Metaphysics and the Teleological Argument

by Brian 11. September 2011 20:24
I can say with certainty the predominant theme in Peter van Inwagen’s Metaphysics is uncertainty. In most chapters the author enters with his refutation and exits with a tenor of inconclusiveness. The liberal use of modal logic in countering some of the arguments for God’s existence appeared to be a common tactic. I kept thinking the pea must be under the cup in possible-world three, but the author’s logical sleight-of-hand was too quick for me to discern. My conclusion: There is a set of possible worlds in which van Inwagen’s use of modal logic leaves little doubt in the reader’s mind, but unfortunately our actual world is not in that set. I probably just need to brush up on modal logic - but in the meantime I want to turn to van Inwagen’s treatment of the design (or teleological) argument from the fine-tuning of the cosmos. This variation of the classical argument for the existence of God is one I personally find compelling. Here too the author leaves things unresolved and the counter-positions at par. We are told neither a rational designer nor brute materialism has the upper hand. The universe may find its ultimate origin in God or in some material realm beyond the boundary of our observable universe – take your pick. But did the author successfully make his case?

I agree with van Inwagen the Arche is either a Chaos or a Logos. The Greek word arche or origin represents the foundation of existence in which all things rest. According to the author, it is either grounded in meaningless Matter (Chaos) or purposeful Mind (Logos). The ultimate origin or First-cause of our observable universe is either God[i] who created it ex nihilo or some unobservable hyper-reality which spawned it ex materia[ii]. I agree with van Inwagen there are no other alternatives worthy of consideration. The author does a good job dispelling the nonsense suggested by some pop-writers of an observable universe exploding into existence out of metaphysical nothingness. From nothing, nothing comes, plain and simple. All attempts to state otherwise completely miss the boat on what nothingness really is. True metaphysical nothingness is what rocks dream about – as Aristotle put it. When we talk about voids in space or the quantum vacuum, those things are emphatically something. Creation from these would be considered ex materia (from material). So we are on the same page; our observable universe began to exist, and the Arche is either a Chaos or a Logos. Now it’s easy to see how fine-tuning squares with Logos (since there is an empirical correlation between fine-tuning and a designer), but how do we square it with Chaos?  
Various astrophysical constants and parameters from the Standard Model, including their relationships, are narrowly just-so for the existence of a universe with conscious observers. Van Inwagen’s recognition of the overwhelming improbability raised by these known anthropic-coincidences is in line with what most experts say on the subject today (Penrose, Davies, Hawking et al.) Nontheistic cosmologists have been working for decades to get around the theological implication of the apparent fine-tuning of the universe by offering several hypotheses, which you can read more about here. However, van Inwagen doesn’t buy most these. The author rightly rejects the Weak Anthropic Principle using his short-straw analogy. He rejects the Strong Anthropic Principle and anything involving a life principle. He doubts there will be a theory-of-everything revealing how conscious life obtains necessarily. So where does van Inwagen put his money? How do we get from a Chaos to a fine-tuned universe? His answer is the multiverse and the observer selection effect. This is the only plausible alternative to the Logos according to van Inwagen and it does seem to be growing in popularity – see Hawking’s latest book. 
Why does van Inwagen think the multiverse hypothesis is as good as a rational designer? He tells us here: 
An explanation [e.g. the multiverse] will be at least as good as that explanation [a rational designer] if it contains no element known on independent grounds to be false or improbable-for that (together with the fact that it does explain the observed phenomenon of the fine tuning of the cosmos) is really all that can be said in favor of the hypothesis of rational design.”[iii] 
So basically, the author considers both hypotheses to be little more than logically consistent proposals lacking any known defeaters. They both provide an explanation of apparent design, but that's about it. All in all, they are on par according to van Inwagen - and this is where he and I diverge. On the one hand you have an ultramundane Designer as the source of cosmic fine-tuning, and on the other, a hypothesis with ad hoc constraints and assumptions as we will see. 
The multiverse is basically an ensemble of independent universes, each one like our very own observable region. Van Inwagen uses the term cosmos to refer to one of these. He uses the term cosmoi to refer to a plurality of cosmos-siblings in the multiverse, each with its own randomized physical parameters (Physics.) So in our universe the ratio of the mass of a proton to an electron is about 1836 to one. But in another cosmos it might be two to one, or a million to one. This would apply to all of the constants and relationships found in the Standard Model as well as other cosmological values. The multiverse is then treated as a cosmoi generator where our unlikely cosmos is just one in the ensemble. And this generator must churn out more than a few cosmoi in order to overcome the magnitude of the improbability of a fine-tuned cosmos suitable for conscious observers to obtain by chance.
The author rightly recognizes the overwhelming mount improbable in the anthropic coincidences. However, he fails to mention how the problem is compounded by the fact: a suitable abode is a necessary condition for life to exist but not a sufficient condition for life to obtain. It is no better than me saying: the conditions are right for a garden in my backyard, therefore a garden in my backyard will come into existence. The height of mount improbable is not just due to the right settings for a suitable abode on the cosmoi generator, but it is compounded by the odds of life obtaining (abiogenesis) from purely material causes. Once you factor that in, it’s no wonder why the author and cosmologists like Alexander Vilenkin posit an infinite number of cosmoi. Yet van Inwagen does not seem to have any problem with this approach: 
“It’s hard to think of a reason to suppose the number of actual cosmoi would have to be finite. If the number of cosmoi were infinite, it would certainly not be surprising that some of them were suitable abodes for life.” [iv] 

