Evangelising to those who have already ‘got it together’

At CU the other day we got talking about how we evangelise to those who are already satisfied with their lives and who don’t feel guilt, or the need for salvation or redemption of any kind. I wanted to offer just a few very brief thoughts (I don’t have many more, since I find this very difficult too) on this.

The first is one simply of encouragement. Many of the people I have met who are very closed to evangelism are nevertheless very open about their own insecurities and failings. This openness doesn’t necessarily make anyone easier to evangelise to. On the other hand, many people who have started out perfectly satisfied have ended up recognising their need for God. So the first thing to do, though it may seem obvious enough, is to keep trying.

How can this help? It’s useful here to think about the theology of unbelief. Putting faith and trust in things other than God is what idolatry means. Everyone does this to some extent, even if they don’t call it idolatry. We all have some things which we believe will satisfy us above anything else (it can be helpful to share your own experiences of some of these). And most people will have experiences of being failed by these things. Most people won’t even be fully satisfied when they do achieve those things: they always want more. So, for example, a huge number of people who idolise money still want more, and often fail to be satisfied by it. They will use other people to get it, and if they end up without it they will end up bitter, empty and unforgiven. Similarly, those who idolise intrinsically good things like sex and relationships will often feel less than fully satisfied when they get them. But in the process of getting them, they will often use other people. And when they fail to achieve success in these areas, they will feel bitter, empty and unforgiven. Contrast the gospel: that Jesus fully satisfies when we get Him, that we don’t need to use anyone to get Him, and that when we fail Him we are forgiven. Jesus is the only God that fulfils all these criteria.

So what does this mean for relatively satisfied non-Christians? It means they will often be temporarily captivated by an idol. After all, the reason people go for idols in the first place is the short-term appeal and attraction of idols. So we should expect that some people will have some level of satisfaction with their idols to begin with. But these idols inevitably crumble, and our persistence in evangelism and friendship (real friendships, not just evangelism targets) over many years will be especially evident to our friends when those idols do fall away. When the idol has been there for years and eventually fails someone, they will be in need of comfort, loyalty, satisfaction and forgiveness more than ever. And if we have been loyal comforters to our friends for that whole time, they will be much more open to the forgiveness and peace found in Jesus.

This focus on idols, by the way, can be helpful as a talking point. If they are not so willing to talk about Jesus, you can bet people will be willing to talk about their idols! So asking what kind of things people put their trust and satisfaction in can be a very good way to get them to realise the ultimate futility and emptiness of those things, unless they are grounded in God. Even noble things like relationships, service to the poor or standing up for human rights can become idols, and are empty if God isn’t at the heart of it all. So talking to them about those idols can help to expose the need for God at the centre.

A second piece of advice is to try and get them to see the bigger picture. This can be done in a number of ways, but one helpful way is to get them to consider the perspective of eternity. Francis Chan has a really good illustration of this (watch it; it’ll be better than me describing it here).

Of course, most non-Christians don’t really believe that they will exist for eternity anyway. So this usually needs to be supplemented with some really good evidence for some of the claims in Christianity. So here, it might be worth using the Lord, Liar or Lunatic? argument. Or perhaps sharing with them some of the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. If we can make it at least plausible to them that living for eternity might be a real option, then it can help to expose the emptiness of their idols. After all, money is of no use to a dead man:

Here’s another way to help consider perspective, especially if we’re talking to someone who feels satisfied and not guilty. After all, many people appear relatively satisfied and externally good. They might have a nice family, a nice house, a job they enjoy, and so on. And they might not have committed any major crimes. But take an analogy. Suppose there is a man in a small study in his house, who likes nothing more than to study books and browse the internet. And suppose the rest of the house was absolutely revolting – there are rats running all over the floor, the walls are covered in the filthiest mould, there are human corpses lying on the floor. In other rooms there are people being brutally murdered, children being tortured, and so on. And the man, satisfied as he is with his books, and content that he has never murdered  or stolen from anyone, sits there blissfully on his desk chair, oblivious to the horrors of the entire house around him. This man is subjectively satisfied and has never killed anyone. But is there not something clearly wrong with him? Is there not a serious problem with someone who could be satisfied while living in such a place, and who does not go to every effort to prevent the evils going on around him?

