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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Richard Carrier : Ten Things Wrong with Cosmological Creationism

Ten Things Wrong with Cosmological Creationism (2000)

Richard Carrier


A short series of exchanges on cosmological creationism which largely transpired in our August and October feedback pages touched upon every issue that I have often visited and continue to visit in my discussions with creationists. In this essay, I now present several objections which I believe are fatal to the brand of cosmological creationism which is most often defended by people who approach me in private e-mail or in a public forum. Versions of similar arguments given by various scholars have already been addressed by others in the Secular Web's selection of essays on the Cosmological Argument. It is important to note that although I often refer to creationists as a group, it is not the case that all creationists make all the same mistakes I report here. Rather, I usually find at least one of these errors in each creationist argument I encounter, and for creationists to have a chance of changing my mind on this issue, they must first avoid all ten of these errors in any argument they present.

Mr. Walker's Reasons for Being a Creationist

My defense of creationism as the explanation for the universe and all it's contents was based upon the science of statistical probability. Even a cursory glance at most dictionaries will define probability as "likely to happen or probable." This does not mean 100% but simply that something is most likely to have happened. My point was that when we look at the numbers involved re: the 40 or so parameters that science has identified as being required for any kind of life, then the odds are that life didn't just happen but was an intentional act.
There is nothing unreasonable about this approach, and if we were talking about any other subject but God I suspect that those types of odds would be accepted without question. Just for the heck of it, let's look at some numbers. Some years ago, molecular biophysicist Harold Morowitz calculated the odds of a cell assembling under ideal natural conditions. If we took the simplest living cell and broke every chemical bond within, then the chances of reassembling would be 1 in 10 to the power of 100,000,000,000. We cannot begin to imagine a number like this. The age of the universe no longer matters. Put another way, which of us would not buy a lottery ticket if these were our chances of not winning? We would all be at the corner 7-11 store buying it right now so great would our faith be!!
[Ted Drange] fail[s] to address how the universe that we know came to be. Whether or not our universe is "special" is irrelevant. We are simply concerned with how it came to be. Supposing there were 100 other universes that we knew of, we would still be in the same position of trying to explain their existence. In conclusion, let me say that I found Mr. Drange "grasping at the proverbial straw." Instead of giving me statistics refuting my position, he left me pondering a series of vague speculations such as: "if physicists were able to come up with a plausible theory of origins" or they are "attempting to construct such a theory." Again, "if there were a very large number of universes apart from our own" and "...various other kinds of universes that might have existed..." In other words, there must be some other explanation for existence. It can't be (gasp) God!
Warrick Walker
Calgary, Alberta, Canada - Wednesday, August 18, 1999

My Initial Response

The Harold Morowitz calculation is invalid. See the heading for Morowitz in my essay on the Odds of Life. And your criticism is self-refuting. If we posit a god, we would still be in the same position of trying to explain his existence. Anything sufficient to explain a god's existence will also apply to the universe, or at least the physical principles of the universe which give it form and motion, and thus there is no reason for the added element of a god.[1] It seems to me that it is theists who are "grasping at the proverbial straw" when they appeal to God and then end all inquiry. At least physicists are doing something to test their theories. That is not grasping at straws.[2] That is called putting your money where your mouth is. When will we see theists do this?
As for the "40 or so parameters" that science has identified as being required for any kind of life [emphasis added], you are crediting the wrong people. Science has not identified these things. Creationists have. And they often get their science hopelessly wrong. See my discussion of the teleological argument in my review of In Defense of Miracles. The fact is that most of the "parameters" are not the parameters required for any kind of intelligent life to evolve, but only the parameters within which human life can survive, and that is not the same thing. The remaining "parameters" are such that we cannot even know what the odds of them are. Creationists assume any value is equally likely, but anyone who studied statistics would know that this does not follow--even if we "assume" (and we would have to assume, because we do not know) that other values for these parameters were possible (and are not dependent on each other in any way), we do not know what range of values were possible, whether that range is a span in which every value is equally likely, or whether it fits a bell-curve distribution of relative probability, or a chi-square distribution, and we have no clue, consequently, where on any of these probability curves the actual parameters fall. So any argument built on this huge stream of blind assumptions is a house of cards.

Mr. Walker's Rebuttal

As to your reply to my previous article, I am a little perplexed. You seem to be saying that only Richard Carrier is capable of doing correct and accurate calculations. With one sweeping statement you have discredited the life-long work of such respected scientists as Fred Hoyle, Harold Morowitz, Hubert Yockey, Tippler, et al. Of course this is preposterous. I suggest you reexamine their work (all of it) and see what conclusion you come up with. Julian Huxley, that bastion of the theory of evolution, once calculated the odds of the evolution of the horse were 1 in 1000 to the power of 1,000,000. He then went on to admit that no one would ever bet on anything so improbable. See his book Evolution in Action for more on this. For some reason, we are expected to disregard the figures of all these great minds (as well as many more not mentioned) in favor of Richard Carrier, who apparently knows something they don't?
As appealing to statistics seems to be ineffective with you, I just ask that you consider Einstein and Hawking, arguably the two most competent men in their field. Both came to the same conclusion, namely that the universe had a primary cause. Einstein grudgingly acknowledged "the necessity for a beginning" and "the presence of a superior reasoning power." Or as Hawking put it,"These laws of physics may have been originally decreed by God, but it appears that he has since left the universe to evolve according to them and does not intervene in it." In short, both acknowledge a creator, but one that is impersonal and unknowable. More on this below.
As to "proving" God's existence, I believe you have things in reverse. As reasoning creatures, it is enough for us to see that the world around us is not the product of random chance, but a deliberate act of creation, whereby we can be confident there exists a creator responsible for this. Having to explain God's existence, as you put it, is setting up a straw man. This is simple cause and effect. The effect (i.e. the universe) is the result of a cause (GOD). Indeed, when I look at the wondrous universe that surrounds me, I have no problem in accepting a being that I can't fully explain. In short, we can easily apprehend God without completely comprehending Him.
I believe that the universe provides an interesting (though by no means perfect) analogy here in the shape of black holes. We are only "aware" of their existence by means of observing other phenomena. We have never, and may never, actually observed a black hole directly due to it's peculiar characteristics. Most people today accept their existence, yet have never seen one let alone interacted with one in any way. Yet, can we say with absolute, 100% certainty that black holes exist? No! Do we have good reason to believe in their existence? Yes! I believe that a similar case is easily made for the God of the Bible. Naturally, as a Christian I believe 100% in God's existing. This is for the sake of analogy only.
As to the second part of your reply, you are making three basic mistakes. First, that simply because someone is a theist he is incapable of being objective. It is a well documented fact that some of the best evidence for the holocaust comes from Jewish sources, the victims of this horrible time in our history. According to your logic, no victim of a crime should be able to testify because of their "bias." Of course this is an unreasonable point of view and as such a non-starter. Secondly, you ignore the Fact that many non-theist scientists have identified numerous "parameters" based solely on the evidence, their theological construct not withstanding. Evidence for this position can be found in places such as Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union symposium #63, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 22, etc. Thirdly, your statement re: most of the parameters are relevant as to human life only is demonstrably false. Fred Hoyle in the late 70'S and early 80"s "discovered that an incredible fine-tuning of the nuclear ground state energies for helium, beryllium, carbon, and oxygen was necessary for any kind of life to exist." Other examples can be cited if you require them. In short, the "objections" at the end of your article fall far short when we take the views of the experts in the field into account. The weight of both secular and nonsecular scholarship clearly supports the idea of a deliberate cause by an intelligent designer to explain the existence of the universe around us.
Finally, as noted above, both Einstein and Hawking accept that a "creator" was responsible for the universe. They maintain, however, that this creator is impersonal and unknowable. I believe this is where the "atheist movement" misses the mark. If someone wants to argue that God is not personally involved in our daily lives, then fine. Let's open a serious dialog on this issue. However, to deny a deliberate act of creation by a Creator in the face of all the evidence seems to be stretching credulity to the limit.
Warrick Walker
Calgary, Alberta, Canada - Sunday, October 10, 1999

My Ten Point Response

Mr. Walker makes a lucid, convincing case. I believe it is precisely because such reasonings seem so sound that many are misled into creationist beliefs. As I examine the fallacies and problems in these arguments, I will preface my responses with some generalizations that go beyond Mr. Walker's position.

