Counterfactual arguments against biological design as revelation

The design of a watchThe argument from design is perhaps the most intuitive and immediately accessible argument for the existence of God and can be analyzed from a myriad of different perspectives. We are surrounded by astounding complexity and see purpose in nearly everything. William Paley was reasonable to suppose that the watch infers a designer and the design proponents are reasonable to say that life is brimming with the appearance of design. But fifty years after Paley’s death, Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of the Species” and the design explanation suddenly had a legitimate competitor.

When I consider the arguments for these two options – design and chance – I find myself repeatedly drawn to a niggling question: if design is correct, why is life designed in a way that is plausibly explained without design? That is, if the designer wanted us to infer design then it would seem that he could have done better. Upon making this assertion, the apologist in my head immediately responds with an emphatic “Like how?”; inferring that I am posing an alternative that may not be viable. In this post my aim is to explore that very question through a few counterfactual conditionals.

Counterfactual #1: Reproduction

The first counterfactual condition I would like to consider goes something like this:

“If God really wanted to reveal himself through the genetic design of living organisms then the mode of perpetuating life would defy a purely naturalistic evolutionary paradigm.”

Those familiar with the intelligent design movement will recognize that this is similar to what those proponents often claim. The arguments are rife with assertions of irreducible complexity and astronomical improbabilities for the spontaneous assemblage of molecules while simultaneously disparaging any plausible explanation for the origin of those structures as ad-hoc speculation. Though it may be true that it is extremely difficult to verify and obtain evidence for those explanations, this does not negate the fact that those explanations are plausible and consistent with the regular mechanisms of nature. Perhaps with a little imagination we can identify a way in which the designer might have made it more clear that life was not a purely natural phenomenon…

Let the earth bring forth living creatures NOT after their kind…

We are really only familiar with one kind of life: the kind where amino acids combine in various ways and facilitate production of new life which is nearly equivalent to the parent(s). We see this in bacteria, flowers, frogs and people. We call it reproduction because the output is essentially a new instance of the producer(s). The variation from parent to child is relatively insignificant compared to the full volume of information embedded in the process. For our purposes here, we can essentially say that A => A => A => …, or, in other words, life form A only begets life form A and nearly all genetic information is carried forward.

Now consider an alternative to this. Collections of molecules regularly interact with other molecules in the environment to produce new molecular structures. In fact, this is exactly what is happening when our DNA guides the production of proteins. Those proteins are wholly different from DNA and go on to perform many functions and interact with other molecules in ways which leads to other changes in chemical structures. These reactions may carry on for some time, maybe indefinitely, without ever going through the same cycle of inputs and outputs. This is like reproduction, but with the key difference that the product has a markedly different chemical structure than the producer. I propose that this scenario hints at a possible second mode of life (unified material which is capable of producing new life) which looks something like:

  • sloth_bear_babyA => B => A => …, or
  • A => B => C => D => A => …, or
  • A => B => … => Z => A => ….

The set of possible Rube-Goldberg like chains of production is enormous, so long as there is a recursive structure that allows us to avoid an infinite regress and constrain life as the set of outputs within the cycle. Otherwise – without recursion – every possible reorganization of matter would be “life” in some weak sense.

What are the odds that life, under the guidance of purely natural processes, would arise to operate under this second mode instead of the first? This question is probably answerable even if I’m not going to try and expend the resources to calculate it here. Regardless, it’s clear that the probability of this occurring by chance is significantly less than it is for the type of genetic duplication we see in the world now. So, at the very least, we have identified a possible mode of life which would have been a stronger indicator of design than is inferred by the current paradigm. Perhaps the current mode of life was intelligently designed, but if so, then it seems that intelligence might not have wanted us to know.

Counterfactual #2: Intelligence

Inspired by a recent post by Nate at ‘Finding Truth’, the next counterfactual condition I would like to propose is:

“If God really wanted to reveal himself by blessing us with advanced cognitive abilities then our cognitive limitations would not be compatible with the naturalistic evolutionary paradigm.”

Nate’s post was spurred by a theist’s claim that our advanced cognitive abilities, such as “philosophical insight, scientific acumen, or mathematical skills” defy natural explanation. I responded by suggesting that the converse seems more accurate.

thinking_fast_and_slowWe have become increasingly aware of our cognitive limitations as we have applied scientific methods to observation of human behavior, revealing a pervasive susceptibility to error through inherent biases and external influences (see Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ for a nice introduction). In fact, the scientific endeavor itself is a process for minimizing those errors. I outlined my own criteria for discernment (Part 1, Part 2) a few years ago when I realized that it was an integral and necessary part of any truth-seeking journey.

But this goes beyond errors in judgment. A substantial body of research is showing just how fragile and malleable our long-term memories actually are. The memories of our past are largely reconstructed. Even our short-term memory is limited to about 7 items. Then there’s also the consideration of those alleged “mathematical skills”. Hasn’t the advent of computers shown us just how slow and error prone our math skills actually are compared to what is possible?

There’s really no telling where we lie on the continuum of intelligence. Yes, relative to other lifeforms on earth we seem to be at the top, but as technological advances continue to give us glimpses into the kind of reliability which may actually be possible you can’t help but feel like we aren’t so close to the pinnacle after all. So, if a designer is trying to reveal himself through the gift of advanced intelligence, then why do these findings make it so easy to imagine a better human who isn’t dependent on tools and processes to mitigate against cognitive error and limitations? The holy books which purport to capture knowledge of supernatural origin also seem to be consistent with a natural origin and betray the humanity of their authors. Where is the evidence of a supernaturally gifted intelligence? It seems more likely that we’re just doing the best we can with the empirically grounded capacities which have aided our survival over the millenia and that we owe nearly all of our advanced knowledge to the cumulative efforts of past generations who have worked hard to pass on their knowledge of “what works” so that we don’t have to rediscover everything.

Counterfactual #3: Natural Moral Consequences

When I saw the most recent post at 500 Questions about God & Christianity I couldn’t resist including it here. The post asks “Why doesn’t sin carry natural consequences?“, which he translates into a counterfactual near the end of the post when he says “If God is truly the creator, and the commands in the Bible are his (and not man’s), then we might expect to see the creator enforcing his rules through his creation, but we don’t (suggesting the laws laid out in the Bible were reasoned by men, and not God).” Or, to put it in the context of questioning biological design as revelation, “If God valued the revelation of moral truth (and thus his moral nature) more than our physical comfort then he would have designed us to discover moral truths in ways that are more efficacious than the way that pain teaches us to avoid physical harm”. Moral disagreement is rampant, yet we all pretty much agree that it’s painful to touch things that are hot or sharp.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend checking out the 65 other questions. The whole blog is pretty much one giant counterfactual argument.

O man, who art thou that repliest against God?

Jars of ClayShall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?
– Romans 9:20 (KJV)

At this point you may wish to accuse me of naive arrogance in supposing that I can deduce how God should behave. You are right, but I ask that you hear me out. Certainly, if God exists, I am in no position to tell him how he should act, but this says nothing of how we are to interpret the evidence for his existence. If I wake on Christmas morning to find a set of binoculars under the tree made out of two toilet paper tubes, scotch tape and string, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that it was produced by my children and not by Nikon or Bushnell. Likewise, if God wanted us to infer his presence from the life found in his creation, then it seems he could have done better. If God directed acts of special creation, or the course of evolution, then it would appear that he chose to leave a signature which is indecipherable from what we might get from a lawful yet unguided process. Does this sound like the behavior of somebody who wants us to know him?

This observation offers no definitive conclusions regarding the question of whether a designer lies behind the structure of life and counterfactual arguments are inherently weak due to their speculative nature. What it does do, however, is offer an argument which generally favors either (a) the absence of a designer, (b) a designer who doesn’t really want us to find him through inference to design, or (c) a designer who is incapable of generating the most compelling inference to design. None of these fit with the classical theistic definition of God:

For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse
– Romans 1:20 (KJV)

Feel free to share any other counterfactual arguments against biological design as revelation, or conversely, to show me the folly of my ways.

