CPBD 007: Gregory Dawes – Theism and Explanation

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 15, 2009 in Podcast,Science

cpbd007

Today I interview Biblical scholar and philosopher Gregory Dawes about his book Theism and Explanation. My thanks to ex-apologist for the notice about Greg’s book, which prompted me to ask Greg for the interview.

Topics discussed include:

  • methodological naturalism
  • seeking the best explanation
  • intelligent design
  • Greg’s favorite Christian apologist, and his favorite atheistic argument

guest greg dawesDownload CPBD episode 007 with Gregory Dawes. Total time is 42:43.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Haecceitas May 17, 2009 at 11:57 am

I listened to this episode about an hour ago, so I don’t have any particular comment that I could reproduce verbatim in my mind, but I did get the impression that on few occasions you were comparing the explanatory merits of theism vs. natural sciences in general. If this happened in the context of ID, that would be perfectly legitimate. But my impression was that you made similar comments with regard to why you reject theism in general. So it seems to me that in that context, the comparison is a bit out of place. Shouldn’t you be comparing theism and metaphysical naturalism? It isn’t very obvious to me that metaphysical naturalism is superior to theism in terms of being committed to specific positions that yield testable predictions, etc.

With regard to the point about universe of indifference vs. theism as competing hypotheses that try to explain the existence of suffering, I’d disagree with the assessment that the former fits more naturally with the evidence of suffering, since suffering requires the existence of self-conscious beings that are capable of suffering and that’s hardly something that one could expect on the hypothesis of indifference.

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lukeprog May 17, 2009 at 2:23 pm

Haecceitas: It isn’t very obvious to me that metaphysical naturalism is superior to theism in terms of being committed to specific positions that yield testable predictions, etc.

Well, it is obvious to me. :)

Haecceitas: since suffering requires the existence of self-conscious beings that are capable of suffering and that’s hardly something that one could expect on the hypothesis of indifference.

The natural evolution of suffering-capable beings has much more evidence going for it than instant creation by magic does.

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Haecceitas May 17, 2009 at 11:04 pm

“Well, it is obvious to me.”

Is it obvious because it’s self-evident, or because of some reasons?

“The natural evolution of suffering-capable beings has much more evidence going for it than instant creation by magic does.”

The evolution of suffering-capable beings isn’t very good evidence for metaphysical naturalism all by itself. How is it that theism is dependent on there being instant creation? Magic? Well, I suppose you can define anything supernatural as magic, but that might be a bit misleading.

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lukeprog May 18, 2009 at 6:19 am

Haecceitas: Is it obvious because it’s self-evident, or because of some reasons?

No, I would never stoop so low as to just call my beliefs properly basic and therefore avoid giving justification for them. It’s the purpose of this blog to show exactly why metaphysical naturalism is a superior worldview to theism, in hundreds of ways. But that will take time.

Haecceitas: The evolution of suffering-capable beings isn’t very good evidence for metaphysical naturalism all by itself. How is it that theism is dependent on there being instant creation?

Natural evolution works against theism the same way a natural explanation for lightning does. God becomes a superfluous hypothesis once again, and is shaved off by Occam’s razor. You can always say, “Well, okay, lightning is caused by electrical charges, but it could still be God who invisibly and undetectably causes those electrical charges, which in turn cause lightning.” But I am not obliged to find that convincing.

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Haecceitas May 18, 2009 at 7:31 am

“No, I would never stoop so low as to just call my beliefs properly basic and therefore avoid giving justification for them.”

I could say that if you never do so, you’re caught in an infinite regress of justification. But perhaps I should be charitable and assume that you’re talking about your belief in metaphysical naturalism in particular.

“It’s the purpose of this blog to show exactly why metaphysical naturalism is a superior worldview to theism, in hundreds of ways. But that will take time.”

OK, that’s fair. Your blog seems very interesting, so I guess I’ll just have to stick around and see how you’ll develop your case in future blog posts & episodes. :)

However, would you at least either affirm or deny my claim that to set up science and theism as direct rivals is a questionable way to approach the question of the rationality of theism?


“Natural evolution works against theism the same way a natural explanation for lightning does.”

OK. I think I can accept the claim that naturalistic evolution is more or less on with the naturalistic explanation for lightning as a problem for theism. ;) In fact, I might even grant that it is very slightly more problematic.


“God becomes a superfluous hypothesis once again, and is shaved off by Occam’s razor.”