1. The Fallacy of Appeal to Authority

Creationists tend to want it both ways: they can say that 99% of the scientific experts are wrong, but won't let us say what is even more reasonable--namely, that it is the other 1% who are wrong. Worse, when creationists do appeal to the few authorities they have chosen to trust, they very often--all too often--misquote them.
With regard to my Odds of Life essay, I do not claim that only I can be right. To the contrary, I acknowledge that nearly half the statistics discussed there are correct in their contexts, and instead note how they are misused by other authors. The abused authors are Salisbury, Quastler, Sagan, Charles-Eugene Guye, Morowitz, Prigogine, Eden, and Küppers--none of whom made any calculations about the improbability of just "any" life arising by chance, yet are routinely quoted as doing so. More on this in Point Two below.
But what about the other authors? The first and most important thing everyone should be taught in high school mathematics is that statistics are routinely abused in every field, or misemployed by those who have an agenda, or lack ability, so we should not be surprised to find a lot of this sort of error, everywhere--not just in the creationism debate. Indeed, whenever statistics come up in any venue, we should always be at our most skeptical. And even more so in the present case. For we should expect something is up when the information needed for a correct statistical calculation doesn't even exist. We do not know what the protobiont was made of or how complex it was, nor do we know how many possible protobionts that can be manufactured chemically, yet both must be known before any calculation of the probability of the origin of life can be made. The fact that several authors go ahead and do such a calculation anyway should set off alarm bells--honest or competent people don't do that. They must have some motive other than the presentation of an objective discovery--for they have not discovered the nature of the protobiont or any other useful fact, but merely decided it by unjustified fiat. This is subjective, not objective, and thus most prone to error and bias, deliberate or not.
Observe that of the ten other authors who actually generate what I argue are bogus statistics, in order to make an argument against some form of natural creation (Yockey, Hoyle, Barrow, Tipler, Coppedge, Bradley, Thaxton, Schroeder, Morris, and Overman), only one (Yockey) presented his material in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. He actually believes in natural causes for life's origin, as does Hoyle; the rest are creationists. Yet even his paper had the self-proclaimed agenda to prove that "belief in little green men in outer space is purely religious" (those are his very words--not the words of an objective scholar) in order to advocate a shift in funding from astronomy to his own field, biology--he thus has a parochial and financial objective, as well as an ideological axe to grind. Moreover, Yockey's work is still misquoted and abused by other authors, as I note (he does not even generate a statistic or make any absolute declarations about odds), and he professionally qualifies himself in his book to the extent of admitting that a natural origin is possible (e.g. by allowing that a 56-amino-acid replicator is possible, and that uniform chirality could be deterministic). As for the rest of my criticisms, of Yockey and the others, readers can judge them for themselves.
In the end I do not see how creationists like Mr. Walker think it is "with one sweeping statement" that I discredit these authors--my critical essay is over 13,000 words long. Walker typifies the creationist in that he has not made any direct challenge to any argument I make there, nor advanced any defense of any statistical calculation made by these authors. "They must know what they are doing" is not an argument--experts are not infallible. We are all allowed, even obligated, to investigate their evidence and arguments to see if they are sound--as all creationists certainly must agree if they are willing to accept that the vast majority of scientific experts are wrong about evolution, as they do. So creationists should not try appeals to authority in this subject--if truth were determined by polling the experts, the creationists would lose. It is fortunate for them that such an appeal is inherently fallacious anyway.

2. The Fallacy of the Misquoted Source

Misquoting or abusing sources is a woefully common practice among creationists, indeed this is arguably among the most common mistakes of fact that they make. Mr. Walker is a model example, claiming Morowitz said something he didn't, by subtly altering the context of the Morowitz calculation. I suspect Mr. Walker has not read Morowitz, but has fallen victim to a misrepresentation made by a creationist author in whom Walker is placing too much trust. Whether his source is guilty of dishonesty or incompetence is of less concern than the simpler fact that his source has it wrong.
I point out in my essay on the Odds of Life that Morowitz's calculation was invalid not because it was wrong, but because it was not about the origin of life--in other words, his calculation is misquoted and misused [I have rewritten the paragraph slightly to make this more clear, presuming that Mr. Walker read it but didn't catch this]. The calculation was about what would happen to life in a system at thermal equilibrium, which was not the condition of things on Earth when life began--or ever. Morowitz himself would be shocked at how his calculation is snatched out of context and portrayed as being set, in Walker's words, "under ideal natural conditions." The exact opposite is the case: equilibrium is the least ideal condition any living system can be found in. Yet Walker, like many other well-meaning creationists, fails to investigate the context. He trusts his sources too much. A healthier dose of doubt, and some modest research, would have saved him the grief.
Ignoring the warning, Mr. Walker persists in this error and does it again when he cites Julian Huxley. I have appended a paragraph on that quote to the essay above. If Mr. Walker had bothered to examine the quote itself, in its actual context (pp. 45-9 of the Harper & Brothers 1953 edition of Evolution in Action), he would have seen how irrelevant it is to what he is arguing. No one claims that any horse spontaneously formed out of the dust, and the factual evidence of a continuity of evolution disproves such a notion. So such a number tells us nothing about the odds of the first life forming naturally, and Huxley specifically says that the odds he calculates are not the odds against a horse evolving through natural selection, but the odds of a horse arising without evolution through natural selection. He then proves that the horse is far from improbable given the action of natural selection (pp. 55-62). The fact that Mr. Walker didn't bother to check this, and then gullibly believed this statistic was an argument against natural design of the horse, only demonstrates the kind of inadequate research which typifies almost all the creationists I have so far encountered. If they only took the trouble to put more rigor and skepticism in their researching of sources they would see the light at the end of the tunnel.

3. The Fallacy of Appeal to Reverence

Creationists are often fond of pointing eagerly to "respected" scientists who are believers in god, whether it be Newton or Paul Davies, saying "see, these smart, educated guys believe, so you should, too!" The rationale is that such men have examined the evidence much more closely and with greater knowledge and skill than anyone else, so "naturally" their conclusions should be respected. The fallacy lies in supposing that the study of any science, even physics, grants someone authority in the matter of theology, and that they have actually thought seriously, correctly and at length on the subject--neither assumption is justified. It also sets up a double-standard. There are actually many more respected scientists who are atheists.[3] If we are supposed to respect their opinion as better informed than ours, then we should be atheists, not theists. But as it happens, the whole "appeal to reverence" is a fallacy--these men's opinions are not guarantees of truth. Even their peer-reviewed, carefully-controlled research can end up wrong, and their belief in God is a far cry from the conclusion of peer-reviewed, carefully controlled research.
But it is most ridiculous to cite Einstein and Hawking as supporting belief in a "creator" not only because, as I've noted, it is vain to appeal to the opinions of admired men (why should Einstein know more about God than Carl Sagan?), but even more importantly because neither has declared the idea of a creator to be a necessary conclusion from anything, and both have stated point blank that it as likely as not that there is no intelligent creator. Einstein said that there is in "the scheme that is manifested in the material universe...neither a will nor a goal, nor a must, but only sheer being" (Albert Einstein: The Human Side, Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, eds., Princeton University Press, 1979, pp. 69-70) and declared that "I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of 'humility'" (ibid. p. 39). Finally, he declared that "to inquire after the meaning or object of one's own existence or of creation generally has always seemed to me absurd from an objective point of view," thus denying that anyone, least of all him, can conclude that a creator exists (The World as I See It, Philosophical Library, New York, 1949, pp. 1-2). Elsewhere in that same book he writes, "I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves." This soundly refutes the creationist misrepresentation of Einstein as supporting belief in a creator, as weak as such an argument from authority already is.
Hawking's views are fundamentally similar. Far from concluding or acknowledging a creator, as even Mr. Walker's quote shows Hawking says only that the laws of physics may have been decreed by a now-absent deity (A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, Bantam Books, New York, 1988, p. 122), and he admits that there are coherent and possible physical theories, to which he is personally attracted, in which the universe "would not be created, not be destroyed; it would simply be. What place, then, for a Creator?" (ibid. p. 136, cf. 141, 174). Hawking also doubts the existence of a creator on the grounds that this leaves unexplained where the creator came from, and above all he does not believe "this whole vast construction exists simply for our sake" (ibid. p. 126). Thus, Hawking does not "acknowledge" the existence of a creator--he is adamantly agnostic about the issue. For more on his take, see "Stephen Hawking's Cosmology and Theism" and "Stephen Hawking and the Mind of God."