Whew, that was close. March……..☑

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44 thoughts on “Counterfactual arguments against biological design as revelation

  1. Hi Travis, interesting thoughts there.

    I question the basic assumption behind this, and much else from non-believers on this topic. Obviously if God exists and his main purpose is to get us to believe in him, then he could have done this any number of ways. So the fact that he isn’t easily obvious means that he doesn’t exist (as atheists claim) – or that we have misunderstood his purpose (which you allude to). I find few atheists really consider the second option. Let’s explore it for a moment.

    Why would God want to create a physical world and people it and then make himself so obvious that no-one could miss him? Why not make us all perfect and living in the new heaven and the new earth right from the start? That hypothesis is too simplistic.

    But if God wanted to create autonomous beings, like mini versions of him in many ways – having choice, rationality, ethics, appreciation of beauty, etc – then he would have to temper the way he acted to allow us autonomy. The physical world becomes a veil to allow us that autonomy. Things like design, rationality, ethics, consciousness, etc, become clues to God for those “with eyes to see” – similar to how Jesus’ parables were clues which some saw and some missed – but all were allowed their autonomy.

    I don’t think that is 100% the story, because sometimes God seems to give some people miracles that the rest of us don’t get, but I think it explains this question much better than the view you are reacting against.

    Thanks.

    • Hi Eric,
      What you present is probably the most common rejoinder to the objection from divine hiddenness and, to be honest, I just don’t find it very persuasive (surprise, surprise). In short, I don’t see why hiddenness – especially to the degree we observe – is necessary to preserve autonomy. Regardless, I’m curious about your take on Romans 1:18-20. Do you think that God’s attributes are “plain” and “clearly seen” so that unbelievers are “without excuse”?

      • “I don’t see why hiddenness – especially to the degree we observe – is necessary to preserve autonomy.”

        I didn’t use the word “hiddennness”, because I think that is too strong a word. With 2 billion christian believers, most of them having claimed to have received guidance from God, and an estimated 300 million reporting they have experienced or observed a miraculous healing, some people find God fairly obvious.

        But I think you don’t understand the enormous difference between God and us. I have two analogies.

        (1) Once I visited a large coal-fired power station. We went to a place where there was a very small door into a small chamber that connected to the main blast furnace. The guide opened this little door (about 10cm square from memory) and the heat coming out of that little chamber was enormous. Put your hand inside and it would be gone in a moment. God is like that only more so.

        (2) In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo can put on the ring and he enters a different world where the physical is dark and the evil forces are more real, and he is totally unprotected. In the spiritual world, power is different, and ordinary humans cannot stand. It would be like that, like the blast furnace, if God wasn’t to some degree veiled.

        I can understand that if you don’t believe in God, you won’t accept that, but I’m sure you understand the point I’m making. Without that veil we couldn’t stand, just like Frodo, let alone choose freely and exercise autonomy.

        A third analogy. If a parent wants a child to learn something, whether to keep their room clean, or ride a bike, or swim, they have to let go and let the child try without their help, or with limited help. That’s what autonomy is. Multiply that by a billion and it is God and us.

        Re Romans 1, I think we have to distinguish between natural thinking and God’s perspective. In natural thinking, I believe what I have just said – God isn’t obvious, though there is good evidence for him. We each face a real choice. But God also promises his Spirit will help us see and understand if we are willing, if we allow him to lead us, if we become like children entering the kingdom, etc. Jesus promises that those who seek and keep on seeking will find. So if people don’t seek rightly or long enough and/or don’t find, then they probably won’t see, and they will be judged accordingly – not so much because they didn’t see but because they didn’t keep seeking.

        Now before you feel offended that I might have inferred that you haven’t sought God, please hear me. I cannot and shouldn’t make that judgment on anyone. The race isn’t over yet and for all we know it may not even be over when we die. If you are honestly seeking, then I believe you will find, if not now, then later. But I do fear sometimes that really decent sincere people make the wrong assumptions and the wrong judgments, and they lead them to stop seeking. I do sincerely hope that is never you.

        That is what I think. Whether it is God’s truth I don’t know. But it’s the best I can say now.

    • I don’t understand how God making himself so obvious no-one could miss him limits autonomy. We would still be living in a world that has flaws and pain and suffering. People would still have the freedom to reject said god as a monster. His clarity would obligate no-one to love him.

      That seems a strange argument to me.

      • Hi Ruth, I’m sorry that seems a strange argument to you. I’ve tried, in my answer to Travis, to explain it a little more. If God was fully present, people would certainly NOT (I believe) have the freedom to do anything. God is the being who said (metaphorically speaking) “Let there be light” and this whole enormous universe (maybe even a zillion universes in the multiverse) came into being. We would no more have freedom than we could stand in that blast furnace I mentioned. I think perhaps we have different understandings of “God”. What do you think?

      • Perhaps, but I don’t think I said that he must be fully present to be so obvious as to not be missed. Even so, the argument you’re making is full of assumptions that cannot possibly be tested. First you if a god were fully present people would CERTAINLY NOT have the freedom to do anything. That doesn’t ring true to the story of the fall of man, nor the fall of certain angels. It also is, as you parenthetically state a belief. You cannot state what people would certainly do or not do on a belief, our understandings of “God” notwithstanding.

      • Yeah, it’s true that I’m surmising, but so are you and Travis! I just think my surmise makes more sense. As for the fall of man, the story we have is (I believe) quite obviously legendary, so I don’t think that is a problem. Anyway, I just wanted to share how I see things. Thanks.

      • “Yeah, it’s true that I’m surmising, but so are you and Travis!”

        Yes, we all take the information available to us and make the best educated guess we can. There are unknowns.

        ” I just think my surmise makes more sense.”

        Obviously, else you wouldn’t believe the things you believe. We all think our surmises make more sense. That’s why we come to the conclusions we come to.

        “As for the fall of man, the story we have is (I believe) quite obviously legendary, so I don’t think that is a problem. “

        Indeed. It’s just a far leap, in my surmise(which I think makes more sense), from the world exists, there are things we don’t know and don’t understand, to therefore God, let alone Jesus.

        Thanks for participating in the conversation. It’s always good to get another perspective.

        Ruth

      • Hi Ruth, I feel likewise. Thanks.

        Hi Nan, I agree with you too. When discussing opinions and assessments, it can be easy to come to different views, even from the same starting point, so we should be wary of being too certain. It is only if people insist on using their own “facts” that I get a little more definite.

  2. Eric,
    You make a fair point about the widespread belief in God, but it’s also true – at least in the circles I’m familiar with – that most Christians will at times express questioning and doubts. Those who aren’t dogmatic even call this healthy and normal. So I don’t think that “obvious” is the right word for even those who believe.

    Regarding your analogies, it appears to me that you have jumped from one end of the spectrum to another. If you just pick one of the counterfactuals from this post then God’s presence is slightly more apparent than it currently is without being glaringly obvious. If God truly desires us to find him then you would have to argue that the current state of affairs maximizes that revelation without sacrificing autonomy. In other words, you would have to argue that even the slightest increase in revelation is the straw that breaks the camels back and tips us all into automaton who are blinded by God’s obvious presence. Do you think that is representative of the current state of affairs?

    And while we’re throwing around analogies, let me offer another one. As far as I know, nobody on earth doubts the existence of the sun. We plainly see it and feel it’s warmth, so at the very least we understand that it is bright and warm. There are, however, heliogians, who have done intense study on the sun and report that it is much more than a bright object in the sky that gives warmth. They say that it is actually a star, just like we see at night, and that it is a massive ball of burning gas that is 150 million kilometers from earth, more than 1.3 million times bigger than the earth and has temperatures near the surface of more than 1 million °C. Many find this highly counter-intuitive and don’t believe the heliogians. Even so, they find their claims interesting because, while counter-intuitive, they are also consistent with the more obvious observations about the sun.