That might be true if you’re thinking of these issues in a compartmentalizing “divide and conquer” way. But I’d prefer to see theism as a way to conceptually unify one’s view of various aspects of reality by positing God as the reason and ground of everything else that exists.

But actually, just to return to the 2nd point in my original reply, I think that your first reply didn’t quite touch the point that I was getting at. If the competing hypotheses are theism and a universe of indifference, then presumably this is going to be a comparison of two a priori commitments. We shouldn’t smuggle things that we know on a posteriori basis into the hypothesis, and the existence of natural laws that permit evolution isn’t obvious or even particularly likely as an a priori. So the point remains that theism (the existence of a personal, all-powerful, all-knowing and perfectly good God) predicts at least a moderate probability for the existence of created sentient beings, whereas the existence of an indifferent universe would not by itself in any way predict that there should (with any probability) be sentient creatures.

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Lorkas May 18, 2009 at 7:58 am

Theism does not predict the origination of sentient life. The existence of God would not, by itself, predict the origination of sentient beings any more than the existence of an indifferent universe would. Presumably God didn’t have to create sentient beings, right?

Now it’s time for my science teacher soap box:

Generally (in science–the most proven means so far for finding out what is true about the universe), predictions of a hypothesis need to be observations that one would be surprised to make if the hypothesis were not true.

A surprising prediction for the theory of evolution is “all fossils should fit into a branching heirarchy.” There’s no reason for this to be true unless species are changing slowly over time in a branching pattern, so when we observe that each new fossil fits into the existing branching heirarchy, it counts as some evidence for evolution (although you have to be careful not to commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent, which is why science is always tentative). Other surprising predictions are “DNA and protein sequence differences will fall into a branching heirarchy” and “No true chimaeras (that is, living things that have different characteristics that are distinct to different branches of life, like a mammal that grows leaves or a fish that has mammalian hair) will be discovered”. When surprising predictions fail, they disprove the hypothesis (modus tollens), so it is important to

What surprising observations would Christian theism predict that come true? One might be “Prayers for health to the Christian God are more likely to be answered than prayers to Allah, Zeus, or the sun, or no prayer at all” but this doesn’t hold out under experimentation. This is, of course, enough scientific evidence to disprove the idea that the Christian God answers prayers (modus tollens), but not other aspects of Christianity.

“Sentient beings exist” is not a surprising prediction of Christian theism, since there are lots of other plausible explanations (including other religious ones) that seem to explain it at least as well.

I’m interested in hearing what surprising facts you think theism predicts, which are verified and not explained better by some other theory.

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Lorkas May 18, 2009 at 8:00 am

Somehow I lost part of a sentence at the end of the fourth paragraph. It should read, “[...] so it is important to explore all of the predictions that your hypothesis generates.”

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Haecceitas May 18, 2009 at 8:36 am

“Theism does not predict the origination of sentient life. The existence of God would not, by itself, predict the origination of sentient beings any more than the existence of an indifferent universe would. Presumably God didn’t have to create sentient beings, right?”

I used the expression “at least a moderate probability” precisely because of the not totally implausible scenario of a God that chooses not to create. However, if God chose to create, it does seem quite probable that his creation would include sentient creatures. On the other hand, I fail to see how the hypothesis of a universe of indifference (understood as a priori in the way I explained it) would predict even a moderate probability for the existence of sentient life.


“Generally (in science–the most proven means so far for finding out what is true about the universe), predictions of a hypothesis need to be observations that one would be surprised to make if the hypothesis were not true.”

I’m not talking about science. Neither theism nor metaphysical naturalism falls within science. I’m talking about philosophy where such standards are a bit unreasonable.


““Sentient beings exist” is not a surprising prediction of Christian theism, since there are lots of other plausible explanations (including other religious ones) that seem to explain it at least as well.

I’m interested in hearing what surprising facts you think theism predicts, which are verified and not explained better by some other theory.”

Nothing that I can think of right now, if you’re insisting that there can’t be other non-naturalistic hypotheses that would predict the same facts. However, I doubt that such predictions can be derived from the hypothesis of metaphysical naturalism either. The standard is just too high for such fundamental philosophical questions.

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Lorkas May 18, 2009 at 8:53 am

Haecceitas: However, if God chose to create, it does seem quite probable that his creation would include sentient creatures.

Why think this?

I already gave an example of a surprising prediction made in the Bible–God answers prayers of healing. This prediction is not borne out by the evidence, though.

