evidence that the concept of contingent existence (in some form) is present in non-linguistic creatures and hence not linguistic in origin btw.

Stephen Law said…
Let's have a look at what argument? The one that metaphysical necessity is linguistic in origin, or the one that, if it is, then there's a problem with something being a necessary existent?

re scepticism. I am not sceptical about metaphysical necessity or contingency per se. But I am somewhat sceptical about the possibility of there being metaphysical necessities that are not grounded in the linguistic/conceptual. Which is what I'm suggesting God's or whatever's existing as a matter of metaphysical necessity requires.
Anonymous said…
you wrote:
Many leading scientists believe that our universe is, in a sense, “fine-tuned” for life.... Here, for example, is Stephen Hawking:

The remarkable fact is that the values of these [fundamental] numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.

The first sentence is stronger than most scientists believe, including Hawking. That sentence asserts that scientists believe a property of our universe whereas Hawking is actually writing about a mathematical model of our universe. A more accurate first sentence would be something like "According to the current best theory of physics, our universe appears to be "fine-tuned" for life."

One of the objections to the fine-tuning argument for god is that the model could be wrong and the universe is not fine-tuned at all. In fact all physicists agree that the model is certainly incomplete and probably wrong at some level of detail. Many scientists believe that the apparent fine-tuning is a flaw in the model and that a better model would not require fine-tuning. The fine-tuning argument for god then may be premised on an acknowledged weakness in our understanding of the universe. Not a very sound foundation.

Anonymous said…
The latter, since it is plausible that there are lots of concepts that are linguistically derived but which do not generate scepticism about their being applied to things that can exist independently of our thoughts.

I might have missed something here but I can't understand why you are being sceptical about the possibility of something necessarily existing or 'metaphysical necessity' as you call it when you are presumably going to allow that it is possible for some things to contingently exist.

I guess it must be something to do with this sentence at the start of a paragraph

"So if God, or something else, exists as a matter of necessity, then that would only be because God is defined or conceptualized that way, as something that exists."

This is hard to take seriously. It looks like a caricature to describe someone as believing that God exists as a matter of necessity because they conceive of God like that. This is just rhetorical right? If I said that people believe that Valerian has a sophomoric effect only because valerian is defined that way you would be having a rhetorical swipe at people who claim that there is something about valerian that helps them sleep (not just that they believe that it does).

It seems that what is missing in your introduction is any rationale why people believe God exists as a matter of necessity or better why God necessarily exists.

But there is a rationale for this claim. The reason why God is said to exist necessarily is to do with the role that God is meant to fill with respect to explaining the existence of everything that exists contingently i,e, the physical universe. If something is to provide an explanation for the set of things that exist contingently that thing cannot itself exist contingently, so it must exist necessarily. It is not because theists like to think of him this way!

So do you think it might be worth providing a rational for the claim that God exists necessarily and in doing so making a distinction between

A: Scepticism about whether anything does in fact have necessary existence.


B: Scepticism about whether it is possible for anything to have necessary existence?

It strikes me that scepticism about B requires an argument rather than a rhetorical dismissal.

If you are not sceptical about B but think that it cannot be applied to anything that exists independently of our conceptual scheme then again I would like to see such argument (regardless of its popularity or lack of amongst other philosophers).

Stephen Law said…
I'm not sure you've understood my argument. My fault it is not clear. Let me have another go.

Suppose for sake of argument all necessity is lingusitic. Kinds and individuals possess necessary properties only in virtue of the way they are linguistically picked out.

Then things can have essential properties etc.

But existence is, notoriously, a property (if it is a property at all - this is one of the reasons that is questioned) that cannot be possessed essentially by this route.

By adding existence to the list of properties by which I define Wibble, or unicorns, or whatever, I do not guarantee that Wibble or unicorns exist.

So, if this is the ONLY way properties can be possesed necessarily, existence cannot be possessed necessarily.

Of course I know theists have an argument that there must be a nec existent - the argument you run. The problem is, here is an argument which appears to show nothing can have the proeprty of necessary existence.

Of course, the theist can just reject the premise that all metaphysical necessity is linguistic. I merely point out this is a leading theory...(to which I subscribe incidentally. I can supply an argument for it)

If metaphysical contingent existence is just existence that is not metaphysically necessary, and there is no metaphysical necessary existence for the above reason, then all existence is metaphysically contingent.

Your worry about that seems to be premised on a confusion: that I am saying it there is a conceptual incoherence involved in the notion of metaphysically necessary existence, and thus such a confusion in the notion of metaphysically contingent existence (which you then try to show there is not).

But I am not even making that claim. I am merely pointing out that, on the theory that says all metaphysical necessity is linguistic/conceptual in origin, plus the fact that you cannot linguistically/conceptually guarantee existence, it follows that there is no metaphysically necessary existence.
Tony Lloyd said…
I have more thoughts on this than on the first chapter.