    So if we’re concerned with autonomy, why couldn’t God’s existence be more like the sun, where his nature is not so veiled that we doubt his existence, but veiled enough that his true nature in all its glory is far from obvious?

    Lastly, regarding Romans, I had a hard time extracting an answer from your response. The best translation I can figure is something like “God isn’t obvious until you find him, then he is obvious”. Is that effectively what you’re saying? Doesn’t that mean, then, that those who don’t find him actually aren’t “without excuse”?

    • Hi Travis,

      Regarding “obvious”. I read a book where an academic investigated a bunch of people who said they had experienced a vision of Jesus. I wrote about the book on my blog, and one of the people he had written about, whose vision was accompanied by a rather remarkable healing, wrote a comment saying the the effects of the healing and the vision were strong with him to this day (the experience had been quite a few years back). Now I don’t know what you make of such a report, and I admit his experience is not usual, but I think you could hardly blame him for thinking God’s existence is pretty “obvious”. And those who say they’ve experienced a healing, especially a dramatic one such as being pronounced dead (I have two such reports) and returned to full life after prayer, might think our hair-splitting over “obvious” or some other word to be missing the point! 🙂

      ” you would have to argue that even the slightest increase in revelation is the straw that breaks the camels back and tips us all into automaton who are blinded by God’s obvious presence. Do you think that is representative of the current state of affairs?”

      We all tend to want to simplify things down to one cause and a binary true/false, but the world (and God!) are usually more complex. I think you are doing that here. I think if you subjected your own argument to that sort of black/white precision you may not have written it. I mean no disrespect, but I think we have to accept there are nuances in these things. I think (and have already said) that some people seem to get more revelation than others. I believe it isn’t too difficult to believe that God might treat each of us individually.

      “So if we’re concerned with autonomy, why couldn’t God’s existence be more like the sun, where his nature is not so veiled that we doubt his existence, but veiled enough that his true nature in all its glory is far from obvious?”

      I don’t have any reason why that couldn’t be so, and in fact I think it has been so for most people through most of recorded history.

      But I think this illustrates a difference between us. If we put everything we argue about into the form of a formal logical argument, we’d then have to justify every premise. One of the ways we justify premises is by stating the logical and exhaustive possibilities/explanations and seeing which explanation can be best justified. Sometimes, the possibilities are simple to enunciate – e.g. in the Fine-tuning argument, the possible explanations are random, design or necessity (I think it can be shown they are exhaustive). So that, IMO, becomes quite a strong argument. The same could be said, perhaps, for the argument from evil. But in this case, what are the possibilities? How would we write an exhaustive list? How would we evaluate them? How would we know what God might or might not do? It seems to me these doubts make this a very weak argument, hardly worth considering except as an interesting question.

      Re Romans, I’m sorry if I was obscure. I’m sure you are familiar with the common christian idea that spiritual truth is discerned spiritually by the grace of the Holy Spirit? This is different to how natural truths are discerned, which is by observation, introspection, intuition, etc, though of course it builds on those things. Now I think God could hardly justify condemning someone for failing to have intuition or to have not observed something. So Paul cannot (I suggest) have been talking about natural evidence. And why would God want to judge anyone according to the intelligence and education anyway? (I think atheists, and often christians, make some very unreasonable assumptions on these matters. God doesn’t require us to pass a science exam to enter his kingdom!)

      But the BIble teaches God is looking for people are seek him, who want to know him, and those he promises to give answers to. But if we don’t seek him, then that is a choice, and we may miss out because of that choice. So Paul is saying (I believe) that the problem isn’t lack of evidence (he says later that God will judge us according the the light that we are given), but the lack of willingness to seek, and keep on seeking.

      Finally, you are assuming, as most christians do) that we must know God and consciously turn to him in this life to enter eternal life. But that assumption isn’t necessarily true, nor is it Biblical. The OT Jews didn’t ever believe in Jesus, but they were God’s chosen people. And like I said, Romans 2 hints at people entering the kingdom without ever having heard of Jesus (though nevertheless, because of Jesus’ sacrifice).

      I hope I don’t sound critical here. I understand that you and others react against the christianity that you know, but there are other options that you may not always have considered. I’m trying to point this out as briefly as I can, and so I fear I come across harsh when I don’t mean to. I hope that’s OK. Thanks.

      • Eric,
        I think we need to recalibrate.

        First, let’s distinguish between general revelation (i.e., inference to a creator from natural observations) and special revelation (i.e., evidence for a deity through healings, visions, etc…). The critique of this post is to suggest that the general revelation in biological design could have been more effective at inferring a creator. Your response was to say that our autonomy would have to be sacrificed if God were too obvious. The implication here is that the appearance of an ineffective general revelation is due to God’s overriding desire to preserve our autonomy (independent of special revelation). If this is true then this implies that any increase in the general revelation, no matter how small, produces an unacceptable loss of autonomy. Is this a correct interpretation of your position? If not, please explain what I have misunderstood.

      • Hi Travis,

        I want to start by saying I don’t have absolutely definite opinions on these matters. They are not central to my beliefs and they are somewhat speculative matters. The discussion is interesting and helpful in thinking through the issues, so I may modify my ideas because of it.

        “The critique of this post is to suggest that the general revelation in biological design could have been more effective at inferring a creator. Your response was to say that our autonomy would have to be sacrificed if God were too obvious.”

        I think my response is broader than that. (1) I think this is a very speculative argument because we are talking about what a hypothetical God “should” do. (2) I think to know what actions of God might be “effective” requires us to assume we know God’s aims. (3) I think your apparent assumption about God’s aims is not supported by the evidence. (4) I suggested an additional aim God might have, namely of giving humans autonomy (I don’t think God necessarily has only one aim).

        “The implication here is that the appearance of an ineffective general revelation is due to God’s overriding desire to preserve our autonomy (independent of special revelation).”

        I wouldn’t use the word “ineffective” because that too implies we know what God is trying to achieve.

        “If this is true then this implies that any increase in the general revelation, no matter how small, produces an unacceptable loss of autonomy. Is this a correct interpretation of your position? If not, please explain what I have misunderstood.”

        I think you are being way too mathematical here. There are billions of people on earth, and I think there are many different ways God could deal with each one, and each one could approach God. We are quite capable of having more than one aim, and often having to balance conflicting aims, so surely God is too. So he wants to give autonomy, but he also wants to love (= give) – and the one flows out of the other. He also wants to see justice, he wants us to learn, he wants to see us fulfilled, he wants to give us life in the age to come, etc.

        If you said that this world seems a messy way to achieve those aims, I’d agree with you. I am deeply troubled by many things that happen, from miscarriages to war and genocide, from dishonesty and lies to environmental degradation, etc. I don’t know how to explain why God set things up in a way that allows so much that is horrible, like the situation in Syria. I think human autonomy/freewill explains a lot of it, but that explanation still leaves me troubled. I also think that much of what I know points strongly to God. I think the pointers to God strongly outweigh the troublesome stuff, so I believe, but I am still troubled.

        But answering your question here, I think God balances revelation and love in ways I can’t understand. I don’t think our future with God is totally determined by the amount of revelation we get (an assumption you seem to be making), but by our response to whatever revelation we have been given. So I would correct your statement to this: any major change in the general level of revelation, may lead to an unacceptable loss of autonomy, but there is plenty of variation within that broad statement.

        But I think the challenge for you is not so much to criticise my guess at God’s motives and aims, but to clarify the assumptions implicit in your discussion and show that they are reasonable and compelling.

        Thanks.