Positing a mind-boggling number of cosmoi is ad hoc enough[v]. But why not stop there? Well; because the only way to secure the multiverse hypothesis is to suggest an actual infinite set of cosmoi. However actual infinities turn the multiverse hypothesis into a bizarre concept. Under this thesis, there are not only an infinite number of identical clones of myself typing this sentence right now, but an infinite number of clones typing it backwards, yesterday, and on their head. Think about it, if we open Pandora’s Box and allow for actual infinites, we turn possible-world semantics into reality! In other words, every possible world that is actualizable [vi] has in fact been actualized in the infinite multiverse. Might this include a possible world with an omnipotent and omniscient being capable of transcending its cosmos into all sibling cosmoi? I don’t see why not. In order to deny this, one has to postulate an ad hoc constraint: Being cannot transcend its cosmos – even a maximally great being. In other words, demigods exist in some cosmoi, but they are stuck there with limited greatness. Assumptions do not get much more ad hoc than this, and if you remove it, then why wouldn't an infinite number of what we think of as God exist?

But it gets worse; the Physics in each cosmos must be based on free parameters. If there were only, say ten parameters, allowing for only ten discrete values each, then you would have a mere ten billion possible Physics regardless of how many cosmoi are generated. Therefore, a much higher degree-of-freedom in how cosmoi-physics is configured must be assumed. Here’s what van Inwagen says:
“[there is] the possibility that the cosmos might have arisen as a fluctuation in some pre-cosmic analogue of the quantum field…We suppose that the cosmoi that arise in Chaos do not resemble one another as closely as the bubbles in a pot of boiling porridge resemble one another. The differences among them-which, we must remember, are the products of chance-are, or can be, of the radical kind we should describe as differences in the laws of physics and large-scale cosmic structure. ”[vii] 

The problem with the boiling porridge analogy is it oversimplifies things and obfuscates an assumption. Boiling porridge creates lots of boring blobs of oats. They’re not very interesting. Not only must the physical parameters of the cosmoi be freely variable, as I just mentioned, but the law (or laws) of the multiverse, the Arche, must allow for the generation of randomized sets of Physics suitable for life. It would be impossible to get conscious observers from Chaos without a sufficiently creative potential in the Physics generator. Imagine trying to create a functioning computer from mere plastic Lego. Regardless of the variation of shapes, the number of pieces or the number of attempts; it’s impossible. Without conductor and semiconductor materials, plastic alone will never get you there.

A parsimonious view should reject a Chaos generating Physics with the richness and complexity necessary for life to ever obtain, even with an actual infinite number of randomized attempts. Why not an infinite number of cosmoi where each cosmos is merely empty space or contains nothing but a random number of elementary particles? It seems exceedingly convenient the kinds and number of dials on the cosmoi generator even allow for conscious observers under any configuration. Now this is where van Inwagen might introduce his observer selection effect by saying, yes, it does seem odd for conscious observers to be a random byproduct of Chaos, but that’s what it takes to recognize the oddness – we have to be here. But this would assume the very thing we are trying to prove and only makes sense once you violate a parsimonious view and include the assumption the multiverse must generate rich rather than frugal Physics. 
In conclusion, the choices for Arche are not on par. On the one hand you have actual design by the Logos and on the other, apparent design by a Chaos. The Chaos option holds only as long as we accept an unobservable actual infinite [viii] set of cosmoi in a multiverse; each with different Physics; some with demigods who cannot escape their cosmos; and others with Richard Dawkins as a television evangelist. Somehow a meaningless Chaos must have the potentiality in its cosmoi generator to create not just randomized Physics, but Physics sufficiently rich and complex such that given an infinite number of spins, conscious observers will obtain instead of nothing more interesting than a sea of quarks or globules of cooked oats. You be the judge which one takes more faith.
[i] I purposely leave out gods at this point or make any claims as to the nature of God
[ii] I leave out here all of the discussion around the Borde-Vilenkin-Guth theorem ( – theists like Dr. William Lane Craig say the BVG theorem proves an ultimate beginning for the multiverse as well. However Vilenkin himself seems to have some reluctance. Alan Guth is less reluctant and said that we do not have absolute certainty but it appears there must be an ultimate beginning for a multiverse as well. If true, warrant shifts substantially to the Logos option.
[iii] Kindle 4546 of 7762
[iv] Kindle 4522 of 7762
[v] Shots at this range from 1e500 to 1e10^150 – ridiculously large (but finite) cosmoi
[vi] Actualizable meaning: where there is neither logical contradiction, nor violation of the kinds of Physics created by the cosmoi generator, nor absurdities [like a prime minister being a prime number]
[vii] Kindle 4526-4528 of 7762
[viii] I agree with the great mathematician David Hilbert that an actual infinite set is nowhere to be found outside of a concept of the mind - "let us draw the conclusion from all our reflections on the infinite. The overall result is then: The infinite is nowhere realized. Neither is it present in nature nor is it admissible as a foundation of our rational thinking - a remarkable harmony between being and thinking. (David Hilbert)" 