Should you mix the cosmological and ontological arguments? They’re very different and don’t necessarily go together: people can advance the ontological argument without subscribing to the cosmological argument and vice versa.

I think you should drop the Darwin. Huge numbers of theists accept Darwin, it’s only a small (but growing) number of idiots who really argue against it. The Pope manages to accept Darwin and a designer. Hanging your humanism on a scientific theory seems a bit weak, especially most theists will happily accept your argument and then nip off to Mass. Dawkins’ statement that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist surprised a philosopher (Ayer?) who thought that Hume had pretty much covered the anti-design argument. Why not go back to Hume for this section?

I think you should broaden the “Why a God and why that God?” section beyond Christianity. The arguments work on any God that is more than a non-sentient deist “urge”.

Finally you’ve made half the point: there are no good arguments for God’s existence. But there are good arguments against his existence. Your God of Eth is one of them (the appreciation that anyone would dismiss the existence of Evil God out of hand really hits home), why not put it in?
Geist Bites said…
I wonder what John McDade would say.

Or is that an impertinent comment to make? Since you've never taught me, I don't feel as awkward as I probably should.
Stephen Law said…

No idea. Why do you ask?
Stephen Law said…
Tony - next chapter is arguments against the existence of God. God of Eth obviously....
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Anticant,

"Paul, surely you mean "The only reason the universe has meaning is because WE have consciousness."?

Yes, that's exactly what I meant. I didn't mean to be ambiguous.

But there is an argument, proffered by Davies (The Goldilocks Enigma) based on Wheeler, that the universe is a cosmic-scale quantum loop. To quote Davies: “I have suggested that only self-consistent loops capable of understanding themselves can create themselves, so that only universes with (at least the potential for) life and mind really exist.”

This is a contentious philosophical viewpoint, but it doesn't mean the universe must have a collective consciousness nor does it mean that the universe must have a God. It's just an attempt to put consciousness in the picture, so to speak, but as a purpose and not an accident. As I said, contentious.

Wheeler believed that quantum mechanics allows time-reversal causality, in effect, and Davies took that premise to its logical conclusion. Davies, not surprisingly, dedicated the book to Wheeler. This is no more contentious, I would suggest, than the multiverse, especially the infinite number variety.

Regards, Paul.
jbierly said…
I think the last part needs more work. As someone who comes from a family of highly devoted theists, I can tell you that when believers read something like that, they hear "I hear what you're saying... but it doesn't have to be God, right? It could be space monsters, or giant computers!" To theistic ears, it sounds like the atheist is actually being rather stubborn and ridiculous, positing all kinds of crazy things to take the place of God in their desperate attempt to not admit how truly convincing the cosmological argument is.

I also find that they see the "who created the creator" argument perfectly well when confronted with the possibility of universe creating space aliens. This may seem like a victory for our side, but you have to remember that the necessary being stuff is drilled into people's heads from a very young age. If you want to use the "it doesn't have to be a religious sort of God" argument and be taken seriously by theists, you need to develop it much more.
I love your succinct and accessible style of philosophy writing, but I think the territory covered in this chapter needs to be expanded into two chapters and developed more.

One more comment... are you familiar with Augustine's and Aquinas' discussions of how an intelligent creator can be outside of time? Many of the educated theists reading your book will be, and I think you should at least touch on the scholastic's arguments.
Anonymous said…
Hi Stephen,

So IF we suppose that all necessity is linguistic necessity, then God or anything else cannot posses any properties as a matter of metaphysical necessity i,e, God cannot necessarily exist in the robust sense of 'exist'.

I am not sure why you mention the fact that we cannot define things into existence since this point is entirely independent of the above point i,e, even if the above was false (which I think it is) then it would still be true to say that we cannot define things into existence.

Anyhow, my main point is that I haven't seen any argument only a supposition and a reference to what other philosophers believe to support the claim above. I think this is best described by the non-technical term of 'hand waving'.

If you have the argument for the supposition then I think it needs to be made. This is because the supposition is hardly intuitive.


The argument I ran was not the argument that there must be a necessary existent but that if there is an explanation for the set of contingently existing things then whatever explains such a set must have the property of necessary existence.

I am not saying that there must be a necessary existent i,e, there must be something which has the property of necessarily existing but only that if God exists then God has the property of necessary existence. In other words the rationale I gave should commit both theists and atheists to:

1: [If God exists] God necessarily exists.

rather than

2: Necessarily God exists

Julian (A Humanist and Atheist)
Stephen Law said…
Thanks Julian - you've got the argument now.

Except you seem to think I am offering a proof that there are no necessary existents. If I was, then obviously I'd need to prove that all necessity is linguistic/conceptual in origin.