      • Eric,
        I agree that this is all speculative and acknowledged as much in the post. That said, I also don’t think that these kinds of arguments are devoid of force. I do think that they contribute to the cumulative case and are more than just interesting thought experiments. So I shall continue…

        But I think the challenge for you is not so much to criticise my guess at God’s motives and aims, but to clarify the assumptions implicit in your discussion and show that they are reasonable and compelling.

        OK. Let’s start by acknowledging that we’re operating in a Christian context.

        #1 – The primary assumption about God is that “he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” The notion that “God so loved the world..” seems an incontrovertible element of Christianity.
        #2 – The next assumption is that salvation (God’s aim in #1) depends in some way on an individual’s belief in God’s existence in this lifetime. I will develop this further through two sub-points:
        (a) Though it is not the belief itself which saves but rather an openness to sanctification through a relationship, it is still appropriate to say that belief in another party’s existence is a prerequisite to honestly entering into a relationship with them.
        (b) The time constraint (“this lifetime”) is more contentious but is certainly dominant in protestant soteriologies and consistent with the biblical text (e.g., the parable of the rich man and Lazarus). Note that a postmortem salvation generally presumes a level of revelation which far exceeds the revelation granted on earth and thus stands in opposition to a ‘preservation of autonomy’ theory. It also isn’t clear why the God assumed by #1 would prefer a convincing postmortem revelation to a convincing antemortem revelation.
        #3 – Belief in God’s existence is best supported by some sort of evidence (i.e., revelation). I suspect this claim doesn’t need a defense.
        #4 – If #1, #2 and #3 are all true, then it follows that God would act to realize our salvation (#1) by providing evidence (#3) to support and sustain our belief in his existence (#2).

        I have not established whether God has any aims which contravene on the aim of salvation (e.g., autonomy) but I would suggest that this is where the speculation is strongest. In the absence of any contravening aims the claim in #4 suggests that God’s existence should be obvious to everybody (a la the sun analogy). In the presence of contravening aims, it is up to the claimant to establish the existence of those aims and the extent to which they necessitate a suppression of the evidence required by #4.

  3. Hi Travis,

    Just stopping by to say I enjoyed reading your post in my email and also the added mental exercise of thinking of some other counterfactual arguments:

    1) Infant mortality rate = 0
    In this hypothetical scenario we would exist in a universe where the infant mortality rate would be zero and we would not have to wonder why a creator would have allowed for so many perinatal deaths. This would certainly help us towards thinking that each life is important to the creator and designed for a purpose.

    2) No tendencies towards violence
    Unless a creator gets some enjoyment from violence it would have made sense to reduce violent instincts to a minimum so that the created beings could get along better. Instead, it seems that (males in particular) in our world have a desire for violence in some form or another (movies and video games are prime examples) and we have to wonder why the evolutionary process has rewarded such alpha-male behaviors (if it was by design).

    Does a created world have to be perfect?

    No, but as you said, these small alterations could push things in the right direction if the creator desired to be “found”. The way I see it, you are not really arguing that there is no creator – just that if there is one it is probably not overly concerned with whether we believe in it or not.

    • Hi Dave,
      Thanks for stopping by. While I agree with the sentiment, I’m afraid I’m going to have to play God’s advocate with your examples. Traditional Christian theology would probably attribute both of those things to the fall, allegedly eliminating God’s culpability (according to a free will theodicy – though see below for more on that). I was intentionally trying to avoid counterfactuals that might be attributed to doctrines such as the fall of man. I think the examples I gave do this, though perhaps one could argue that our cognitive limitations are the result of the fall and that “now we see through a glass darkly” – though I don’t see that this is explicit anywhere, and in fact Genesis seems to indicate that the fall increased our knowledge by removing our moral innocence.

      On a related note, if you’re interested I also wrote a post a couple years ago that outlines a logical argument to identify a contradiction between the traditional omni-God and the traditional free will theodicy.

  4. unkleE wrote: “But I do fear sometimes that really decent sincere people make the wrong assumptions and the wrong judgments,”

    A true statement … on BOTH sides.

    • Yes very true Nan.

      But what does annoy me is seeing the same discredited apologist arguments being rolled out again and again despite having been thoroughly discredited a thousand times over. Indeed any time I see an argument that says, ‘there are no transitional fossils’ then I conclude the person has not objectively looked into the matter given the evidence is simply overwhelming.

      Sadly many Christian folk are misled by apologists who should know better.

  5. Thanks, I’ll check out that post.

    I think the free will theodicy explains why a creator might allow human suffering and still be considered an all-good, all-loving being. I’m not sure if it also applies to these counterfactuals. Surely a creator would have control over the extent and the parameters of the “curse for sinning”. And if the creator designed the parameters it could have selected fitting punishments while still maximizing the potential of being revealed through biological design.

    • Surely a creator would have control over the extent and the parameters of the “curse for sinning”.

      Yes, that’s the key. It’s just really hard to argue where that line should be – if you can get past the fact that some sort of “curse” is even appropriate in the first place.

  6. Hi Travis, I’m happy to continue a little more, but I don’t want to be a pesky commenter.

    First, I think your argument is inherently “weak” in a particular way. When we talk about nature or the world or the universe, we are talking about something we can measure and know with reasonable certainty. So when, in the Cosmological argument, we say everything that begins to exist has a cause, that is true of everything we can observe in the universe. Likewise when we say in the Teleological argument that the universe is “finely-tuned”, this phrase has clear scientific definition and rigour.

    But when we make statements about God, we cannot be nearly so precise and certain. So when you say God “should” do this or that, you have no real basis for saying that except that is what you think (whereas I don’t). So that is one reason why I think this argument “weak”.

    Secondly, your argument relies on God having one clearcut aim (salvation for as many as possible), when I think he has several aims, another of which is creating “little gods” with autonomy, choice, etc.

    Thirdly, I still disagree with your assessment of the situation encapsulated in your 4 points. I accept #1, but I think #2 is not the case (although I agree that many christians think it is). Here’s why.

    There isn’t one clear path to salvation in the Bible. Paul says believe in Jesus. Jesus says feed the poor and visit the sick. He also says to endure to the end. Paul says believe and confess with your mouth. James says faith without good works is dead. Paul says we are saved by God’s grace working through faith. Jesus says to love God wholeheartedly and love our neighbour as ourselves. Peter says baptism saves us. Paul says that gentiles will be judged by the law written in their consciences. Modern evangelicals have made a simple formula out of it all because that is easier, but the NT gives a multi-faceted picture.

    So I think “salvation depends in some way on an individual’s belief in God’s existence in this lifetime” is too simplistic. It may not require that, and more often I think it requires far more. It is different for different people in different situations. I wouldn’t pretend to be able to define it super clearly and confidently.

    I accept #3 is true for some people but not for all. And #4 isn’t always true because #2 isn’t true and #3 is only partly true.

    Again, let me say, I understand that the christianity you are familiar with may be more cut and dried than what I am saying, but I can only present how I see things and what the Bible actually says. I’m sorry if I seem “difficult”. But I think an argument that “works” against some forms of christianity but not others cannot be a good argument. (I think many atheist arguments are like this.)

    I hope that clarifies where I’m coming from. Thanks.

    • Eric,
      I think you’re being overly critical here. I was not trying to present a strong argument against all possible forms of theism. This post is more specifically a response to the widespread assertion that biological design is a mechanism by which God reveals himself to us. The assumptions I laid out would often find agreement with those who advance such claims (though they’d probably contest the conclusion by proposing contravening aims, which is what you initially did). If your views actually lie in contrast to this then that’s good for you. As far as I’m concerned that means your worldview is more internally consistent than those who agree with the given assumptions.

      But when we make statements about God, we cannot be nearly so precise and certain. So when you say God “should” do this or that, you have no real basis for saying that except that is what you think

      I’m glad you agree that we have no real basis for making statements about God! As for your last sentence, I propose that it should read “…you have no real basis for saying that except that is what you[many Christians] think”. These types of arguments aren’t trying to express observed facts about reality, rather they are trying to show an inconsistency within a particular view. That’s why they are all summarized in statement form as “If P, then Q”. If you believe P is true and see that Q isn’t true, then you have to explain that inconsistency.