Koukl's Tactics

by Brian 25. July 2011 20:36
I recently finished Tactics by Gregory Koukl - a book I’d recommend to anyone who is interested in improving their skill in articulating the Christian worldview. The primary tactic in the book follows the Socratic Method and is taught through practical application. Though tactics are important, and the author does a fine job teaching you how to use them, it is helpful to have a holistic perspective on apologetics. The book focuses on the how, but only touches on the why, what, who, when and where. In this blog I want to briefly look at these other aspects and recommend the reader delve deeper for a well-rounded perspective.



Why Apologetics?

The word apologetics finds its origin in the Greek apologia which means to give an explanation or defense. It is the same word used in 1-Peter 3:15 where it says “always be prepared to give an answer…” To be able to give an honest and persuasive answer about your worldview is a good thing, whether you are a Christian or not. Being able to think critically about what you believe and why you believe it is essential to living an honest intellectual life. Ironically, as I am writing this morning someone posted this on Facebook:
People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. -- Tim Keller
For the Christian, I would add; a deeper and substantive integration between the life of faith and the life of experience and understanding is rewarding in and of itself. A rich and consistent worldview can be a blessing to those we interact with as well as add greater meaning to our own faith.
When it comes to sharing what we believe as Christians, reason is typically downplayed in the contemporary church. You may have heard it said; you cannot argue anyone into the Kingdom. The usual undercurrent in this comment is love overrides the need for reason. So based on this, why give apologetics any consideration at all? However, Koukl rightly points out in his book, you cannot love someone into the Kingdom either. The bottom line is God can use both love and reason to draw someone to Himself. If you have any doubt of this, all you have to do is look at the life of the apostle Paul in Acts. He reasoned with the Greeks. He reasoned with the Jews. I can tell you where Paul stood on the question of “why.”

What Strategy?

In preemptive discourse where you lead the topic, tactics ought to be guided by an apologetic strategy. This is also true of defensive situations; though probably less so if you are only dealing with a skeptic’s comment or question. As an apologist, you may find certain strategies more appealing than others. A good book covering some of the most common strategies is “Five Views on Apologetics” (Craig, Habermas, Frame, Clark and Feinberg, 2000). The book covers:
  • Classical: start with theism employing natural theology and then move to Christian particulars
  • Evidential: employ specifically Christian arguments using evidence (such as the historicity of the Resurrection) - natural theology may be helpful but not necessary
  • Cumulative Case: employ multiple arguments with the assumption formal proofs are less effective than making a case like a legal brief - each argument adds towards a preponderance
  • Presuppositional: emphasizes the noetic effects of sin and concludes believers and unbelievers are unable through argument to bridge the gap in their worldviews- attempts to show only the Christian worldview can make sense out of life’s experiences
  • Reformed Epistemology: deemphasizes the need for evidence in establishing a warranted belief in Christianity - uses negative apologetics to clear the way for the unbeliever
Having a broad understanding of the most common strategies gives you the flexibility to select the best approach in any given circumstance.[ii]

Who, When and Where to Engage?