But I am not offering such a proof, I am merely illustrating one problem - that if you suppose, as many do, for independent reasons, that necessity is conceptual/linguistic, and existence cannot be conceptually/linguistically guaranteed (as other properties can), then nothing can have necessary existence.

As I say, theists can reject the premise. You may not like it. But it's not hand waving to point out that on a leading theory of necessity, there can be no necessary existents.

N.B. The point about existence not being linguistically/conceptually guaranteed plays this role: that, even if you accept the premise, someone can still say that God is a necessary being (just as they can still say that necessarily, all stallions are male).
Anonymous said…
Paragraph beginning Darwin’s great insight

It sounds like the mutations in question are being passed on like a baton. What about re-orienting to gene-level selection (as in The Selfish Gene). Thus a gene, or variant of a gene, has more chance of persisting/making more copies of itself.

Tony: although theists frequently do accept Darwin, this seems to me to be due to some sort of compartmentalising going on in their minds, between something that is obviously true and something that is only true if you don't look too closely at it. How can humans have a spark of the divine if they evolved from non-human ancestors?

Only other thing I can think of to say is that when I read "why is there something rather than nothing?", I always think "why is there nothing rather than something?"

Anonymous said…
Hi Stephen

I don't think you are offering a proof, hell, I haven't even seen you offer a reason yet. You do say that other people believe this and mention that it is a leading theory in necessity (I would like some evidence for that) but I don't take that as reasons for belief.

For instance if I were to say: Suppose that people cannot be really good unless they believe God exists. From this it follows that all those who believe they can be good without belief in God are mistaken. You press me as to why I make this starting assumption and I tell you other people believe it, and besides it is a leading theory in theology.

If you would not accept such reasoning then you are feeling how I feel with regard to your claims about necessity. [You might think that when pressed my deflection to other people who believe this was 'hand waving']

Both views start out with very counter-intuitive intuitions and the onus should be on those who adhere to such views to provide reasons (not proofs) as to why we should accept them not vague references to others who might accept them.


NB My dislike is not with the linguistic theory of necessity per se. It is with the notion that I should accept this counter-intuitive theory for no good reason.
Stephen Law said…
Many philosophers have supposed and continue to suppose that necessity is essentially linguistic/conceptual in origin.

Empiricists, obviously, tend to take this kind of anti-realist view. E.g. Hume:

"This therefore is the essence of necessity. Upon the whole, necessity is something that exists in the mind, not in objects, nor is it possible for us ever to form the most distant idea of it, considered as a quality in bodies."

Many contemporary philosophers take a similar line, e.g. Simon Blackburn. So does Hilary Putnam, despite allowing for a posteriori necessary truths.

It's a very well-known tradition in philosophy, I would have thought. It continues to be one of the main contenders (ask Simon Blackburn).

Why do philosophers take this kind of line? One reason is epistemological: it is otherwise very difficult to account for modal knowledge. There is also the fact that many examples of necessary truth do seems to be linguistic/conceptual in origin, e.g. my stallions example.

Now if there is such a widespread view about necessity, held for seemingly rather good reasons, and if that view entails there are no necessary beings, well, that does raise a problem for the claim there are necessary existents. Certainly, it raises a problem for those who hold this kind of view about necessity.

I think I should express the point differently however. Possibly it looks as if I am trying to make a stronger point than I actually intended.

Your analogy seems odd, as the inference drawn is not from a position held for independent reasons.

A better analogy would be:

X claims houses built 10m above sea level will be safe for 300 years.

Y says: this view faces a difficulty: many scientists believe sea level will rise more than 10m in next 300 years.

Z attacks Y by saying: "You have raised no difficulty. I am not aware of "many" such scientists. Who are they? What are their arguments?"

Fact is, Y has raised a difficulty, whether Z is aware of it, or not.

In the context of a brief overview of arguments about where it's safe to build, the way Y raises their concern is perfectly OK. After all, Y is not claiming X is mistaken. Just that, if these scientists are correct, X is mistaken, and well, maybe they are right. It needs looking into.

Sure, if something like a conclusive case was wanted for the conclusion that buildings 10m above sea level will be submerged, then much more detail and argument is required. But if all that's going on is the flagging up of a possible difficulty with X's claim, surely what Y says is perfectly all right. And Z's criticism of Y is kind of off-target.
Stephen Law said…
PS. in my analogy, nothing depends on it being the case that e.g. the overwhelming majority of scientists believe levels will rise more than 10m over 300 years. Suppose only 25% did. That is enough to raise a genuine worry.
Anonymous said…
The Hume quote is bare assertion that there are no necessities in the world rather than reasoned argument for this conclusion.