If there is a serious problem here, then why is there not the same problem for anyone who is content with the state of our world? Sure, most people have never murdered anyone, and many people will say they are satisfied with life (though actually not that many would), but if the thought of sitting satisfied and innocent in a murder-house horrifies them, why does the thought of sitting satisfied and innocent in our world not horrify them equally?

There is another dimension to this, brought up by Tim Keller. Living right isn’t just about being ‘good’ and breaking no rules. It’s also about selflessness and relationship. Think about the analogy he uses here at around 30 minutes in. Again, I won’t explain it here, but listen to the video. The whole video is worth watching, in truth: Keller adeptly talks about the need for being born again and not just relying on external piety, and it is all hugely relevant to the question I’ve tried to answer here. And he brilliant expounds the story of the prodigal son to help explain what’s wrong with simply ‘being a good person’.

I don’t have a profound concluding paragraph, so I hope the above helps, and don’t hesitate to get in touch for further help (or suggestions!).

Christianity and abortion

After my recent post making a brief case for the pro-life position, it occurred to me that, in addition to the secular case I made there, Christians have extra reason to hold to the pro-life position. Here, I hope to give another unsatisfactorily brief overview of some extra motivations for Christians to promote the life of the unborn.

I express my indebtedness to David Albert Jones’ “The Soul of the Embryo” for much of what follows. Jones’ work is an exceptionally thorough and insightful work on the history of Christian attitudes towards abortion, complete with insight into the various contexts in which Christians have spoken. I would recommend to the book to any Christian seeking to learn more about the topic.

Christianity, personhood and the image of God

According to Christian tradition (and ultimately, according to the Bible), human beings are made in the image of God. What, exactly, this means is hard to say, but it means we should be wary of any account which tries to derive humans’ moral worth from “personhood”, or from the criteria which people often claim constitute personhood. In the Bible, it is wrong for humans to rob each other of their lives and thereby their dignity, even when modern “personhood” criteria are not present. The Bible does not say that humans have dignity only insofar as they are conscious, mentally rich, physically capable or economically independent. This would exclude the disabled, the foolish, the sick, the young and the poor. But these are precisely the kinds of people the Bible commands us to especially look out for, and this concern for all human life, even those at the very bottom of society, is one of the things that makes Christian teaching so unique and profound. There are countless passages in the Bible where Christians are commanded to take special care of “the least of these”, and this includes all the people who are excluded by many contemporary “personhood” analyses.

Where does human worth come from? One of the foremost claims in the Bible about humans is that they are made in the image of God. John Wyatt helpfully elaborates on some of what this means. It means that we are dependent on him, and that our value comes from him. It means that we are fundamentally relational, and that there are no such things as isolated, autonomous individuals. It means that we are valuable and treasured not because of what we do, but because of what we are. Finally, it means that human beings are all equal in the eyes of God.

What does this imply for the abortion debate? It means that there are real problems with any view that tries to ground human dignity, worth and rights in anything like merit or ability, mental capacity or independence. For Christianity, humans are not treasured because of their achievements or abilities, but because they are created in the image of God – and this is just as true of those who are mentally ill or physically incapable. Nor are humans treasured because they are independent – they depend fully on God, and even Jesus became incarnate to depend on fellow humans. The kinds of people excluded by typical personhood criteria like these are exactly the kinds of people God commands particular care for: “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)

So we cannot get away with saying that human beings are not valuable until they meet some other criteria: all humans are equal in God’s eyes, and they do not rely on their abilities or independence for their worth. Christians are called to care for the vulnerable, and to look out for the last, the least and the lost. And they are called to recognise the worth, dignity and rights of all human beings just as God does.

Christian tradition and the unborn

All of this provides good reason to think that the unborn, being human beings, are just as entitled to life as the rest of us (perhaps even more so, given their plausible innocence). The Bible says nothing about less developed human beings being less valuable – indeed, children are given a very special role throughout the Bible, and especially by Jesus himself.

But before turning to some of the more explicit Biblical teaching on the unborn, I’d like to briefly explore historical Christian teaching on the subject. Until the mid-20th century, the Church has been unanimous in affirming that the unborn have been part of the human family. There has been some disagreement regarding when, exactly, the unborn became ‘ensouled’, but even the view that the unborn were not ensouled at conception took centuries to develop in contradiction to the earliest Church teaching, and even then the unborn child was held to be ensouled at a relatively early stage.