A surprising prediction of naturalism related to prayer might be, “All prayers will be answered at roughly the same rate, no matter what the prayer was directed towards.”

Obviously there are a few surprising predictions of Christianity that can’t be verified yet, like “Jesus will return to Earth to rule for 1,000 years some time in the future.” I don’t know why anyone would not believe in the face of this evidence.

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Haecceitas May 18, 2009 at 9:19 am

“Why think this?”

Goodness is part of the definition of God. A good God would want to bring about the existence of good states of affairs, and the existence of free, rational sentient creatures is a good state of affairs.

Obviously, this line of reasoning presupposes that we have some insight as to what is good, but the same is presupposed in the argument from evil (which was part of the context of this discussion).

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Lorkas May 18, 2009 at 10:16 am

Haecceitas: the existence of free, rational sentient creatures is a good state of affairs.

This is an opinion commonly expressed by sentient creatures, but I’m not sure that it’s clear that the existence of sentient beings is better than their nonexistence. Obviously I would prefer that I be alive than not alive, but certainly that is a biased opinion, and I’m sure not everyone shares it.

How could we possibly make an objective judgement about whether it is better for sentient beings to exist or not? It sounds to me like you’re bringing a lot of unstated philosophical assumptions into your argument.

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Haecceitas May 18, 2009 at 11:06 am

Well, let’s put it this way. Theism is the hypothesis that there exists a God that is perfect in his goodness and also conscious and rational (perhaps sentient, depending on one’s exact definition of that term). Therefore, it’s pretty reasonable to infer if theism is true, it’s also true that the existence of beings that are conscious & rational is good.

Even if you think of this as a kind of bias rather than objective fact, it’s presumably a “bias” that God would have, given that (ex hypothesi) he’s conscious & rational.

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Lorkas May 18, 2009 at 11:38 am

You still aren’t providing a valid argument here.

Assuming God exists and is perfect in goodness and rationality, it does not follow that God would create sentient life. Perhaps you have an argument that demonstrates how this prediction follows, but I’m afraid I don’t see it.

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Haecceitas May 18, 2009 at 12:32 pm

If the most perfect being is conscious and rational, doesn’t that imply at least inductively that consciousness and rationality are good? And as we noted, God would want to bring about good states of affairs.

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Lorkas May 18, 2009 at 12:52 pm

It might imply that it is good for God (defined as the best possible being) to be conscious and rational, but it does not imply that it would be better for other conscious beings to exist as well. Perhaps the “best” state of affairs is the pure existence of one perfectly good being as the only decision-maker in existence, in which case we would predict that God would never create sentient beings.

It also does not imply that an imperfectly reasoning being is better than a being that does not engage in active reasoning. Bacteria certainly have reasoning of a basic sort, but it’s entirely hard-wired by evolution rather than computed by a brain. It could very well be true that active computational reasoning is only a “good” trait if it is done perfectly well.

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Jeff H May 18, 2009 at 1:25 pm

I’m going to have to agree with Lorkas on this one. Why would the existence of a good, conscious-and-rational being imply that consciousness and rationality in themselves are good? You’re committing the fallacy of division here. What’s true of the whole is not necessarily true of each of its parts. Moreover, one could certainly make the argument that having too many sentient beings around is generally a bad thing – it gives too many opportunities for people to screw things up, and even co-operate to screw things up more than they could individually.

I’ll put it another way just to drive this home. Following your reasoning, I could argue, “It’s a good thing that I exist. Therefore, it is better if more than one of me exist. And it’s best if an infinite number of me exist.” Sometimes “goodness” hits a maximum and then decreases. I think that one of me is more than enough for this universe…so it doesn’t follow that since one sentient being exists, therefore sentience is a good thing in itself, and that more sentient beings should exist.

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Haecceitas May 18, 2009 at 1:36 pm

If the most perfect being is personal & rational, then all things being equal, it’s probably better to be personal & rational than not. Otherwise the most perfect being would not be non-personal & non-rational.

It’s certainly possible that there are overriding reasons whichmake it true that the attributes of personal & rational wouldn’t be  good overall in created beings, but in the absence of specific reasons, this should be seen as less likely. (Especially given that the choice is not between creating just personal or just impersonal entities — creating both would be a reasonable option.)