I can't find anything by Blackburn on the nature of God's existence.But his stuff on meta-ethics, and quasi-realism is anything but mainstream. Has Blackburn written anything about scepticism over God's existence?

If Putnam like Kripke allow for a posteriori metaphysical necessities such as Water is H20, Venus is the morning star, then there are necessities in the world that are not a matter of linguistic convention. This will scupper any scepticism (if this is what you were getting at) that all necessities might be trivial linguistic truths like 'male horses are stallions'.

Maybe you meant to claim that some necessities are linguistic in origin as per your example and then to say that we cannot tell which are linguistic in origin and which are not???

My main concern is that you seem to treat scepticism over necessary truths as akin to scepticism about anything having necessary existence. This might result from trying to run together ontological arguments for God's existence which try to settle God's existence a priori with cosmological ones which do not.

If your criticism were that you cannot tell whether anything exists through conceptual reflection then this would be a criticism of the ontological argument and your example of wibble would be relevant. But this objection doesn't touch the cosmological argument as a proponent of the cosmological argument could agree that God necessarily exists is a conceptual truth but can still hold that whether there is anything answering to this concept is settled by how things are in the world not conceptual reflection.

I am not keen on your science analogy. Whatever we are doing here it is not science and in philosophy you cannot get away with arguing that other people believe this therefore so should you.

Philosophy for want of a better characterisation is about 'making it explicit'.


NB If Simon Blackburn were writing an intro to philosophy of religion and claimed that God necessarily existing was suspect but gave no further reason I would ask him, but he is not, you are - so I asked you ;0)

Anyhow I will give in now as I don't feel we are making any headway and this doesn't feel Narcissistic any more. :0/

Maybe you can come to a Humanist Meeting to discuss it with us when its finished.

Best Regards
Stephen Law said…
Hi Julian

Blackburn's particular theory re necessity - "quasi-realism" - is not mainstream but his broad anti-realism about metaphysical necessity is. Hume takes that line but so do the logical positivists, etc. Wittgenstein ("essence is expressed by grammar"), and many philosophers today, me included. The necessary posteriori was initially rejected by many precisely because it APPEARED to conflict with the anti-realist position. However, it turns out to be compatible with the view that necessity is linguistic/conceptual in origin (just in a more sophisticated way than previously thought). I wrote my doctoral thesis on that topic, so know a bit about it. Putnem himself takes an anti-realist line. And the arguments for taking an anti-realist line are well-known - perhaps the strongest being that the alternative would make necessity unknowable.

As for it being counter-intuitive - ask most people why certain truths are necessary and, if they have thought about it at all, a large proportion will give suggest an anti-realist explanation in terms of language/concepts.

Science is about making explicit too, of course. But in any case, saying "there are well-known problems with so-and-so" is something philosophers regularly say when mentioning a position in passing, as you know. It's not a refutation of so-and-so, but does flag up the problems. Which, if that's all that is intended, is surely fine.

Anyway yes might be able to give a talk but not till this frigging book is finished!
Stephen Law said…
PS I am being careful not to run ontological and cosmological arguments together, in fact. Kant does run them together, accusing cosmol args of presupposing ontol args. But actually I do not do that (though what I say does, in passing, refute the ontological argument).
See the Stanford Encycl. on cosmological arguments:
Stephen Law said…
Er, finally, you say: 'you cannot get away with arguing that other people believe this therefore so should you.'
I don't do that, surely. I don't even say the ant-realist position re necessity is true. I just say many philosophers hold it, and, if true, then, given a further fact about existence, it follows there can be no necessary existents. I then say that perhaps this difficulty can be overcome.
Stephen Law said…
Thanks for all the comments (esp dsurber).
hokusai said…
I have never been able to understand those arguments which (somehow) claim that William Paley has been refuted by Darwinism.

Clearly, this isn't so. Darwinian evolution presents a 'computer program' for the generation of things as they now appear. Fine; but who wrote the program?

Try it this way.

Of all who have ever visited, or seen a picture of, Stonehenge, do you suppose there is a single person who believes the stones got into their present arrangement by accident? Of course not. Of course Stonehenge was designed and built. We do not know by whom, nor for what purpose; but we all, instantly, recognise it as a structure which has been designed.

If we find nothing odd in this conclusion -- and it's a virtual certainty that this is the case -- the why (so Paley asks) is it held to be anything other than merely reasonable to draw the same conclusion in the case of the universe?


We recognise Stonehenge as a mechanism.
We regard mechanisms as having been designed (and, incidentally, by designers somewhat similar to ourselves.)
Few people will argue that the universe does not have the apppearance of being a mechanism.
How -- even on a statistical basis of probability -- is it permissible to argue that the universe has not also, accordingly, been designed (and, incidentally, by a person or persons somewhat similar to ourselves?

Martin Woodhouse
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