      But I think an argument that “works” against some forms of christianity but not others cannot be a good argument.

      Certainly an argument can have value within a restricted scope? Regardless, there is some legitimacy to “guilt by association”. That is, if a given worldview is closely related to a flawed worldview, then this casts suspicion on the related worldview. Even if it barely moves the needle, it does contribute to the network of probabilities that inform our assessments.

  7. Hi Travis,

    “This post is more specifically a response to the widespread assertion that biological design is a mechanism by which God reveals himself to us.”

    I think this illustrates the misunderstanding between us. I think that the three aspects of humanity which you raise (DNA, rationality and ethics) all point to God (so I want to contest your counterfactuals) but your arguments don’t apply to me, only to more conservative christians. So the pro-God arguments are closer to universal but the responses you give are not.

    “I’m glad you agree that we have no real basis for making statements about God!”

    I’m hoping, and presuming, you’re joking!

    “Even if it barely moves the needle, it does contribute to the network of probabilities that inform our assessments.”

    But if DNA, rationality and ethics are quite strong arguments pointing to God (as I think) and your responses are weaker, the whole matter is still a plus for theism. That is, I guess, my bottom line.

    I think I have really said all I have to say at present on those topics, but I will finish this comment with a more general point. I think most people would agree it is best to start consideration of any matter by looking at the available evidence, and forming our initial conclusions from there. We might develop some provisional hypotheses first, but these should be quite broad, so that a range of options is not limited until they can be tested by the evidence.

    But it seems to me that many ex-christians don’t present their deconversion this way. Instead, they seem to start with the christianity they are familiar with and if they find it incompatible with the evidence, then they stop believing. But it seems that they haven’t properly considered other christian options, or other theistic options for that matter. So I see some former christians saying they deconverted when they realised the Bible wasn’t inerrant, but of course there are many forms of christianity that don’t involve inerrancy. So they have apparently bypassed some options and rejected them without really examining them.

    So I think a better process than asking “could this christianity I know be true?” is to start with the evidence and ask “are there any forms of christianity that fit this evidence?” And manifestly, there often are.

    That is why I entered into this conversation. I felt you have started with a view of God (that he wants to save people by having them find sufficient evidence to believe) and asked whether the facts fit that view, and you think they don’t. But if you started with the evidence (which includes the fact that God is not immediately obvious to everyone), then asked could God have chosen to work this way, then manifestly he could have – perhaps he did, perhaps not. It then becomes clearer that your argument depends on one among several views of God, and a view that is just “maybe” right at best.

    So that’s where I think you and other go “wrong”. Even if you did it my way (or Frank Sinatra’s way!) you may end up at the same point, but you may well end up less certain. Thanks.

    • I think that the three aspects of humanity which you raise (DNA, rationality and ethics) all point to God

      Would you please break these points down and explain exactly how each one points to Yahweh. Thanks.

    • Eric,
      Now I’m confused. The assumptions I laid out previously were just what I believed to be the most likely way of getting to a position in which the counterfactual argument was relevant. All that is actually necessary is a belief that God has intended to reveal himself through biological design. So when you say that “DNA, rationality and ethics are quite strong arguments pointing to God” while also saying that “your arguments don’t apply to me”, I see something of a contradiction. The best way I can see to reconcile those two claims is to add a third claim of either:
      (a) God did not intend for DNA, rationality and ethics to be strong arguments for his existence, or
      (b) God has contravening aims which limit the strength of those evidences.

      Perhaps you are going with (a), but you’ve mostly argued (b). If (a), then you’re in the clear. The counterfactual argument is irrelevant – though I think that this “accidentally strong evidence” stance is a bit peculiar in a Christian context. If (b), then the question is whether the evidence for the contravening aims sufficiently accounts for the appearance of a suboptimal inference to design. I have a hard time seeing how it does, but that’s a matter of opinion.

      But if DNA, rationality and ethics are quite strong arguments pointing to God (as I think) and your responses are weaker, the whole matter is still a plus for theism. That is, I guess, my bottom line.

      You’re welcome to hold that position, but even if we were to grant a net positive that does not entail that the argument is effectively irrelevant. Suppose one’s prior probability for theism was 50% but then went to 90% after reviewing argument X1. If that subsequently dropped to 51% after reviewing argument X2, this is a net positive increase from arguments X1 and X2, but it is also obvious that argument X2 significantly reduced P(theism). I’m not suggesting that these numbers are actually representative of the situation here, but you get the point. All that is required of an argument for it to contribute to the cumulative case is a change in probability. The extent of that change will depend on many subjective factors, but neither does this render the argument inconsequential.

      Finally, I’m quite familiar with your assertion that deconverts have overreacted and thrown the baby out with the bathwater; I’ve seen you plead that case plenty before. Please note that I had adopted a form of Christianity not too dissimilar from where you find yourself (sympathetic to Biologos and Pete Enns and the like) before deconverting. As far as Christian conceptions of God go, I agree that yours is among the more reasonable options out there. However, from my perspective, my deconversion did not occur because God didn’t fit into the box I wanted him in; it occurred because the puzzle pieces seemed to all fit together better under the hypothesis that God was in some sense absent – an option you somehow excluded from the methodology you suggested.

  8. Hi Travis, I’m sorry I’ve confused you. I think I feel clear in my mind, so I’ll have one more go.

    I believe God has created this physical world to keep his power and reality somewhat veiled, to leave us humans genuinely free. I wouldn’t pretend to be able to specify the exact definition of that, and I think it varies with different people, places and times, but I think you get that idea OK.
    I also think he has given us plenty of clues if we are willing and open to looking for it. All the classic reasons christians give as evidence of God are included here. (Jesus’ use of parables is an example.) Looked at from the outside (e.g. as a robot from Mars might look at it), these evidences and our natural human scepticism are reasonably in balance. They are, I think, like a narrow ridge on the climb to the summit of Mt Everest – if we take a small step to the side of belief or the side of unbelief, we tend to slide much further. We humans tend to polarise.
    Into this delicate balance is given the Spirit of God, to assist those whose minds are open and who are seeking truth to gain confidence in God. This can be a sensus divinitatis, or it can be an ability to see truth clearly, or maybe something else. I think God expects us to seek him, and he judges us on how much we seek more than how much we find. (As I said before, I have no opinion on where you and other non-believers sit in that – I am not in a position to judge – perhaps you will find him and return to him one day, perhaps your honesty is enough for him, perhaps you will miss out, I cannot know.)
    So I think the three matters you raised fit in here. They are evidence, and to me, they are strong evidence – but that may be because the Spirit of God has helped me see that (I don’t claim any great abilities). Not strong evidence like seeing God in all his power face-to-face, but strong evidence in the context I have given.
    Each of your counterfactuals started something like “If God really …..”. Can you see, in the context I have outlined, we cannot say that? We don’t know how a God (hypothetical or real) would act, especially as he’s balancing two opposing factors of revelation and subtlety. It’s like saying to Vincent van Gogh, “OK mate, you’ve got black paint and white paint, now do your best.” To do his best, he needs more colours, and to approach this matter, we need to consider more options and the balance between them.
    I look at your two options and I think (a)? Yes. (b)? Yes.
    I get your point about the change in probability, up and down, and I’m quite happy with that. I’ve never claimed all facts point to God – in fact inherent in all the above is the reality that some facts (e.g. the extent of evil) make it look like there’s no God. My comment was in that context – when I think of any of these three matters you’ve raised here, I think the arguments from each topic towards God are significantly stronger than the counterfactuals, for the reasons I’ve tried to present.
    Finally, I was interested to hear about the process of your deconversion. I don’t think I knew that before. I hope you know (I’m sure I’ve said it before) that I respect your integrity and the process you go through in assessing issues, and I would never (I hope) accuse you of approaching these matters lightly or thoughtlessly. But on this matter, I thought you were falling into that trap of assuming what God is like and arguing against that rather than either testing your argument against different views of God, or starting with the evidence and asking could God have been involved in setting this up.