So what have Christians said throughout the centuries? One important contextual factor to recognise is the culture Christianity grew up in. In my first post, one of my arguments depended on the lack of a morally significant difference between the unborn and newborns. This point is conceded by the foremost pro-abortion ethicists (e.g. Singer, Tooley), and interestingly, it seemed to be held to some extent by pagans during the early periods of Christianity. Sex-selective infanticide was common in the Greco-Roman world, and the rights of a father included the right to kill his newborn son or daughter (the terminology of ‘discarding’ newborn girls, similar to today’s terminology of ‘terminating’ pregnancies, should be noted). Cicero claimed that the basis of Roman law included the judgment that “deformed infants shall be killed.” Seneca claimed that it was customary to drown newborns who were weakly and abnormal. Aristotle and Plato recommended the killing of disabled infants. And so on.

In opposition to this, the early Church was firmly against abortion and infanticide. Their opposition to abortion cannot, therefore, be put down to contextual factors: that they were influenced by the cultures around them, for example. Rather, this came straight out of their faith. The Didache, a work written as early as some of the New Testament writings, states, “You shall not kill a child by abortion nor kill it after it is born.” The Letter of Barnabas, written shortly after, makes the same statement. Athenagoras, writing in the 2nd century, claimed that “those women who use drugs to bring about an abortion commit murder.” Similarly, Tertullian wrote that “for us murder is once for all forbidden; so it is not lawful for us to destroy even the child in the womb”. John Chrysostom wrote that abortion was even worse than murder, because it turned the womb into “a chamber for murder”. More examples of early Christian writers expressing the same sentiments can easily be adduced, and include Minucius Felix, Lactantius, Clement of Alexandria, Ambrose, Jerome, Cyprian and Hippolytus.

These writings cannot be dismissed as the extremist meanderings of morally dubious characters. These people were coming out of the earliest tradition in the Church founded by Jesus himself, and it was precisely these beliefs about human value and equality which led them to oppose the widespread infanticide in their culture. Probably, too, it was the influence of these Christians which led to infanticide eventually being outlawed in the Roman Empire.

It is, of course, worth also mentioning the view of the Church Fathers on the stage at which they thought a new human being was formed. After all, it is possible that they were only against abortion after a particular point in pregnancy. As it happens, the earliest Church traditions said that ensoulment took place at conception. Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa and Tertullian all held to this view. Tertullian defended it on the basis that the soul is generated by the parents, and the most natural conclusion is that conception is therefore the beginning of a new soul. This fits neatly with our belief that our parents really did create us and that we really were conceived. It also fits neatly with a Biblical understanding of procreation. It wasn’t until the 4th century that the suggestion that ensoulment didn’t occur until slightly later was even raised, and even then, abortion was still held to be a serious sin before ensoulment.

This opposition to abortion and infanticide has been characteristic of Christians until the mid-20th century, in all strands of Christian tradition. It was the basis for the outlawing of infanticide, and the basis for the particularly Christian ministry of looking after orphans and the abandoned – when Christians first began this work, there were even stories of pagans abandoning their babies on the doorsteps of Christians, because they knew they would be looked after. If we are going to break with this tradition, there better be exceptional reason to do so.

The Bible and the unborn

More importantly, of course, is what the Bible teaches about the unborn. And here, too, there is good reason to think that the Bible recognises the value of the unborn. I have already discussed the Biblical view towards humans a whole, and in particular towards the equality of human beings. If the unborn are members of the family, it follows that the Biblical position is that abortion is as serious an issue as murder, as the earliest Christians taught.

There is good Biblical reason to view the unborn as being part of the human family. Psalm 139 speaks of God seeing the Psalmist’s “unformed substance”, and knitting him together in the womb. The Psalmist is “fearfully and wonderfully made” – an image at complete odds with the parasitic blob of cells the embryo is often described as. Ecclesiastes 11:5 speaks of breath coming to the bones in the womb, an image reminiscent of the breath of life given in Genesis. Isaiah and Jeremiah speak of being called and named while in the womb, and there are many other examples of Biblical figures in the womb: Job, Jacob, Esau, Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist, to name a few (the Maccabeean revolters, to name some more, for Catholics). Luke uses the same Greek word for the unborn John as for the newborn Jesus, and as for children appearing later in the gospel. Furthermore, many of these passages explicitly label conception as the starting point for human life.