4. The Composition Fallacy

When it comes to errors of reasoning, creationists are most typically guilty of the composition fallacy, which as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy is "the error of arguing from a property of parts of a whole to a property of the whole, e.g., 'the important parts of this machine are light; therefore this machine is light" (s.v. "informal fallacy"). What is troublesome is that creationists are so blind to this fallacy in their thinking that they actually think it is their best argument, as we see in Mr. Walker's own enthusiasm for it.
The fact is that there is nothing "simple" about a proposed theory of cause and effect in which the cause has never even been seen and is merely supposed, and the "effect" is not even proven to be an effect of anything in the first place. All real cause-effect theories come from thousands of controlled observations of an isolated cause followed by its characteristic effect--it is a description of the inner workings of isolated physical systems. I don't know about you, but I have never seen a universe begin. I do not even know if it had an absolute beginning. No one knows this. In fact, scientists actually believe that it is possible that mass-energy as a whole can never begin or end (the First Law of Thermodynamics states this), but even if it can, even though we have ample proof that units of mass-energy function under a cause-effect relationship with each other, we have no proof that this property of the parts extends to the whole--every atom is low in mass, but the universe is not low in mass; likewise, every atom obeys the laws of cause and effect, but for all we know the whole of all the atoms and the space and time in which they move might not. The universe consists of a set quantity of mass-energy, space and time, and certain forms of regular behavior. But all these are categorically different from anything that we describe in terms of cause and effect, and thus we have no grounds for extending our generalization about causes to the universe itself. Is the law of gravity "caused" to be what it is? How can anyone know? No one has ever seen a law of physics caused. Was time "caused" to exist? This seems an odd question, and it is certainly unanswerable.
Creationists think they know the answers to these things--they think it is "simple" or "obvious" that the whole must have the same properties as its parts--but they cannot justify this, because there is no definite link between the two. For a detailed example of this fallacy tripping up another creationist, see the July feedback, and a follow-up in August. Even Mr. Walker must agree that it is a bit silly to extend the properties of cause-effect to the very space and time in which causation occurs--after all, atoms on the one hand and time on the other are very different animals, with many other fundamental differences. We have a perfect analogy with a map: every mark on the map is made of ink. Does it follow that the map is made of ink? Certainly not. Like marks on a map, causes are only, as far as we know, things that happen in space-time, and not necessarily things that happen to space-time. Likewise, we only know that causes are things that happen to already-existing matter-energy. We do not know if causes are the things that create matter-energy. So the question of whether "it" began at all, or what "began" it is thus beyond our ken, and is even still little more than the object of pure speculation by physicists. But at least they are honest--they do not proclaim certainty, but propose testable ideas and then test them. So far, the ability to decisively test any theory, even the Big Bang theory in general, has been exceptionally limited. Is Inflation Theory correct? Maybe. Who knows? And if scientists cannot even be sure about that, a theory which makes testable predictions and is partly deducible from proven physical principles, how on earth can anyone be any more sure about theism, which makes far fewer predictions and is even more weakly deductible from the known facts?

5. The Fallacy of Self-Refutation

Another typical feature of creationist arguments is their readiness to adopt a position that is self-refuting. Since they expect there to be no reason to ask for the cause of God, it follows that there is no reason to expect a cause for all that exists--for to suppose that everything must have a cause is to suppose that something caused God. If nothing caused God, then it is possible for something to exist without a cause, refuting the premise that "everything has a cause." If "everything has a cause" is false, then the argument from causation fails. If the line of causation is ever to stop (and there is no logically necessary reason why it must), it may as well stop with all that exists: the cosmos. Whatever property allows God to exist without cause can just as well be a property of the universe instead, and creationists simply cannot refute that possibility. Mr. Walker completely misunderstands this central flaw in his reasoning, to the extent that he accuses me of building a straw man against him. But this is yet further evidence of how much creationists don't understand the consequences and premises of their own arguments. A proper use of syllogistic logic as a test for all their deductions and inferences would help them avoid relying on self-refuting arguments like this one.
The sorts of mistakes that lead to an over-reliance on such arguments are manifold, but consider the false dichotomy Mr. Walker builds: the universe, which is clearly intricately ordered "is not the product of random chance, but a deliberate act of creation, whereby we can be confident there exists a creator responsible for this." But there is a third option that Mr. Walker omits, for intelligent creation is not the only possible cause for order. The universe may be a necessary thing--that is, it was not produced by chance or design, but could not have not existed, and could not have been any different than it is. Mr. Walker already believes this is possible--for he believes it of his God--and if it is possible for his God, it is just as possible for the universe alone. Self-refutation yet again. But even this trilemma is false, for it could be any combination of any of these three factors--maybe some god designed some of it, maybe several gods collaborated on it, and perhaps he or they were constrained by laws which are necessarily always the case (like geometry), and at the same time he or they were unable to prevent some randomness from featuring in the result. Or maybe there is no God, but some necessary things and some random things which combined to make our universe. Indeed, logically, god could have created a billion universes, each time waiting for a random result that suited him--or there could be a billion gods, each with his own "science project" universe. Logically, the possibilities are endless. And some are very persuasive, since they actually make predictions that come true, such as Taoism, which predicts a universe that has no concern for human values, and lo and behold, that's just the universe we find ourselves in. Thus, there is no way we can be "confident" that an intelligent creator exists. To the contrary, given the state of things, there are reasons to prefer naturalistic explanations for the existence and nature of the universe: at the very least, simplicity and historical precedent.
In fact, it gets worse when we consider the possibility that the creator no longer exists--imagine a lonely god who has a choice, to live alone, or to die, and in dying create a universe from his exploding "corpse" which will have populations of people who can then live the god's lost dream of knowing love and never being alone. Perhaps the god stays alive, so he can share in this love, but is powerless, having given up his body for the creation of a universe. This is plausible, coherent, logical, and actually better explains things--it perfectly explains how god can be good and yet silent and inactive, how the universe can function so cold and mechanically and deterministically, how humans can be so confused, divided, and uncertain about god's nature or thoughts, etc. Indeed, this theory explains everything, far better than any actual creationist theory proposed today. By all sense and reason, this theory should be adopted by creationists--yet they adhere to a weaker theory, oblivious to the self-refuting character of declarations like that of Mr. Walker when he writes "when I look at the wondrous universe that surrounds me, I have no problem in accepting a being that I can't fully explain" and yet fails to see how the atheist, with just as much right if not more, can and does say exactly the same thing--but the "being" the atheist sees and can't fully explain is the universe itself. How much simpler this is--it requires adding nothing to what we see or know. Instead, creationists refuse to accept "a being that they can't fully explain" (the universe) and because of their refusal are compelled to invent a god to provide the explanation that they insist is necessary. They don't notice that they then do a complete about-face, and act in an exact opposite manner when it comes time to explain their god. Inconsistency is the creationist's hobgoblin.

6. The Fallacy of the Vacuous Theory

The most crushing problem with creationism is that it is an empty theory. As for why the universe has the particular features it does, this is not even explained by positing a deity--for we are still left to wonder why this organization instead of something else. Why a quantum universe instead of a continuity of energy? Why a universe that is mostly lethal vacuum and radiation? Why carbon-based life, instead of silicon? Why do we breathe oxygen instead of carbon dioxide or sulfur, or flubber or chi for that matter? Why not a steady-state universe? Why gravity or electricity or atoms? To say that any of these things is necessary is to admit that it would be so even if a God did not make it so, and thus we cease to need God to explain it. But if any of these things is unnecessary, which theory has the best chance of explaining why these particular features instead of others? Does theism offer any hope? No. It offers no clues. It doesn't even try. It says, in effect, "Look, I'm just here to explain order, any order, and nothing more." But that is useless. Does natural physics offer more? Yes. It has already made huge strides in explaining all these things. But if natural physics can one day explain everything about why the universe is the way it is, there is again no need for a God as explanation. Maybe one day we will end up with God at the end of our investigations, but right now there is little encouraging news.
While the creationist thinks God explains the "fine tuning" of the universe, he fails to see that every possible universe which can contain intelligent life will appear "fine tuned" no matter what its cause, and what must instead be explained is why this balanced set of conditions rather than some other--or why a universe has to have such an intricate and complex balanced structure of arcane principles and particles in the first place. One wonders if the gravitational constant is different in Heaven--and if it is not present there, why is it present here? If people can live in a Heaven without atoms, why have atoms at all? Finally, the gravitational constant is neither explained nor predicted by the theory that God exists. Nor is the vacuum of space, the quantized nature of energy, the existence and properties of atoms and molecules, the poor design of our backbones, why we have two arms instead of four, the reason for plagues or the reason we are unable to see in the infrared or ultraviolet--nothing we find in the universe is explained or predicted by this theory. The only "thing" creationists refer to as a prediction is "order" in a general and undefined sense--but order can be caused by any number of things, as even they must admit, for God's own being is ordered, yet to them it is uncaused by a god. Thus, even the creationists agree that order can be caused or can exist without a creator. So why do they think order entails one?
Instead of seeking to make predictions and then testing them, instead of simplifying the theory to just what is needed to predict only what we observe, theistic creationism aims at justifying itself, usually in spite of observation. More than any other theory about the universe, it is almost entirely comprised of excuses as to why it does not appear to fit experience (see my discussion of this in regard to theism in general at the end of my essay on Proving a Negative). What, then, does God explain? Order. First cause. A few other things, like objective moral values and miracles. But God is not logically needed to explain order, or a first cause, and we have no direct empirical evidence of such a connection either. Morals I have addressed in part in an essay on the basis for moral values, and miracles in my Review of In Defense of Miracles, and other matters concerning first cause and the supposed fine-tuning of life-conditions in section four of that same review. It is sufficient to say that these are not yet in need of divine explanation, and that they fail to constitute predictions which demonstrate the truth of the theory--from the assumption that there is a God, it is impossible to predict what sorts of values this God would or must have or why, or how or where or when he communicates them, or to predict what he can and cannot do, what he wants and doesn't want to do, or what he is likely or unlikely to do and why. And when it comes time to investigate and discover these things, all we meet is confusion, heated disagreement, and a complete absence of clear, objective evidence either way. As a rational, objective theory--rather than a traditional dogma or subjective opinion--theism is void of all useful content. This content is only filled by appealing to unsubstantiated tradition (the Bible), subjective opinion (what we "feel" is the case, what we judge from our limited, private, internal experiences--about which I have something to say in my essay on critical thought and religious life), and the arbitrary reasons made up from whole cloth to explain problematic observations like divine silence and the misery of the good. This may be fine as a personal faith. But it cannot parade as a scientific finding or any sort of certainty that others should be expected to agree with.