    I think that’s as good as I can sum up what I’ve been thinking. I understand you think differently, but hopefully yo can see where I’ve been coming from. Thanks for your patience and persistence.

    • You appear to be coming at this from a presuppositional perspective.
      I asked – though you refuse to engage me – how DNA, rationality and ethics points to a god.

      You have yet to address this in any meaningful way that does not presuppose your god exists.

      Also, as the expert consensus is the Pentateuch is historical fiction and that Yahweh was initially a Canaanite deity, which god are you alluding to?

    • Hey Eric,
      OK, this helps:

      They are evidence, and to me, they are strong evidence – but that may be because the Spirit of God has helped me see that

      So it’s not they are strong evidence for everybody, but for those like yourself who have been given “eyes to see”. In that case, it is as if the general revelation has become a special revelation and the counterfactual critique is muted because God has taken special action to strengthen the evidence of the general revelation at a personal level. I have no way to confirm or deny this and I’m sure you understand that the subjective nature of this makes it unconvincing for others. So for everybody else, looking at just the general revelation without any special revelation “boost”, the counterfactual arguments still appear to be completely relevant. It probably isn’t worth discussing that much further if this is a fair summary of the point that we’ve reached.

      A pleasure as always.

  9. Yes, I think it is time to conclude our main discussion, but I think we have diverted onto an important topic that I have been thinking a bit about – how we make choices about religious belief, and why we polarise so much.

    I think a major difference between you and I is in our approach to answers and certainty. I think that you may seek greater certainty about all matters than I do, and see things much more in binary ways. And I think that is what leads to misunderstandings between us. I normally don’t talk much about “eyes to see” because I can’t know how other people are motivated and so there is no point in bringing the matter up. I said it in this case because it seemed to be a partial explanation of different ways of seeing and polarisation.

    I don’t think that God gives me a special revelation to better understand (say) the implications of rationality. I don’t think those things are generally known by revelation, but by reason, observation, authority (i.e. reading), etc. But once we understand the facts of how the brain thinks, or how many people suffer in the world, or how fine-tuned the universe is scientifically, etc, then we have to make judgments about what we conclude. That is where I think revelation, or I think more accurately, the influence of the Spirit, becomes important.

    I say this because I think I could sit in a room with you or Nate and thrash out an agreement on the science of these matters. (In fact, on his blog recently, I wrote down a summary of my views on the historical facts about Jesus and we pretty much agreed.) But even after we agree about the science or the history, we are still poles apart when it comes to the (a)theistic conclusions we each draw from those facts.

    I have pondered long about why that should be. Inherent bias, wish fulfilment, confirmation bias, etc may explain some of it, but I think we three at least could be charitable enough to think it is more than that for each other. So what else? I think that initial expectations and assumptions about method, criteria and reality are part of it (which is why I raised the matters I did here). And our brains are different too.

    I also think that the Holy Spirit may make a difference here. I don’t think it is something that is forced on us, but something that we can all receive or not receive. So I don’t think it gets back to general revelation becoming special revelation, but rather being willing to allow the Spirit to convince or being willing to at least consider, or not. I’ll give you an example, and it relates to how I first got into internet discussion. More than a decade ago I read a book by an AI researcher who was also a materialist, determinist atheist. He put his email in the back and I wrote to him. We had a mostly friendly correspondence for about 18 months, during which I suggested that he might ask God to show himself if he was there, and he responded that he didn’t want God to be there, and he wasn’t at all willing to make that sort of request into the unknown. Whatever else may be true for him, he is probably not going to receive any help from the Spirit. (But during that discussion he recommended I read an atheist website which had a discussion forum, and the rest is history.)

    Now my main point isn’t the Spirit angle, but the more general one that how we make decisions is very complex, and any explanation needs to include more than just facts and biases. Not sure if that adds anything to our conversation, but it may be a good place for me to finish. Thanks again. It is a pleasure for me too.

  10. Hey Travis,

    In your post you state, “. . . if the designer wanted us to infer design then it would seem that he could have done better.” This suggests, as you put, either, “(a) the absence of a designer, (b) a designer who doesn’t really want us to find him through inference to design, or (c) a designer who is incapable of generating the most compelling inference to design. None of these fit with the classical theistic definition of God. . .”
    Eric more or less agrees with your initial proposition and with it affirms option (b) suggesting a more evident God would violate our freedom. I recall on an old post Howie arguing against this approach by questioning whether an evident God violates our freedom. Also, can the idea of a hidden God for freedom’s sake be found in the bible? Another apologetic approach is to deny your initial proposition and state that evil in our hearts prevent us from seeing God in natural evidence. Proponents of this typically look to Romans 1:18ff for support.

    More generally though, I wonder if your initial proposition presumes Darwinian evolution is anti-design. Darwin himself was not concerned about an inference to a Creator, rather what evolution implied about the moral character of the Creator. It seems like one would rather be an atheist than believe the Creator is flawed. Nowadays this is discussed as the problem of animal suffering (Darwinian problem of evil).

    Finally, there is a tension between human reasoning and revelation that is important to your argument. Can ultimate reality be understood through human reasoning (i.e., argument from design) or must it be granted to us as a gift through revelation? Why is it that apologists using rational arguments also mention the witness of the Spirit? They have been criticized for both generating arguments and negating them in the same instance by mention of the witness of the Spirit. Through this line of thinking, however, we might wonder how persuasive arguments from design really are supposed to be. This may go with your option (b).

    -Brandon

    • Hey Brandon,

      More generally though, I wonder if your initial proposition presumes Darwinian evolution is anti-design

      By referencing “Darwinian” evolution I assume you mean an unguided – or non-interventionist – evolution that only proceeds according to natural law once the reproductive process has started. I don’t think there’s a presumption of anti-design in that – you have folks like Perry Marshall advocating that all the necessary design was front-loaded when the first block of DNA was assembled. Conversely, the introduction to the post shows that I was mostly wondering why biology isn’t “anti-naturalism” if it’s supposed to point to design, as many apologists suggest.

      Can ultimate reality be understood through human reasoning (i.e., argument from design) or must it be granted to us as a gift through revelation? … Through this line of thinking, however, we might wonder how persuasive arguments from design really are supposed to be.

      It certainly limits the apologetics if the general revelation of design is only persuasive after you’ve received some special revelation. Your comment reminds me of the way I felt after I first allowed myself to grant that God may very well not exist. It might be apt to say that it was spiritual. It was very much like I was seeing the world as it really is for the first time in my life. I remember comparing it to the Matrix, when Neo starts seeing in digital. I would not be surprised if many conversion experiences involve a similar gestalt switch, with the difference that the convert now sees God’s hand in everything. I don’t think that this event counts for much in discussion with others, but it is interesting that it can be present in the reverse direction and, to me, this bolsters the probability that psychology is at the root.

      • Travis,

        “. . . I was mostly wondering why biology isn’t ‘anti-naturalism’ if it’s supposed to point to design, as many apologists suggest.”

        Oh I see, that’s a good summary statement. Then, you are addressing the ID camp with arguments like irreducible complexity rather than Theistic Evolution camp which is comfortable with naturalistic biological origins/evolution. If the strength of design arguments depends on biology being anti-natural, then I agree with you that it seems (through counterfactuals) that there could be more convincing evidence. I’ve got some more counterfactuals for you: a complete lack of fossil record, human genetic material being protein while animal’s is DNA, or even DNA not existing.