Again, remember that I’m only making a comparative judgement. The comparison is to the hypothesis of a universe of indifference (without assuming things like evolution-permitting natural laws a priori). It’s hard to quantify such probabilities as these, but I can only say that in comparative terms, it seems to me that theism would seem to make the existence of such sentient creatures more probable. As long as the probability of such creatures is low on the universe of indifference, it isn’t enough to just argue that on theism, there are few reasonable alternative possibilities like preference for not creating or overriding reasons for not creating rational & personal beings.

Your point about imperfections is worth taking into consideration, but there are various counterarguments that I can think of. For one thing, one could appeal to the value of variety. If there exist various kinds of created beings with various finite quantities of intelligence (and other properties), this might be better than just having such creatures of one kind. Also, as long as there’s the problem of personal evil to be dealt with, it isn’t obvious at all that greater intelligence would only result in greater good. While various arguments and counterarguments of this type can be made, it’s probably more fruiful to consider them in the context of a more detailed hypothesis than the mere existence of the God of philosophical theism (for example, Christian theism). But that would take us quite far from the original topic.

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Haecceitas May 18, 2009 at 1:48 pm

My previous reply was to Lorkas. This one is to Jeff H.

“I’m going to have to agree with Lorkas on this one. Why would the existence of a good, conscious-and-rational being imply that consciousness and rationality in themselves are good? You’re committing the fallacy of division here. What’s true of the whole is not necessarily true of each of its parts.”

I’m not arguing for necessary truth. My argument is much more modest than that. Many of the so-called logical fallacies are in fact only fallacious in deductive rather than inductive reasoning. (One could accuse the scientific method of being based on the fallacy of affirming the consequent, but that would be silly, given that it’s not deductive.)

“I’ll put it another way just to drive this home. Following your reasoning, I could argue, “It’s a good thing that I exist. Therefore, it is better if more than one of me exist. And it’s best if an infinite number of me exist.” Sometimes “goodness” hits a maximum and then decreases. I think that one of me is more than enough for this universe…so it doesn’t follow that since one sentient being exists, therefore sentience is a good thing in itself, and that more sentient beings should exist.”

I’m not quite sure that this is parallel to my argument in any relevant sense. However, one could certainly make the argument (as people who don’t commit suicide implicitly do) that it’s better to exist than to not exist. If it is in fact good in some objective sense that you exist, this would seem to fit in the most simple way into a value framework that gives some positive value to existence in more general terms than just in the case of one particular being (you).

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Haecceitas May 18, 2009 at 1:53 pm

Oops. I wrote:

“If the most perfect being is personal & rational, then all things being equal, it’s probably better to be personal & rational than not. Otherwise the most perfect being would not be non-personal & non-rational.”

Obviously, the last sentence should be: “Otherwise the most perfect being would not be personal & rational.”

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lukeprog May 18, 2009 at 1:56 pm

Haecceitas: I could say that if you never do so, you’re caught in an infinite regress of justification.

Only if I’m a foundationalist. To be honest, I’m not sure if I’m a foundationalist or coherentist, or something else. Right now I tend to think that the only beliefs that I accept as “properly basic” are those that literally cannot be wrong, for example “I am now having series of sensations that I interpret as a chair,” but not, for example, “A chair exists before me.” If there is a theory of justification that has no infinite regress, I’m not aware of it, but it seems to me the only way to cut off the regress is when we get to something that literally cannot be false. Our “apprehension” of God or moral values or other minds or the external world do not qualify.

Haecceitas: would you at least either affirm or deny my claim that to set up science and theism as direct rivals is a questionable way to approach the question of the rationality of theism?

Oh, indeed. Theism and science are not always at odds. I never meant to imply that.

If the competing hypotheses are theism and a universe of indifference, then presumably this is going to be a comparison of two a priori commitments. We shouldn’t smuggle things that we know on a posteriori basis into the hypothesis, and the existence of natural laws that permit evolution isn’t obvious or even particularly likely as an a priori. So the point remains that theism (the existence of a personal, all-powerful, all-knowing and perfectly good God) predicts at least a moderate probability for the existence of created sentient beings, whereas the existence of an indifferent universe would not by itself in any way predict that there should (with any probability) be sentient creatures.

Right, so this is the fine-tuning argument. I do indeed try to “divide and conquer” for clarity’s sake, but the strength of Draper’s argument from evil needs to be weighed against the strength of theistic arguments, obviously. I think that this theistic argument is very weak, and I will eventually get around to explaining why in some posts. :)

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