7. The Fallacy of False Analogy

A less significant but still typical common fault among creationists is the employment of false analogies. The most famous is the watch found on the beach--even though there are significant differences between a watch and a living cell which make the analogy hard to connect. For instance, watches, as with every manmade thing we ever encounter, are often made by many workers who are in turn rarely the designers. If we are entitled to expect of all complex organisms what we expect of manmade objects like watches, then we are entitled to conclude that many gods, following plans drawn up by several other gods, made living cells.
Instead, consider Mr. Walker's analogy of black holes. First, to tell the story more correctly, we are actually aware of the existence of black holes only because of deduction from the basic laws of physics: we know what the laws of gravity are, and we know there is a lot of mass in the cosmos, and when we plug a lot of mass into the laws of gravity, the outcome is a black hole. In other words, unless the laws of physics are different than we have so far proven them to be, or unless there are other laws as yet undiscovered, black holes are a necessary consequence of gravity and mass. In contrast, God is not the necessary consequence of anything we observe. Moreover, even though black holes were deductively "proven" to exist in theory, there was still very justified doubt until observational evidence confirmed their existence, and we have the same sort of proof (though in lesser quantity) of black holes now as we do of the existence of gravitational and magnetic fields, which are just as invisible.
The point is that the laws of gravity predicted a specific set of observations (particular forms of radiation emitted from certain densities of mass, a specific kind of gravitational lensing of background light, etc.), and then those observations were made, confirming the theory. The God theory fails to meet this analogy. When we posit a god, we are left with almost no predicted observations--theism does not predict any physical feature of the universe that we can check. And the few observations that it does predict--such as a loving, mighty hand in our lives and in the design of our environment--fail to be seen. Instead, we have brittle, soft, smelly, weak, back-ache-and-disease-prone bodies; the laws of physics proceed without any regard for right or wrong, good person or bad, and they proceed relentlessly and monotonously, never demonstrably deviating with anything like a value-laden purpose; resources are arbitrarily limited and randomly distributed without regard for merit; and no clear supernatural events or messages are present in any of our lives--guns are not suddenly turned into flowers, churches are not protected by mysterious energy fields, preachers cannot regenerate a lost limb, and when we ask God a question, with all sincerity and earnest urging, we never receive a clear, reasoned answer that all can hear and agree upon. Theism fits no analogy with any scientific belief.

8. Misreading Arguments

Creationists often have trouble understanding what their critics write. Mr . Walker again gives us a good example: I never said that "because someone is a theist he is incapable of being objective." I suggest Mr. Walker read what I wrote again with greater care. I never used the word "bias" or anything equivalent, and made no argument of such a kind. I also did not ignore the "fact" that many scientists have identified numerous "parameters" based solely on the evidence. What I said was that these very "'parameters' are not the parameters required for any kind of intelligent life to evolve, but only the parameters within which human life can survive, and that is not the same thing." In other words, the parameters identified by science tell us nothing about the design of the universe for us, but the design of us for the universe, a design explained by recombinant molecular biology and natural selection over a very long period of time in a relatively dangerous environment. Thus, I appreciate Mr. Walker's references, but they have nothing to do with what I was saying.

9. Credulity Instead of Investigation

A common feature of all these errors is a seeming disinterest in researching and questioning even favorable sources and evidence. Atheists frequently doubt each other and things they run across that seem to support their position, and when they don't, their colleagues will, and atheists will take all this seriously, and make progress by checking their sources, and coming to understand the principles and fields of knowledge that underlie them. For example, as for whether "an incredible fine-tuning of the nuclear ground state energies for helium, beryllium, carbon, and oxygen was necessary for any kind of life to exist" it is apparent that Mr. Walker did not follow my original advice and read my discussion of this kind of argument in my review of In Defense of Miracles, nor did he consider the point I made in my previous reply about precisely these "remaining parameters" (I am also skeptical that Hoyle actually said such fine-tuning was necessary for any life, since all I have read by him only makes claims about life on Earth as we know it--i.e. carbon-based, RNA-DNA constructs). First of all, these energies are not independent variables, since they are derived from more basic properties like the nucleon binding energy, thus they cannot be independently tuned at all--whenever one is altered, the others change along with it. And physicist Vic Stenger has proven that you can toy with these values and still end up with universes than can contain life. Indeed, you can experiment with universes yourself, and read Stenger's surveys of the physics behind the question.
Instead of looking into these things, taking them seriously, studying them, trying to understand them, and admitting how little we really know, creationists tend to fall back on their own creationist sources, or what they think to be plain reasoning (but which risks falling into various logical traps), or they give up altogether, determined to hold an unorthodox, heavily challenged point of view without any extensive or persistent examination and research. Though I do not attribute this to Walker by any means, I have personally encountered several creationists who claim to be widely read in the field of evolution yet show no understanding of even basic, introductory textbook principles, terms, and findings--in physics or biology (the most frustrating example of this is David Foster, whose book was so bad, so astonishing that it generated from me a rather excessively impassioned review). It is perhaps resistance to this intellectual laziness which makes some creationists, like I suspect in the case of Mr. Walker, at least sensible in their presentation of arguments, but I am still often disappointed with their command of relevant theories, terms, and literature.

10. The Fallacy of Hyperbole

Finally, a common creationist tactic (no less common among dogmatic atheists) is to resort to hyperbole--to claim total victory, to claim something is incredibly obvious, that a conclusion is undeniably certain, that something can be easily apprehended, when in fact such confidence is not at all justified. Mr. Walker, for example, makes it appear as if all we do is throw out god at the top and refuse to discuss any other issue. But that is hyperbolic. We all here at the Secular Web "argue that God is not personally involved in our daily lives" and we have all, on numerous occasions, managed or tried to "open a serious dialog on this issue." The fact that the "God" theory fails to explain why this universe is the way it is, and the fact that a creator is not necessary to explain the existence of order (or else God must have been created, too, etc.), and the fact that there are numerous different organizations of things that produce universes hospitable to some form of intelligent life, all destroy the creationist insistence that it is "extreme incredulity" to disregard a theory which explains little, predicts nothing, and is logically unnecessary.

[1] After I wrote this, in his 1999 debate with Phil Fernandes, Jeff Lowder made an equally crucial point: if the actual parameters of the universe do require an explanation, God is not necessarily the most probable option, since to give such an option greater weight than others which do not include a god we must have additional evidence that something like a creator-god actually exists. But we already have evidence that universes exist (we live in one), and so we already have some grounds for positing multiple universes to explain the parameters of ours, e.g. there may be a million universes with different parameters and only one has life (and thus we are in it, since that is the only place we could be). This is no more ad hoc than positing God, and is arguably less so, since there is less reason to invoke an unknown type of entity (a god) than a known one (a universe).
[2] Far from grasping at straws, scientists have history on their side: thanks to science, we have been very successful in providing explanations for things previously thought explainable only by appeal to the supernatural, so we can hardly be blamed for rejecting a supernatural explanation and waiting for a naturalistic one. For more on this argument, see my discussion the "naturalist fallacy" under Prima Facie Presumptions vs. The Lessons of History.
[3] In 1997, a random poll of American scientists listed in American Men and Women of Science determined that 60% did not believe in a personal god--45% were atheists, 15% agnostics, the other 40% believers. But when the same study was made of more distinguished scientists, those who had achieved the prestigious membership of the National Academy of Sciences, the number of unbelievers was 93%, and of atheists specifically it was 85%, and the numbers were greater among physicists than others. For sources and analysis, see Michael Shermer's How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, 2000, pp. 72-4. The question of whether an "impersonal" god still counts as a creator will be addressed later. What is evident is that scientists are more likely than non-scientists to disavow a personal god (among all Americans generally, 96% believe in god--65% even believe the devil is real, cf. ibid. p. 21). And physicists are the most likely of all to be unbelievers--so if we are to appeal to what scientists conclude about god, then we must disavow the existence of a personal creator. But the absurdity of such a method of deciding what to believe should be apparent.
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Contra Carrier: Why Theism is Needed to Make Sense of Everything (2006)