        I like how you describe your change in worldview as being like the Matrix! I know a fellow blogger who felt a great release when she lost faith. She had serious grievances with her church and was struggling with doubt at that time. When I reconverted, I recall feeling elated for at least two straight weeks. These kinds of experiences can be quite strong, and considering a psychological cause is definitely worth exploring.

  11. I think this debate clearly shows how different the worlds of many atheists and fundamentalists are from the rest Christianity. Certain fundamentalists seem to take the view that God gave us scripture to give us a science book. That somehow having us learn science is what life is all about. It’s very different from Christians who think Jesus and God interacts in order to help us understand what is good – although still preserving some free will.

    If God wanted to make his presence known would he do something in DNA a certain way? Why wouldn’t he “rend the Heavens and come down”? It seems clear that there is a balance between his presence and our freedom.

    The point on morality is quite odd on many different levels. First non-psychopaths do in fact feel discomfort when they see or commit wrong acts. It is theorized that this is why psychopaths commit more crimes. They do not feel the same discomfort we do. (this is something I intend to blog about some day as it has some interesting implications) So again there is a certain balance. Scripture accounts for this variance, as it (I believe Luke) indicates we will be judged based on what we were given.

    But I find it odd to say our autonomy would not be effected if every time someone sinned they had “There is .. burning of the skin, … horrible rash, … risk of deadly toxins entering the bloodstream.” Do you think a slaves autonomy is not effected even though they may be whipped to death if they disobey?

    Again there is a balance. Yes most of us have varying degrees of pain when we sin and I believe this effects our autonomy but it is a balance. We can always say we want a bit more guidance, and a bit less suffering but these are relative things. I bet we would think minor problems are huge if we didn’t experience a wide range of experiences.

    “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.”
    – Romans 1:20 (KJV)

    It does seem he is saying Gods power (the invisible thing of him along with his “Godhead”) is seen in nature. I don’t think Paul is referring to any sort of secret things other than the fact that something exists. I don’t think he is suggesting that we will find anything special in dna sequencing.
    “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
    Romans 2 v 14-16

    So according to Paul it is also a non-believers conscience that bears witness to God. For me, it was indeed an examination of my conscience and its implications that helped my faith in God.

    This passage also shows that God will take into account our abilities to understand what we should do as our conflicting thoughts will accuse or excuse them.

    A Naive thinker asks:
    “Also, can the idea of a hidden God for freedom’s sake be found in the bible?”

    Maybe not directly but I do think the notion that if God reveals himself more we would be less prone to sin and therefore this idea of a balance is pretty clearly implied in Isaiah.

    “Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance. For a little while your people possessed your holy place, but now our enemies have trampled down your sanctuary. We are yours from of old; but you have not ruled over them, they have not been called by your name.

    Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.” Isaiah 63-64

    I think the implication is clear. Come before us with the mountains trembling before you and we shall behave. And I think Isaiah is right that would cause us to behave. So if God could do that (and I think he could) then clearly God does not want that to be the cause of our good behavior.

    Why not? Well I think this life is intended to reveal something about ourselves to ourselves. It’s not God who needs us to live this life to understand us. We need it to understand ourselves. We will all plainly see the judgment is correct and will know it is silly to argue.

    • Joe,
      I’ve just skimmed your response for now and will respond more thoroughly later, but I wanted to ask a quick question that would help inform my response: do you subscribe to the Christian maxim that “it’s a relationship, not a religion”?

      • I never heard that before, and I don’t really like it.

        Christianity is more about relationships than about science. But I am fine with it being called a religion.

    • Joe,
      My understanding of your hypothesis is that God’s revelation is limited primarily to avoid impinging on our moral freedom because this is a necessary for the development of our moral character. Is that a fair summary?

      Assuming that’s relatively accurate, my first question is this: if your hypothesis is correct, then why did he design our moral nature such that it is heavily influenced by social interaction? If it’s a problem that our behavior would be influenced by some additional knowledge of God’s presence, what is the relevant distinction between that and the inherent pressure we experience as a result of the substantially more obvious presence of other humans who present substantially more obvious accountability for our behavior?

      • Hi Travis

        Its very hard to say what God’s intentions were/are. I think some legit contenders would be to help us to better understand ourselves (through that revelation that God gives) and as you said to help us develop our character there are likely other contenders. The ones I list aren’t perfect as it is hard to see how that could apply to those who die in infancy. But for those who live into adulthood they seem fine to me.

        “if your hypothesis is correct, then why did he design our moral nature such that it is heavily influenced by social interaction? If it’s a problem that our behavior would be influenced by some additional knowledge of God’s presence, what is the relevant distinction between that and the inherent pressure we experience as a result of the substantially more obvious presence of other humans who present substantially more obvious accountability for our behavior?”

        I argue that there should be a balance. There should be some understanding of God and how he wants us to live otherwise all as Paul implies we would have no fault for violating those laws.

        On the other hand, if God stands over us and every time we sin “There is .. burning of the skin, … horrible rash, … risk of deadly toxins entering the bloodstream.” then its hard to say how we really have free will. What such a life would accomplish seems even harder to discern.

        Now it’s possible that God could work with something like that. But for this blogger to claim that it is a clearly better counterfactual world, than the discomfort most feel from a guilty conscience, IMO demonstrates a rather crude understanding of the issues.

        Do things, like society, influence our moral beliefs for better and for worse? Yes indeed they do. I don’t think we can test our character if we don’t have temptations. And often those temptations will be supported by the society we live in as was the case with slavery and those who lived in other societies that did not teach God’s values. But by throwing us in a world where there is this balance of instruction and free will I think we will have many opportunities to judge what sort of people we really are. In this regard I really like to think think in terms of fighting the good fight and just keep trying.

      • Would you say that the ultimate goal of our moral freedom is to develop in us a virtuous character in which doing the right thing comes naturally?

        BTW, if I’m understanding correctly, you’re focused on the moral counterfactual because you don’t see God as revealing himself for the purpose of a personal relationship – correct? If so, I agree that those other considerations don’t apply to you.

  12. Hi Travis
    “Would you say that the ultimate goal of our moral freedom is to develop in us a virtuous character in which doing the right thing comes naturally?”

    I am not sure that is the ultimate goal. Like I said it is hard to know for sure what God’s intentions were. That along with helping us learn about ourselves is a viable option. Both suffer from the fact of infant deaths however.

    “BTW, if I’m understanding correctly, you’re focused on the moral counterfactual because you don’t see God as revealing himself for the purpose of a personal relationship – correct?”

    I think how God reveals himself is distinct from why he reveals himself. I think having a personal relationship – of sorts is a reason why he revealed himself. As a Christian I focus more on the moral revelation because that is what God focused on. He revealed himself as Christ and Christ dealt with moral issues. He did not focus on science at all. Presumably he could have taught us to build ipads centuries ago if that was his focus. But it clearly wasn’t.

    That said I don’t mean to to be overly negative about those who may see some signs of God in the created world. I can’t say how God reveals himself to others. Even I wonder how I got here and find it somewhat improbable that atoms bouncing around long enough could have caused everything I experience. But that said I am somewhat cautious of God of the gaps type arguments.

    Do you think these counterfactuals are really reverse God of the Gaps types of arguments?

    • Joe,
      I have to admit I’m having a little difficulty tracking things here, but perhaps that’s expected. A “skeptical theism” type of approach is pretty much immune to the counterfactual arguments – or any kind of argument, really – and that seems to be the general nature of your response. I’m not sure where we’d go on any of the other topics, so I’ll just address the “moral learning” argument. Even then, I’m not sure what an appropriate next step might be so I’ll just lay all my cards on the table and let you have at it.

      First, when I noted that our moral nature is inherently responsive to social context, my point was that our moral freedom is in fact constrained by the social pressures that arise from people whose existence and prospective accountability is extremely real to us; and it was presumably designed by God that way. So, it seems that there’s some distance between the moral freedom allowed by God’s less than evident revelation as we currently find it, and the moral freedom allowed simply by virtue of being a human living in a social world. In other words, it seems like God could be more evident without sacrificing our moral autonomy because we already see constraints on our moral autonomy which are more powerful than the restrictions imposed by knowledge of God’s existence.