In Tactics, most of the scenarios presented are cases where a skeptic or unbeliever makes a false verbal assertion opening the door for discourse. In my experience, this happens fairly infrequently. For example, once unbelieving coworkers know you are an informed Christian with tactical skill, they will usually avoid any confrontation. If they take any stabs at your faith, it will most likely be out of earshot. There was an example in the book where Koukl sparked up a conversation with a Wiccan, but it was triggered by a nonverbal statement (a pentagram necklace.) So unless like Koukl you come into contact with a lot of people, I think the one-on-one verbal confrontation is the exception. Social media however is changing the landscape and I think here one can find greater opportunity.
When you do find yourself confronted by the hardened skeptic, it is time to employ Koukl’s full frontal assault – right? Well, not necessarily. If I had a dollar for every wasted engagement with a skeptic, I would be better off than a $100 for every successful one. There really is wisdom in Matthew 7:6 where it says do not throw pearls to pigs. Heaven forbid you are naïve enough to jump onto your average infidel-freethinking-atheist website and start going head to head. You’ll have better luck finding Jimmy Hoffa. Skeptic’s forums and closed-door confrontations with incorrigible atheists are almost always a waste of time. However, Koukl suggests what I think is the best opportunity for such an engagement. It is where there is an audience. If there is the possibility of one or more individuals present who are open-minded, then it may be worthwhile to engage with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3). But if the audience is made up of those solidly in one camp or the other, once again, it may not be worthwhile to engage.
I want to conclude returning to the requirement of love – or charity as C.S. Lewis describes it in The Four Loves. Scripture says we will sound like a resounding gong when we speak without love. Charity is a necessary component of the apologetic enterprise. Unfortunately in our busy and often compassionless day to day struggles, charity may be lacking more than reason. As I was reading Tactics, I kept struggling with Koukl’s use of statements like “Please help me understand your perspective…” even when dealing with ridiculous self-contradictions. I thought: “How disingenuous to ask for help when you don’t need it!” But then it dawned on me. The problem wasn’t with Koukl’s approach – it was with me. With charity, the statement “please help me to understand” really means something like “I’m interested in hearing your perspective even if I’m absolutely certain it’s wrong.” But only by charity is this attitude even possible. Frankly I’ve never been able to muster this up on my own. You probably will not be able to either. We have to recognize the essentiality of charity and ask God for it. Otherwise our apologetic efforts are potentially worse than being ineffective, they can be detrimental.
[ii] If anyone knows of other good books on strategy, email me, I’d like to add them to the endnotes.

Why OEC vs YEC?

by Brian 2. May 2011 18:22

Just when you thought enough blood has been spilled in the Old Earth Creationism (OEC) versus Young Earth Creationism (YEC) debate, here comes another post to stir up trouble. I realize this is one of those insider disagreements we all wish would go away. That is probably why in twelve years of writing on apologetics I have not taken the time to really address the topic. I mean really, what is the point? You say YEC – I say OEC. Do we have to call the whole thing off? So rather than trying to prove billions is truer than thousands in a blog post, I want to share a personal perspective – one that leads us right back to the question: What is the point? What is our objective as insiders when debating the age of the universe?

As most of you probably already know, YEC holds to a literal, consecutive, 24-hour-day interpretation of the book of Genesis and places the age of the Earth somewhere between about 6,000 and 10,000 years. OEC is an eclectic position accepting a much older universe based on the current scientific view. There are all sorts of OEC variations covering a continuum from episodic supernaturalism through telic processes such as theistic evolution. [1] But ultimately under OEC, God is the Creator and the Earth is very old by comparison to YEC.

For the record, I hold a 0.9 OEC view. That is, if I were to rate my certainty in the truth of OEC, it would be 90%. The exact number is not really important. I am reasonably sure but leave the door cracked open for correction. To provide a little background: I was a nontheist until the age of 31 and convinced of an old universe. After becoming a follower of Christ, I was informed by a few amicable believers the universe was actually a few thousand years old. If I wanted to hold to the true interpretation of Scripture, I was encouraged to come to grips with this. At the time, my immature faith was challenged by this view. The epistemic dissonance forced me to take an agnostic position until I could research it further. In other words, I swept it under the rug. But no honest and rational person wants to leave it at that. So I started reading and after a few good books [ii] came to realize I didn’t have to commit intellectual suicide over this issue. I learned how OEC fits within the Christian worldview.

About this same time I took an interest in apologetics and all of the contemporary philosophers I gravitated towards also held an OEC view.[iii] This was refreshing and bolstered my confidence in a rational faith where the age of the universe could finally be put to bed, at least for me. But then one day I received an email from someone who saw an online presentation I did on the Kalam Cosmological argument. One of the assumptions I covered was a 13.7 billion year old universe. The sender politely and succinctly informed me of my apostasy. According to this brother, if I didn’t correct my view on the age of the universe, then I was at risk of eternal damnation. Needless to say, I was taken aback. Was I no longer part of the Church because of my position on the age of the universe?