Paul Herrick

No necessary being can explain existence; contingency is not an illusion, an appearance which can be dissipated; it is absolute; and consequently perfectly gratuitous. Everything is gratuitous, that park, this town, and myself. When you realize that, it turns your stomach over and everything starts floating about.
     -- John-Paul Sartre, Nausea (1938), p. 188
That there is a contingent being actually existing has to be discovered by experience, and the proposition that there is a contingent being is certainly not an analytic proposition, though once you know, I should maintain, that there is a contingent being, it follows of necessity that there is a necessary being.
     -- Father Joseph Copleston, debate with Bertrand Russell, BBC Radio (1948)

Arguments for God's existence often take the form of an inference to the best explanation, the pattern of reasoning Charles Sanders Pierce called "abduction." An inference to the best explanation (IBE) is an inductive argument having the following logical form:
  1. The argument begins with facts that need explaining.
  2. Ideally, all plausible explanations of the facts are examined.
  3. One explanation is selected as the "best" explanation, based on the standard criteria used in science, history, and academic fields generally (internal consistency, external consistency, explanatory power, scope, and so on).
  4. It is concluded that this is probably the correct explanation of the cited facts. In other words, the selected explanation is probably true.[1]
A "theistic" IBE claims that, of all available explanations, a theistic one is the best or most reasonable explanation of the data, based on the standard criteria. But if an explanation is correct, then the explanatory entities invoked by the explanation exist. Thus, a theistic IBE is an inductive argument for the existence of God insofar as it includes at least one reference to God. More generally, I shall call an argument a "theistic explanatory argument" if it posits the existence of God as part of an explanation of observed phenomena. (Thus, for example, ontological arguments are not theistic explanatory arguments because they do not aim to explain any observable phenomena.)

Richard Carrier's General Critique of Theism

In "Ten Things Wrong with Cosmological Creationism" (2000), Richard Carrier offers a general argument against any theistic explanatory argument:
If we posit a god, we would still be in the same position of trying to explain his existence. Anything sufficient to explain a god's existence will also apply to the universe, or at least the physical principles of the universe which give it form and motion, and thus there is no reason for the added element of a god.
Fleshed out, I take Carrier's argument to consist in the following steps:
  1. Any theistic explanation of the universe invites the question: "So, the creative activity of a god is proposed as an explanation for the existence of the universe, but what accounts for, or explains, this god's existence?"
  2. Either the theist has an answer or he does not.
  3. Suppose the theist has no answer. If the theist has no answer, then theists and atheists are in the same position vis-à-vis explaining the whole of reality: The theist has no explanation for his rock-bottom reality, God's existence, while the atheist has no explanation for his ultimate reality, namely, the existence of the material universe. In which case theism has no explanatory advantage over scientific materialism, since both views ultimately invoke brute fact in the end. This outcome leaves theism in the awkward position of asking us to believe in additional entities while offering no explanatory advantage in return. Thus, if the theist has no answer to Carrier's question--"What explains or accounts for God's existence?"--then there's no rational motivation to accept the theistic explanation of the universe (along with its extra ontological commitments).
  4. Suppose the theist does have an answer. If the theist does have an answer, i.e., an account or explanation for God's existence, then this explanation can be logically detached from its subject and applied directly to the material universe alone, without mentioning God, thus eliminating any rational need to refer to God in our explanation of the universe.
  5. Thus, either way, a theistic explanation is an unnecessary explanatory epicycle--a spinning wheel doing no useful explanatory work. When it comes to explaining the universe, theism gets us nowhere. In short, any theistic explanation will inevitably be superfluous and therefore rationally unacceptable.
Carrier's objection, in one form or another, has become almost an obligatory reply when a theistic explanatory argument is presented. Nevertheless, I am convinced that it is fundamentally unsound. My completely unrealistic aim in this essay is to put this little reply or objection to rest once and for all.
Against Carrier, I shall argue for three points. (1) Theists have available a reasonable reply to the question, "If the creative activity of God is proposed as an explanation for the existence of the universe, what accounts for, or explains, God's existence?" (2) Moreover, it would be a category mistake to take the theist's reply out of its theistic context and apply it directly to the material universe, with no mention of God. That is, the theist's reply cannot provide a nontheistic explanation for the existence of the universe because it logically requires a being possessing at least one essential characteristic that necessarily cannot be possessed by any material object or collection of material objects. (3) Since the theist's ultimate explanation necessarily cannot be applied to the material universe without mention of God, theism offers an explanatory advantage over its chief rival, scientific naturalism, collapsing a crucial premise of Carrier's argument.

Theistic Explanation

In the history of Western philosophy, theistic explanatory arguments appear in great variety and with regularity, going back at least to Anaxagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, and continuing to the present in the works of such widely respected philosophers as Richard Swinburne and Robert M. Adams. My focus in this paper will be the modal cosmological argument, perhaps the most prominent philosophical case for traditional theism, although I could have chosen at least ten other theistic arguments. Let us keep in mind that this venerable argument for God's existence stems from two lines of thought, both of which began within classical Greek philosophy before the Christian era. It is also worth remarking that both lines of thought originated apart from any specifically theistic context, and both can be motivated apart from theistic considerations.
The first is the modal distinction between necessary and contingent. Essentially, necessary means "cannot be otherwise," while contingent means "can be otherwise." This distinction has been applied to both truth and being, although I shall not rehearse the matter here. The pre-Socratics were the first to give philosophical expression to this modal distinction, but Aristotle was the first to develop it in a theoretical and systematic way.
With the work of modern theorists such as Saul Kripke, David Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, and Robert Stalnaker, the logic of necessity and contingency has come of age, possessing, I believe, an eminently respectable semantical foundation. Given the success of contemporary modal logic, I take the distinction between the necessary and the contingent seriously, as applied to both truth and falsity (in classical modal logic) and existence and nonexistence (in quantified modal logic).
The second line of thought, which goes back at least to Parmenides and Anaxagoras, was expressed nicely by Sir Isaiah Berlin in a famous essay in which the Oxford don described the phenomenology of coming to know and accept necessary truth:
If I am a schoolboy, all but the simplest truths of mathematics obtrude themselves as obstacles to the free functioning of my mind, as theorems whose necessity I do not understand; they are pronounced to be true by some external authority, and present themselves to me as foreign bodies which I am expected to mechanically absorb into my system. But when I understand the functions of the symbols, the axioms.... [and] the logic whereby the conclusions are obtained--and grasp that these things cannot be otherwise, because they appear to follow from the laws that govern the processes of my own reason, then mathematical truths no longer obtrude themselves as external entities forced upon me which I now must receive whether I want to or not, but as something which I now freely will in the course of the natural functioning of my own rational activity.... To want necessary laws to be other than they are is to be prey to an irrational desire--a desire that what must be X should also be not X. To go further, and believe these laws to be other than what they necessarily are is to be insane. That is the metaphysical heart of rationalism.... I am a rational being; whatever I can demonstrate to myself as being necessary, as incapable of being otherwise in a rational society--that is, in a society directed by rational minds, towards goals such as a rational being would have--I cannot, being rational, wish to sweep out of the way. I assimilate it into my substance as I do the laws of logic, of mathematics.... and therefore will the rational purpose, by which I can never be thwarted, since I cannot want it to be other than it is.[2]
Gloss: In philosophy, we explain one thing in terms of another, or one level of reality in terms of a more fundamental level, which in turn is explained in terms of something more fundamental, and so on. In other words, explanation usually takes the form of an explanatory regress. Normally, a regress starts with a contingent object or state of affairs and then proceeds back through various stages that may or may not also be contingent. The ultimate philosophical goal is explanatory closure: a final explanation that ends the questioning in a rationally acceptable way. In the passage above, Berlin describes what explanatory closure must be like for a rational being: Only a rational grasp and acceptance of necessity can finally end an explanatory regress. Once we grasp the nature of necessity as rational beings, we give up as irrational the desire to "sweep it away" or have it be otherwise, realizing that certain aspects of reality "cannot be otherwise than they are." Along with the laws of logic and mathematics, we seek to "assimilate" the necessary into our substance. In so doing, we freely accept and "will" (presumably in a Kantian sense) the necessary. After experiencing and willing necessity, no explanatory regress ending in a purely contingent state of affairs will ever be rationally satisfying. Only when a regress "bottoms out" in that which is metaphysically necessary will it reach a rationally acceptable conclusion. I shall call this the "modal grounding principle."
Berlin's reflection reminds us that every philosophical explanatory regress has a gas pedal and needs a brake. The gas pedal is the initial question that starts the regress. (Regarding the existence of the universe, the question is: "Why does it exist?") The brake, if there is one, must be a real "stopper," that is, a final explanation that stops the regress by ending the questioning. According to the modal grounding principle, only a necessary ground of being can finally serve as a rationally acceptable brake in a philosophical regress.

The Modal Version of the Cosmological Argument

Let us now see how these two ideas, the distinction between the necessary and the contingent, and the modal grounding principle, support traditional theism and undermine Carrier's argument. I begin with a statement of the modal cosmological argument in three steps.