Most obviously, Jesus himself was spoken about in the womb, after Mary conceived. Christians have never believed that Gabriel announced to Mary that she conceived a parasitic blob of cells with no worth until he was born. Gabriel announced that Mary had conceived Jesus the Messiah himself! And Jesus has always been held, throughout Christian history, to have been conceived, unsurprisingly, at conception. The Biblical evidence and Christian tradition for this is so strong that even those writers (e.g. Aquinas) who thought that ensoulment happened some time after conception thought that Jesus was an exception to this rule. But if Jesus took on our humanity and was made like us in every way, why should we be any different? This seems like a very compelling reason to think that humans begin to exist at conception, as a result of their parents’ procreative act.


In summary, there are overwhelming reasons for Christians to endorse the pro-life position. Christians are called to be champions of the weak and vulnerable, and to recognise the dignity and equality of all members of the human family. The most dangerous place for most human beings is in the womb, and this is even more true for women and ethnic minorities. Christians have an extra duty to carry on their tradition of caring for the particularly young and vulnerable. Moreover, in addition to the reasoning I gave in my first post, Christians have extra reason to think that human life begins at conception, and they have an overwhelming historical tradition of standing up for life in the womb.

Lord, help us to celebrate the life You give in all its forms
Help us to stand up for life and care for the vulnerable, born and unborn
Sorry for when our condemnation pressurises women into hiding their pregnancies
And help us to support and uplift those making these decision
Most importantly, help us to find healing in You
And to know that in You, there is no condemnation
In Jesus’ name, Amen

The early Church on killing and capital punishment

The early Church on killing and capital punishment

I’ve recently been asked a fair bit about my sympathies with pacifism, and especially about my opposition to capital punishment. One part of these dialogues has been looking at the tradition of the early Church which, I believe, was unanimously against killing, a tradition so strong that I hold it to be of comparable strength with almost any Christian doctrine. While I do not currently have time to lay out a complete case against killing, I would like to offer a brief discussion of the early Church’s view on it. What follows is pretty much entirely a distillation of Preston Sprinkle’s treatment of the subject in his book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence, a sincere and compelling book I fully recommend.

The first important point is the widespread and early agreement on this issue. If the early Church was divided on the issue, it would not carry so much weight. But the unanimity, even among geographically distant parts of the Church, gives their opinion considerable weight. Sprinkle puts it like this: “Leaders from North Africa, Egypt, Israel, Asia Minor, and Rome. They all agree. Christians should never kill. Not in self-defense. Not as capital punishment for the guilty. Not in a just war. Never.”

What did early Christians say about killing? Here is a sample:

“We who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.” Justin Martyr (Apology, 1:39)

“Neither Celsus nor they who think with him are able to point out any act on the part of Christians which savours of rebellion. And yet, if a revolt had led to the formation of the Christian commonwealth… the Christian lawgiver would not have altogether forbidden the putting of men to death; and yet He nowhere teaches that it is right for His own disciples to offer violence to anyone, however wicked. For He did not deem it in keeping with such laws as His, which were derived from a divine source, to allow the killing of any individual whatever. Nor would the Christians, had they owed their origin to a rebellion, have adopted laws of so exceedingly mild a character as not to allow them, when it was their fate to be slain as sheep, on any occasion to resist their persecutors.” Origen (Against Celsus, 3:7)

“By this very fact they are invincible, that they do not fear death; that they do not in turn assail their assailants, since it is not lawful for the innocent even to kill the guilty” Cyprian (Letter 56)

“What man of sound mind, therefore, will affirm, while such is our character, that we are murderers? … For when they know that we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly; who of them can accuse us of murder or cannibalism? … But we, deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles. How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death?” Athenagoras (Plea for the Christians, 35)

“Has the Creator, withal, provided these things for man’s destruction? Nay, He puts His interdict on every sort of man-killing” Tertullian (De Spectaculis, 2)