      When I asked if the goal of our moral freedom was to give us opportunity to develop our moral character so that we’re naturally good, it was a leading question. The idea is that if the goal is development of a naturally virtuous character, then it seems bizarre that moral freedom would be so valuable because the ultimate result is one in which that freedom becomes increasingly irrelevant – where ‘doing the right thing’ is an essentially Pavlovian response. If that’s the end game, then why not just pre-wire us with that result and avoid all the transgressions and consequences that arise during the learning phase?

      Lastly, you’ll have to further explain the question about whether these arguments are a sort of reverse God of the gaps. There’s a few different ways I can see to interpret that question and I’m not sure what you mean.

      PS: You’ve mentioned a couple times that you disagree that God was ever trying to teach us science, but I was never supposing that the revelation would supply us with scientific knowledge. It was only a question of whether God has intended to reveal his existence to us as a byproduct of our study of the natural world (i.e., “natural theology”). It’s a fairly widespread view that we can discover God independent of a special revelation (a la Romans 1:20) in things like complexity, rationality, etc.. I see no problem if you reject that proposition and acknowledge that such a rejection entails that those arguments are irrelevant to you, but this does not negate the fact that such a view is quite prominent.

  13. “A “skeptical theism” type of approach is pretty much immune to the counterfactual arguments – or any kind of argument, really – and that seems to be the general nature of your response.”

    Ok I had to look up the term “skeptical theism” so I blame you for the fact that I learned something new today. 🙂

    I think we both agree that I am not a skeptical theist as that particular term is usually used – in response to the problem of evil. But am I a “type” of skeptical theist when it comes to things like God’s intentions or motivations? Yes, and I wish more theists were as well. It seems to me that theists often get off track when they state their speculation as if it should be Christian doctrine. But I don’t think I am immune to all arguments. I do try to address them as much as I know about God, but its true I admit there are limits to my knowledge of him.

    “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. Isaiah 55:8

    That said I do try to understand God and why he would do things. And I would agree that certain things in reality are evidence against his existence. It’s just that other arguments and evidence weigh in his favor.

    Yes I agree societal pressures effect our moral views. And one could argue they constrain them. Lots of things put pressure on our moral views. That is why I think there needs to be a balance. We have a conscience but we can let it lapse by societal and other pressures. I think this was mentioned in some of the history I read about the Nazis who were involved with the holocaust. At first in correspondence they did not want to go against their conscience but later they let society influence them and their conscience was dulled allowing them to shoot babies as if they were shooting skeet.

    But scripture makes it clear over and over that all the factors will be taken into account. God knows our thoughts and hearts. God knows what he has given each of us to deal with and will judge accordingly. The widow who gives all she has is treated as much more pious than the person who gives much but holds much back. The theme is present in so much of scripture it would be impossible for me to find all the verses.

    “When I asked if the goal of our moral freedom was to give us opportunity to develop our moral character so that we’re naturally good, it was a leading question. The idea is that if the goal is development of a naturally virtuous character, then it seems bizarre that moral freedom would be so valuable because the ultimate result is one in which that freedom becomes increasingly irrelevant – where ‘doing the right thing’ is an essentially Pavlovian response. If that’s the end game, then why not just pre-wire us with that result and avoid all the transgressions and consequences that arise during the learning phase?”

    I think there may be other reasons to for our moral freedom. Again this is my speculation and not to be interpreted as doctrine. But it is something I speculate about.

    1) So we can find out about ourselves – as in eternal our souls. If we were entirely prewired to act a certain way that purpose would not be served at all. Now presumably God could just tell us – “Joe if you grew up in pre ww2 Germany you would be shooting babies and now I will punish you.” But would I really know that is true based on that? It seems to me that our lives here are for our own benefit and learning about ourselves. God is showing us how we would act under various temptations by actually letting us experience them. And no he is not standing over us to instantly kill us with neurotoxin as soon as we sin.
    2) I think live this life in part so we appreciate heaven more. I am not sure someone can appreciate how good they have it unless they have some understanding of the bad. This reason is independent of reason for our being here.
    So those are 2 different plausible reasons God gives us life beside the one you offer (which is to help us to become naturally good). There are likely other possible reasons and some all or none of these reasons may have a role in God’s design.

    As far as God of the gaps I agree that can be interpreted quite broadly. But basically as I understand it goes science can not explain how this happened naturally therefore God. It seems you are saying God should have thrown a few more zingers in there. He should have made it so a few more things would be harder to explain naturally. But every time the theist engages that argument and claims we can’t explain this or that – it seems he is arguing god of the gaps.

    As far as Romans 1:20 I think that is fine. Either God had a hand in Creation or he did not. If he did then it may very well be that it really is impossible that all this came to be without him. If that is the case then indeed we are all staring at God’s creation even if the atheist refuses to see it.

    I certainly accept that and I believe we can come to believe in God outside of Special revelation. (Thomas Nagel is one philosopher who did this or at least comes close to a belief in God. Based on his understanding of evolution and other things including morality)

    In the end I agree with Romans 1:20 but it is one verse of the 27 books of the new testament. I do think many people spend more time than is warranted on that aspect. But that is just my hunch. I don’t study science more than casually so perhaps there is more to it.

    • Joe,
      Glad I could contribute to your education. Yes, I wasn’t suggesting that you are a skeptical theist on the whole – just that the responses had a bit of that flavor. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that kind of skepticism and would in fact applaud it as more honest than those who claim that they’ve somehow obtained special insight into the divine nature, whether that be through the Bible, nature, or a personal message. That said, the less specific we are about the nature of God, the less there is to discuss.

      I think there may be other reasons to for our moral freedom. … 1) So we can find out about ourselves – as in eternal our souls. If we were entirely prewired to act a certain way that purpose would not be served at all.

      I don’t think this is true. We would still learn about ourselves, it’s just that our natural inclinations would be shifted on the spectrum, just as there is already natural differences between psychopaths and philanthropists. We are already prewired – the moral freedom we have is relative to our predispositions. This wouldn’t change if we were, on the whole, “naturally better”.

      2) I think live this life in part so we appreciate heaven more. I am not sure someone can appreciate how good they have it unless they have some understanding of the bad.

      If we’re going to apply the type of differential conditioning that we experience on earth into our eternal state, then to be consistent you would also have to grant that this appreciation of heaven would reduce to insignifance in relatively short order. It’s the Hedonic Treadmill effect, and would be equally applicable in heaven unless you also argue that our psychology changes to prevent this so that there’s some sort of eternal stasis in our conditioning – but then the level of speculation increases that much more.

      Regarding God of the gaps arguments, I think the distinction lies in extent of the evidence. Taken to the extreme, every possible argument for the supernatural is an “x of the gaps” argument. A gap argument could actually be a very good argument against a view, such as naturalism (N), if there is substantial evidence that the data contradicts N. The probability of N would decrease, which means that the probability of ~N would increase. This is actually how science often progresses – somebody observes a gap that isn’t explained by current theory and so new theories are proposed and tested. The gap argument becomes problematic when there’s insufficient data to evaluate and this is taken to have the same probabilistic effect as contradictory data. Then it becomes even more problematic when the ~N portion of the probability distribution is populated with something arbitrary and untestable. I’m not sure I see how that would apply to these counterfactuals, which are taking a pre-existing claim (e.g., “God wants to reveal his existence to us through nature”) and suggesting that N is more consistent with our current reality than an alternative, conceivable reality, while ~N is more consistent with the alternative reality than the current reality. The result is that our current reality (in this particular case) is better evidence for N than for ~N. Of course, if you reject those claims then it doesn’t matter.

What do you think?

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