1. The Contingent Universe

By "the universe" I mean "the material universe," the complete collection of all existing things composed of matter. By "matter" I mean "that which physics studies." Thus, the material universe is a large collection of particles and fields composed of, or reducible to, quanta of mass-energy existing within space and time. I also take it that each of the particles and fields composing the material universe is contingent, since current physical theory holds that each of these items came into existence at a moment in time in the past, and anything that came into existence is certainly contingent.
Incidentally, whether or not the latest inflationary Big Bang model is the correct account of the birth of the universe, the mere fact that this model appears to be logically coherent is sufficient to ground the claim that matter is contingent. Since (a) the current model is a coherent scientific theory which posits that matter had a beginning in time, and thus (b) it is reasonable to suppose that it is at least possible that matter had a beginning in time, (c) it is therefore reasonable to suppose that matter is contingent--for anything that could have come into existence in time is contingent.
Of course, there are other reasons to suppose that the physical universe is contingent. As Richard Taylor observes in his classic text Metaphysics, there is absolutely nothing about the physical universe that, upon critical examination, seems to be in the least bit necessary.[3] Furthermore, according to the latest theories in scientific cosmology, each thing within the universe either has a cause or at least originates within a quantum field; and if something has a cause or a scientifically explicable origination, it is certainly contingent. Thus, viewed through a scientific lense, the universe certainly appears to be contingent through and through. And it is reasonable to suppose that things are as they appear unless there are good reasons to suppose that they are not.

2. Wolfe's "Question of Questions"

One of the oldest philosophical questions of all time is surely "Why is there something rather than nothing?" In other words, what accounts for the fact that a material universe exists? The historian Bertram Wolfe (1896-1977) wonderfully expressed this question in his autobiography, A Life in Two Centuries:
There was one large problem that I tackled that I could not solve at 11 or 12 or 13, and have not solved yet, nor do I expect to: Why does the universe exist at all, and why is there life on the earth and perhaps elsewhere? I tried to imagine what would be if the universe did not exist.... The more I wrestled with such problems the less I could explain to myself, until at last I was driven to the question of questions: Why is there something? Why is there anything? Why is there not nothing? How did it all come to be...? And there my mind stopped as a boy, and there my mind stops now in the closing years of my life.[4]

3. Grounding the Regress

By the modal grounding principle, it just won't do to explain one part of the material universe in terms of some more fundamental material part. For that would only explain the contingent in terms of the contingent, leaving the explanatory regress at rock bottom poised precariously upon a mere contingency--and thus ultimately ungrounded and rationally incomplete. To stop with the contingent is to stop thinking too soon. Only if the regress terminates in a metaphysically necessary ground of being can it reach a rationally acceptable end.
Incidentally, since a purely scientific explanation must always refer to or invoke only entities and laws that are part of the material universe, i.e., objects that exist within the whole, it follows that any scientific explanation merely explains one contingent part of the material universe in terms of another contingent part. Thus, it follows (by the modal grounding principle) that no purely scientific explanation can ever end the cosmological explanatory regress in a rationally acceptable way. In other words, from a philosophical view, and supposing the modal grounding principle, a purely scientific explanation of the universe "stops too soon."
Given this, it looks like the only rationally acceptable end to the cosmological regress, and thus the only rationally acceptable explanation for the existence of the contingent universe, would be a metaphysically necessary ground of being. Thus a theistic IBE:
  1. A vast contingent universe exists.
  2. The only rationally acceptable explanation for the existence of this enormous entity or collection of entities is theism, i.e., the claim that a metaphysically necessary ground of being exists and is responsible for the existence of the universe. (Following Ockham's razor, we postulate the bare minimum needed to explain the phenomenon, which in this case means positing just one necessary being; to posit any larger number would be to invoke unnecessary explanatory entities.)
  3. Therefore, it is reasonable to suppose that a necessary being exists and is responsible for the existence of the universe.
I interpret this as a modal cosmological argument. Of course, strictly speaking, a further argument is needed if one is constructing a philosophical case for theism, namely, an argument attributing characteristics of divinity to the necessary being and thus showing why this is a theistic argument. For example, after he concludes his famous Five Ways, Aquinas goes on to give a separate argument for the conclusion that the First Mover must have the characteristics traditionally ascribed to God.
Thus, after presenting a modal cosmological argument, a philosophical theist needs to argue further that (a) the necessary being must, insofar as it is necessary, have an existence apart from the material universe since (b) the universe is contingent, not necessary. And an argument would also be wanted for the claim that the necessary being is personal in the sense of possessing knowledge, reason, and a will. With such secondary arguments added, the theist, it seems to me, has a strong philosophical case.
Of course, for every philosophical argument, questions arise, along with objections and counterarguments. (This statement may be the only exceptionless yet true and nontrivial generalization concerning the philosophical enterprise!) At any rate, upon hearing the above argument, the first question likely to arise is this: Why accept the modal grounding principle?

In Defense of the Modal Grounding Principle

Suppose a philosophical regress ends in something contingent, call it C. By its very nature, C has the possibility of nonexistence; that is, among the set of all logically possible states of affairs, there is the possibility that C does not exist. (Following Plantinga, I mean possibility in the broadest sense.) For if there was no possibility of C's nonexistence, then C would be necessary, not contingent.
But the possibility of C's nonexistence logically grounds the question "Why does C exist?" And if C is contingent, the explanation of C's existence will refer to external circumstances or entities that caused C to exist. (Thus, if someone asks why that large tree over there exists, the explanation will refer to a seed that took root some 50 years ago, and if someone asks why that seed existed, the explanation will refer to a tree that existed before it, and so on.) The explanation of C cannot be completely internal to C; otherwise, C would be ontologically independent and thus necessary, not contingent.
If a philosophical regress bottoms out in something purely contingent, then live questions pertaining to existence at the bottom level of being will remain unanswered (since the final step in the regress will, by its intrinsic nature, raise questions that could only be answered by appeal to a deeper level). Thus, no purely contingent entity can ever serve as an adequate "regress brake" or rationally acceptable final explanation.
Peter van Inwagen has identified a general problem with any regress consisting of nothing but contingent entities. Imagine an explanatory regress composed of contingent beings alone, with no reference whatsoever to a necessary being. Any statement that would be true in such a possible world would be true in virtue of relations obtaining among various contingent beings. A statement's truth would therefore depend on the existence of contingent beings, logically presupposing their existence. But, as van Inwagen observes, surely no statement presupposing the existence of contingent beings, and depending on their existence for its truth-value, could itself explain or account for the fact that contingent beings exist.[5]
Van Inwagen's point is supported by the practice of philosophical explanation in general, for when we explain the existence of the members of one class, we normally must appeal to something completely outside that class. For instance, to explain the existence of cars, we must appeal to something beyond cars themselves (i.e., to engineers); to explain the existence of human beings, we must appeal to something nonhuman; and so on. To continue the pattern, it would seem that if we are to explain the general existence of contingent being, an appeal to the existence of noncontingent being would be the natural move.
On the other hand, suppose a philosophical regress ends in a metaphysically necessary ground of being. Does this endpoint, by its intrinsic nature, also raise its own unanswerable questions--for instance about its own existence--thus also precluding a rationally acceptable closure? If so, wouldn't it follow that we have no hope of ever attaining a rationally acceptable explanatory endpoint?
To answer this, recall that a necessary being, by hypothesis, is a being whose intrinsic nature is such that its nonexistence is impossible. This means that in the case of (and only in the case of) a necessary being, there is necessarily a logically sufficient explanation for its existence. As van Inwagen has so succinctly put it: "There could hardly be a more satisfying explanation for the existence of a thing than that its non-existence was impossible."[6]
The following thought experiment motivates the point. Suppose you go to a friend's house to watch TV, and all evening the only channel you see is ABC. Finally, around 11 PM, you ask, "Why must we watch ABC all night?" Your friend answers, "This is a screwy television--no matter what channel you turn the dial to, it only shows ABC, it can't show any other channel." Hasn't your friend provided a perfectly acceptable answer to the question? Now you understand why the TV shows ABC: It shows ABC because it cannot possibly show any other channel. In other words, it actually shows ABC because it necessarily must show it. (This is a case of physical necessity, but that is no matter.)
I think the general principle is the following: If someone is wondering why something is actually so and not otherwise, and they learn that it is necessarily so and cannot possibly be otherwise, then they have a rationally acceptable explanation for why it is actually so.
Notice that the explanation for the existence of a necessary being, as expressed by van Inwagen, does not refer to any other being, circumstances external to the being, or another ontological level of being. If this is right, then an intrinsically necessary ground of being at the end of an explanatory regress, unlike a contingent one, raises no unanswerable questions of existence and therefore constitutes a rationally acceptable regress brake--a rationally satisfying closure for an explanatory regression.