After exchanging a few emails, I realized this guy was genuinely concerned about my eternal well-being. If it were not for his sincerity, I might have responded differently. After all, from my perspective, YEC is an unnecessary barrier to the Gospel hindering scientifically minded seekers like myself. Would it be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around the neck than to cause someone to stumble over something like YEC? Can we not find some middle ground, I wondered? Unfortunately there is no middle ground when it comes to the age of the universe. You cannot simply take (13.7B + 6K) / 2 and arrive at a compromise. Yet, whether you hold an OEC or YEC view, God is the efficient cause of life, the universe and everything. [iv] This is not to dismiss the exegetical and theological disagreement. But there is consensus on the fundamentals. We have a good deal of common ground.

It is disingenuous to suggest Christian theists are lost in their little OEC/YEC creation debate while contemporary science takes the intellectual high ground. Let’s not forget a few decades ago, science held the now utterly bankrupt position of a static universe while Christian theism was proclaiming a universe that began to exist. Dr. Robert Jastrow, an American astronomer, physicist and cosmologist describes the transition in the mid twentieth century from the predominant scientific view to where we are today:

“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Christian theists had been far closer to the truth on big-bang cosmology than science had for centuries. This historical fact ought to remind us of how close both groups are to the truth.  But is this enough to resolve the infighting between YECers and OECers? I’m guessing not.

I have already mentioned the unnecessary stumbling block YEC presents. However YEC has its grounds for concern. They claim OEC is conceding biblical integrity to science through the harmonization of an old universe with the Genesis account. Allegedly, what follows is an undermining of theological concepts such as original sin and our need for salvation. Even though I agree OEC harmonization is more challenging than a straight literal reading, I personally do not find it to be a stretch. On the other hand: As one who grew up in an unbelieving family; who surrounded himself with unbelieving friends; who works in the unbelieving world of computer science and who has engaged nontheists over the years; openness to the Christian worldview is more negatively impacted by dogmatic YEC than it is by the harmonization of Genesis with OEC. So once again, what is our goal in this debate? Is it about winning the argument, where my theology is better than yours? Or is it about allowing the truth of the Gospel to work without unwarranted impediment. I agree we cannot sacrifice the truth just because it may be hard to receive. But we ought not be incorrigible about our interpretations either -- especially if they are a stumbling block.

Let’s not forget, theology is constantly evolving. The truth of the Word may be immutable, but our interpretations and understanding are in flux. I’m sure if facebook had an earlier start, the Wittenberg group of 1517 would have been full of posts about the audacity of certain radicals to challenge the theological interpretations of the day. Of course those same radicals opposed the views of heliocentrism [v] and today we have no problem accepting a correction without invoking manipulation through scientism. Yet somehow in the 21st century our reading of Scripture is as good as it is going to get. We have arrived, bearing the true interpretation. We have executed the ultimate hermeneutic resulting in the perfect exegesis. That doesn't seem honest to me.

As a Christian minimalist, I believe we have to keep the door open on matters outside the bounds of mere Christianity, especially when it applies to divisive issues for unbelievers. In contrary interpretations, only one side, or neither side, can be true. That’s why I say I hold a 0.9-OEC view. This not only leaves room for correction, but helps me to be more accepting of those who take the other side. Given Christians are roughly split over YEC and OEC [vi], we simply have to get past this in a way where we are not compromising essentials while at the same time removing obstacles to the Gospel. The fact is; many young college-educated unbelievers are already certain about the age of the Earth and the universe. If because of individual or institutional dogma on nonessentials, or pointless infighting, an honest seeker is turned away from the truth, then this debate has served its purpose well. That is, the enemy’s purpose.

[i] Wikipedia aside, the OEC continuum is not so much literal interpretation through theistic evolution as much as it is from episodic supernaturalism through telic processes including evolution - both over billions of years. YEC proponents typically claim the OEC position sacrifices a straightforward literal interpretation. And, proponents of theistic evolution, such as John Polkinghorne, would probably argue OEC and the Genesis account are in agreement on the grounds the universe began to exist and God is ultimately the Creator.

[ii] Again, I don’t want this post to be about trying to prove OEC over YEC, so what I read and how the arguments helped me conclude the truth of OEC are not relevant here. I’m sure YEC supporters have their list of convincing resources as well.

[iii]  William Lane Craig, Norman Geisler, J P Moreland, to name a few

[iv] Yet another use of a phrase from of the atheist writer Douglas Adams

[v] Luther over the dinner table said “…The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth."

[vi] Based on several polls summarized here ->  

About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

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