Richard Carrier's Objections

Carrier writes that "If we posit a god, we would still be in the same position of trying to explain his existence." Perhaps so, but the theist has a rational reply available--namely, the reply articulated and argued for by van Inwagen. And this reply is an eminently reasonable one--or so it seems to me. Carrier then argues:
Anything sufficient to explain a god's existence will also apply to the universe, or at least the physical principles of the universe which give it form and motion, and thus there is no reason for the added element of a god.
But this is false. The theist's reply cannot be applied directly to the material universe, for the universe is contingent. Any attempt to do so would commit a category mistake, as the reply only works in reference to that which is metaphysically necessary.

How Would Carrier Reply?

I think we can see how Carrier would reply to my argument. Later in his piece, in response to an argument from design, Carrier writes:
But there is a third option that Mr. Walker omits, for intelligent creation is not the only possible cause for order. The universe may be a necessary thing--that is, it was not produced by chance or design, but could not have not existed, and could not have been any different than it is.
In other words, in place of the theist's necessary being (God), Carrier would simply posit that the material universe is itself the necessary being.
Unfortunately, Carrier's alternative hypothesis simply won't do, for a number of reasons. First, it is completely ad hoc: There is absolutely nothing about the material universe that seems in the least bit metaphysically necessary, and Carrier offers no independent, positive, theoretical reason to support positing the necessity of the universe. Absent an independent reason for attributing necessity to the cosmos, the hypothesis of a necessary universe is for Carrier nothing more than a way to avoid an unwanted (theistic) conclusion.
Second, there are strong theoretical reasons to suppose that the necessary being at the end of the cosmological explanatory regress, if such a being were to exist, would have to be metaphysically simple, i.e., noncomposite. For instance, it would seem that any composite being depends for its existence on its parts, or on the condition that its parts stay together, which would make it contingent rather than necessary.
Moreover, any composite being, by its intrinsic nature, inevitably raises further questions. How did its parts come together? Why those parts and not others? Why that many parts and not some other number? What holds the parts together? That the above questions logically arise in the case of any composite entity suggests that nothing composite can serve as a rationally satisfying regress stopper. Therefore, since the physical universe is composed of something like 10^56 protons and like numbers of electrons, photons, and other subatomic particles, and since the whole system is governed by an enormously complex set of mathematical laws of nature, the material universe hardly has the look of a metaphysical simple. Thus there are strong philosophical reasons, independent of theism, to suppose that the material universe is not itself a necessary being.
Furthermore, there are scientific reasons to suppose that the physical universe is contingent. As I have already observed, current cosmology tells us that the physical universe began to exist a finite time ago. If contemporary science is right, the physical universe is not a necessary being, since a necessary being cannot possibly be something that came into existence. Notice that Stephen Hawking and Steven Weinberg, two important authorities on the matter, strongly affirm the contingency of the universe in their discussions of final theories in physics.[7]
I conclude that Carrier has no reason to posit the necessity of the material universe other than to avoid a theistic explanation.

Further Objections

I will now turn to an extremely interesting objection raised by an anonymous reviewer during this paper's review process. The reviewer's objection is not only very powerful, but also very penetrating, cutting to the heart of the matter while opening up new philosophical issues that are interesting and illuminating in their own right. I shall slightly paraphrase the reviewer's argument as follows.
The modal grounding principle is essential to this paper's argument: "No explanatory regress ending in a purely contingent state of affairs is rationally satisfying." However, it is a small step from acceptance of this principle to the conclusion that there are no contingent states of affairs. If all contingent states of affairs are "grounded" in a necessary being or a necessary state of affairs, such that the "grounding" is itself necessary (e.g., if a necessary being's act of creation is itself always necessary), then there are no contingent states of affairs. Thus, if the universe is explanatorily grounded in a necessary being, then it follows that--if there are to be any contingent states of affairs at all--the act of creation itself can only be contingent. But if the act of creation is itself contingent, then there exists at least one brute (unexplained) contingency. Therefore, the modal grounding principle is false: unless we suppose that everything is necessary, we cannot reasonably deny the existence of at least some brute contingency. Carrier's line of thought therefore survives unscathed: Given that we must have brute contingency, why not rest with the (brutely contingent) origin of the physical universe? In other words, why take the unnecessary additional step of hypothesizing brutely contingent creative preferences in some postulated necessary being?
Essentially, the reviewer poses a dilemma for the theist: Either the act of creation is necessary, in which case the theist must deny the contingency of the universe (since what follows from the necessary is itself necessary), or else the act of creation is contingent, in which case the theist is ultimately left with brute contingency, and any appeal to a necessary being accomplishes nothing. Either way, the modal cosmological argument fails by losing an essential premise--namely, the modal grounding principle.
Although this is a very strong objection that raises interesting and important issues, I believe that the theist has a philosophically satisfactory reply. First, while it may be a "very small step" from the modal grounding principle to the claim that there are no contingent states of affairs, it is a step that the theist need not (and does not) take. As the reviewer observes, if a necessary being's act of creation is itself necessary, then there are no contingent states of affairs. Classical theism recognizes and accepts this point, which is partly why the tradition has held that the act of creation was not itself necessary. However, the theist's admission that the act of creation was itself non-necessary does not entail that the theist (like the atheist) is saddled with brute or unexplained contingency. More specifically, it does not entail that the theist is stuck "hypothesizing brutely contingent creative preferences in some postulated necessary being." Here is why.
Classical theism hypothesizes that God's decision to create a (material) universe was free in the sense that it was both uncaused and not logically necessary. It follows from this that the existence of the universe is metaphysically contingent: the universe would not have existed had things (in the broadest possible sense) been sufficiently different. However, it does not follow from this that the existence of the universe is, for the theist, a brute or unexplained fact. The theist can explain the existence of the universe by relating it, via explanatory relations we already understand, to a necessary feature of the divine nature--namely, that God is an essentially loving being. This explanatory relationship, which grounds the contingent existence of the universe in a necessary feature of a necessary being (thus satisfying the modal grounding principle), can be modeled in the following terms.
It is the inherent nature of love to freely share itself, to freely go out to another, in other words, to give of itself in a supererogatory act--one that is not compelled or motivated by self-interest, but performed freely and for the sake of the intrinsic good of the other. This is a necessary truth about the intrinsic nature of love that each of us comes to understand through our own direct experience of love. An act is not a purely loving act if it is done out of selfishness, compulsion, or duty; an act of love is by its nature freely undertaken for the sake of the intrinsic good of the other. The theist thus hypothesizes that God freely creates separate beings, out of love, in order to freely share what God intrinsically is--i.e., to share being with separately existing (finite) beings.
For explanatory purposes, theism need not propose God's creative love as the cause of the universe; it need only hypothesize love as the motive explaining why God creates. But it does not follow from this that the act of creation is a brute, unintelligible act; for freely given acts of love, though neither caused nor necessitated, are inherently intelligible. Indeed, explanations by reference to acts of freely given love are among the most intelligible and intellectually satisfying accounts of things that we possess. That Ann and Bob married out of love, rather than out of self-interest or compulsion or because their marriage was arranged by others, explains why they married and renders their marriage intelligible. Their free choice in this case is a perfectly good "explanation stopper." Similarly, the theist can argue, the contingent existence of the universe is "grounded" in a necessary being in virtue of being explained and made intelligible, via explanatory relationships we already understand, by reference to a necessary feature of the divine nature, namely, supreme, creative love. In this way, the theist can avoid both horns of the reviewer's dilemma: the theist avoids being saddled with rock-bottom brute contingent facts while holding fast to the contingency of the universe.
Thus, it is not the case that the existence of the material universe can only be explained or rendered intelligible by showing that it follows necessarily from a necessary act of a necessary being (which would make the universe necessary). The theist has available an alternative explanatory model, rooted in our direct experience of love, that explanatorily grounds the contingent existence of the universe in a metaphysically necessary being without destroying the contingency of the universe. This explanation in turn satisfies the intuitively very appealing modal grounding principle. This model or explanatory structure is not available to the atheist, of course, since atheism rejects both a metaphysically necessary ground of being and (more importantly) a personal source of the existence of the material universe. The theist is therefore not saddled with the brute unexplained fact that a contingent universe exists, although, by the reviewer's own admission, the atheist is. It is therefore a mistake, I think, to claim that the theist must hypothesize "brutely contingent creative preferences in some postulated necessary being." The objection thus fails to show that the theist's appeal to a necessary being is, in the end, superfluous.

A Reply to This

The wonderful thing about the reviewer's argument is the way it opens up deeper philosophical issues regarding the differences between theistic and nontheistic views of the universe. In response to the above reply, the reviewer posed a very interesting and penetrating counterargument, which I here quote:
On Herrick's own admission, there are possible worlds in which God makes a different universe from the one that God makes in our world. So, on his own principles, there must be something to which one can appeal that explains why God makes our universe in our world, and that other universe in the other possible world. Given that, again on Herrick's own admission, it is God's creative intentions, etc., that determine which world is made, there must be a difference in God's creative intentions between the two worlds. Either this difference in creative intentions is a brute contingent difference, or there is something that explains why God has one set of creative intentions in one world, and a different set of creative intentions in the other. Moreover, if there is something that explains why God has one set of creative intentions in one world, and a different set of creative intentions in the other, then we're back on the same merry-go-round: either this in turn is a brute contingent difference, or [it is necessary and there really are no contingent facts].

So, we have a choice. Given that we hold onto the assumption that the existence of the universe is contingent, either we suppose that the coming into existence of the universe is a brute, contingent fact, or we suppose that there are brute contingent facts--concerning God's creative intentions, or something of that kind--that explain why God made this world, rather than some other world that God might have made. Hence, in point of avoiding brute contingencies, there is no advantage in postulating God as the explainer of the existence of the universe. Moreover, when it comes to a choice between supposing that there is a necessarily existing being with brutely contingent creative intentions or supposing that the coming into existence of the universe is a brute contingent fact, there is no semblance of an argument in Herrick's letter (or his paper) that favors the latter choice over the former.
The reviewer is raising here, in regard to God's creative intentions, essentially the same questions that critics of agent causation raise concerning the adequacy of that particular conception of free agency. A satisfactory reply would therefore require entering that enormously complex issue. But the reviewer's new objection again raises another important issue: At bottom, when the replies and counter-replies are all in, the modal cosmological argument, as I have defended it, depends in an important way on the conceptual adequacy of a libertarian account of free will. Thus, the modal cosmological argument, as I have defended it, is connected at a deep level with the issue of free will, which is surprising and illuminating.
However, to enter that well-known debate here would be to go beyond the scope of this paper; rather, I will press a simple point. In everyday life, one "why" question sometimes leads to another, which leads to another, and so on, generating an explanatory regress. It is perfectly reasonable, and it can be intellectually satisfying, to end such an explanatory regress with reference to the free choice of an agent, provided that the choice is informed and morally autonomous; and if that condition is met, then the choice, as an act of origination, is not brute (although it is contingent). In the end, when all is said and done, that Ann and Bob ultimately chose to marry, that their choice was fully informed and morally autonomous, and that they married out of love, ends the regress of questions by grounding it in an intellectually satisfying and reasonable stopping point. Granted, it is a contingent fact that they chose to marry, but it is not, on that account, a brute fact. A brute contingent fact has no explanation, whereas a free, morally autonomous act of the type under consideration does have an explanation, albeit one that is not deterministic. Love, as a motive, can make an action intelligible without making it metaphysically necessary. The more general point is that reason-explanations that cite motives are sometimes perfectly acceptable stoppers of explanatory regresses. I am appealing here to our everyday explanatory practices, which, I would argue, should guide us unless and until they are shown to be based in error or confusion.
Thus, I concede that "there are possible worlds in which God makes a different universe from the one that God makes in our world." However, I deny that "there must be something to which one can appeal that explains why God makes our universe in our world, and that other universe in the other possible world." This does not follow, at least if we accept the legitimacy of our ordinary explanatory practices with respect to informed and morally autonomous choices of agents. I thus resist the contention that the theist is saddled with "brute contingent facts concerning God's creative intentions."
I am sure that this reply will not be satisfying to everyone. The following concern, expressed by the reviewer in the final round of comments, will probably continue to trouble many who resist the conclusion of the cosmological argument. As the reviewer observes, "on a libertarian account of freedom, if X chooses A rather than B, then there are two possible worlds exactly alike up until the moment of choice, but in one of which X chooses A, and in the other of which X chooses B.... [in which case] therefore, there is no explanation of why X chooses A rather than B." And this in turn, the reviewer concludes, ultimately leaves the theist saddled with brute contrastive contingent facts.
And so we stop at what may be very near the heart of the matter: That which the theist accepts as a rationally intelligible and satisfactory ender of an explanatory regress, both in daily life and in metaphysics--namely, the free but purposive choice of a rational agent. In other words, what some see as a reason-explanation citing a motive, others see as simply another brute contingent fact. As the reviewer observes, continuing this argument would require entering the free will issue and the debate between compatibilist and libertarian analyses of agency. (Isn't it always the case that if one philosophical issue is pressed far enough, it eventually leads into every other philosophical issue?) And so the discussion continues.

Steven Weinberg on the Contingency of the Universe

Before drawing this discussion to a close, if I may be permitted an argument from authority, it appears that Steven Weinberg, one of the world's greatest living physicists, agrees with at least a major strand of the argument I am presenting. In "A Designer Universe?" Weinberg writes:
I have to admit that, even when physicists will have gone as far as they can go, when we have a final theory, we will not have a completely satisfying picture of the world, because we will still be left with the question "Why?" Why this theory, rather than some other theory? For example, why is the world described by quantum mechanics? Quantum mechanics is the one part of our present physics that is likely to survive intact in any future theory, but there is nothing logically inevitable about quantum mechanics; I can imagine a universe governed by Newtonian mechanics instead. So there seems to be an irreducible mystery that science will not eliminate.[8] [emphasis mine]
Thus, after a lifetime of work in theoretical physics, and after a Nobel Prize for unifying the electromagnetic and the weak nuclear forces, Weinberg concludes that the universe appears to be, from a purely scientific standpoint, irreducibly contingent. A final, completed scientific theory of everything, in Weinberg's judgment, would still leave the universe partly unexplained, for it would leave unexplained why there is a contingent universe governed by this complete scientific theory rather than by another.
I think Weinberg is giving expression here to a sense of incompleteness or intellectual dissatisfaction felt by many people when they consider the prospect of a completed scientific account of the existence of the universe. It is this same sense of incompleteness, I believe, that drives theistic philosophers beyond the scientific account of the universe to a philosophical one, and finally to the conclusion that there must exist a metaphysically necessary ground of being, which some may call God.

Conclusion

Carrier's argument against theism fails. At least one rational case for theism, the modal cosmological argument, has its roots in the general philosophical tradition, specifically in two major philosophical ideas that originated within Greek philosophy, before the Christian era, apart from theistic considerations, both of which can be motivated apart from theistic considerations. Carrier's argument does not place a dent in either.
Ever since the first philosophical theory was put forward by Thales of Miletus in the early sixth century BC, philosophers have sought a rational explanation of the world. The modal cosmological argument, with its roots in pre-Socratic thought, gives expression to this explanatory demand and provides rational support for the theistic claim that the universe ultimately makes sense only if it is rooted in a metaphysically necessary ground of being. Thus L. P. Gerson, a scholar of classical Greek thought, has noted:
That which explains the existence of things can't be something whose existence also needs explaining. So, all the major Greek philosophers conceived of God as a being in some sense necessary--not just another thing that might not have existed--hence not in itself in need of further explanation.[9]
Recall the question from his childhood that haunted the historian Bertram Wolfe: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" While it is remarkable that a 12-year-old boy would feel the force of, and wrestle with, one of the greatest questions in philosophy, it is also remarkable that there is an answer staring us in the face, for as van Inwagen has noted:
Why should there be anything at all?... If we could show that there was a necessary being, a necessarily existing individual thing, we should have an answer to our question. For if there were a necessary being, then it would be impossible for there to be nothing. And if we could show that it was impossible for there to be nothing, that, surely, would count as an answer to our question.[10]
In other words, whether or not one believes that a necessary being exists, a necessary being hypothesis does indeed account for the extremely basic fact that there is something rather than nothing. Which is to say that theism at least offers a solution to one of the oldest problems in philosophy.
To anyone trained in the Western philosophical tradition, classical theism should be attractive for the same reasons that any philosophical theory is attractive: It answers questions, accounts for phenomena, solves philosophical problems, and explains things about our world that would otherwise remain unexplained. Why else do we hold theories in philosophy? Why else do we find philosophical theories reasonable?[11]

Endnotes
[1] For more on inference to the best explanation, see Paul Herrick, The Many Worlds of Logic, 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 1999), chapter 25.
[2] Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 144.
[3] Richard Taylor, Metaphysics (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1974), p. 110.
[4] Bertram Wolfe, A Life in Two Centuries (New York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1981), p. 82.
[5] Peter van Inwagen, Metaphysics (San Francisco: Westview Press, 1993), p. 103.
[6] Peter van Inwagen, Metaphysics (San Francisco: Westview Press, 1993), p. 102.
[7] See Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), p. 174, and Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), p. 6.
[8] See Steven Weinberg, "A Designer Universe?" in Paul Kurtz, ed. Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003), p. 33.
[9] L. P. Gerson, God and Greek Philosophy: Studies in the Early History of Natural Theology (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 14.
[10] Peter van Inwagen, Metaphysics (San Francisco: Westview Press, 1993), p. 98.
[11] I wish to thank my colleague, Dr. Steven Duncan, for helpful comments on parts of the paper. I also wish to extend my appreciation to the anonymous reviewer who posed very sharp and insightful comments that caused me to take the argument to a deeper level.

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