“For he who reckons it a pleasure, that a man, though justly condemned, should be slain in his sight, pollutes his conscience as much as if he should become a spectator and a sharer of a homicide which is secretly committed … Therefore they do not spare even the innocent, but practice upon all that which they have learned in the slaughter of the wicked. It is not therefore befitting that those who strive to keep to the path of justice should be companions and sharers in this public homicide. For when God forbids us to kill, He not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but He warns us against the commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among men. Thus it will be neither lawful for a just man to engage in warfare, since his warfare is justice itself, not to accuse anyone of a capital charge, because it makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited. Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all; but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal.” Lactantius (Divine Institutes, 6:20)

“For since we, a numerous band of men as we are, have learned from His teaching and His laws that evil ought not to be requited with evil, that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it, that we should rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another” Arnobius (Against the Heathen, 1:6)

Sprinkle goes on to discuss Christians in the military, his main thesis being that Christians unanimously rejected the permissibility of Christians killing in the military. Even when Christians believed in just war, Sprinkle adds, they still thought that Christians should not kill in the military.

Sprinkle first points to Tertullian, who wrote a whole treatise forbidding military service among Christians (De Corona), and who wrote elsewhere that “the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier”. Tertullian even takes it for granted that sacrifices and capital punishments are so obviously wrong as to be virtually non-negotiable: “But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments.”

He then mentions Origen who, despite recognising the necessity and inevitability of war in some contexts, in those same contexts forbade Christians killing on the grounds of the gospel being a doctrine of peace. Sprinkle also refers to an anonymous document often attributed to Hippolytus, which is more explicit: “A military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath … the catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God.” (Apostolic Tradition, 16)

Of course, there are familiar examples of Christians in the military, both in the New Testament itself and in early Church literature.  But Sprinkle makes several points in response:

Firstly, this clearly does not constitute an endorsement of the profession. Richard Hays is quoted on this point: “their military background is no more commended by these stories than are the occupations of other converts, such as tax collectors and prostitutes”.

Secondly, the point of the stories is not to show that military service is compatible with the gospel: after all, those in the military were essentially forced to take part in idolatrous practices, and yet these are not addressed in the narratives. Rather, the point of these stories is to show the powerful, universal attraction of the gospel.

Third, after the New Testament, we have no record of Christians in the military until 173 AD, over a century later!

Fourth, those same Christian writers who mentioned Christians in the military tended to be the ones explicitly prohibiting it – so the fact that Christians were in the military is clearly compatible with Christians, on the whole, thinking that it was impermissible! Sprinkle notes that clearly not all Christians thought that joining the military was impermissible, but that all the theologians did, and that Christians have always engaged in activities out of line with Church teaching – after all, 30% of Mennonite men participated in World War II!

Fifth, we don’t know much about what relationship the role in the military had to conversion. That is, we don’t know if Christians were already in the military prior to conversion (as in the New Testament), and we don’t know what Christians in the military did about their jobs after conversion. Nor do we know to what extent those Christians in the military felt ambivalent about their two vocations.

Sixth, and perhaps most importantly, many (maybe even most) jobs in the military did not require killing. Many amounted to office jobs, and the military had far more to do than simply fight: firefighting, mail delivery, accounting, messenger services, general administration, custody of prisoners, public transport, road maintenance and other civil functions constituted the bulk of military work, according to Daniel Bell Jr. This would explain those early Church writings which allowed Christians to join the military, while forbidding them from killing in the military.

In summary, there is an overwhelming body of early Church literature forbidding Christians from killing. This includes all kinds of killing: murder of the innocent, abortion, just war, and capital punishment. Killing was seen as contrary to God’s law for Christians, even for the guilty. It was seen as a violation of the standard most characteristic of Christians: to love one’s enemy as oneself. After all, if killing is compatible with loving, then what does hatred look like? The ban on Christians killing even extended to Christians serving in their capacity as a representative of the state, such that even Romans 13, so commonly cited by defenders of capital punishment and just war, is not enough to justify Christians killing, even if it is enough to justify non-Christians in government killing. This witness is early, widespread, and clear: all killing is wrong.

A brief case against abortion

Most of my friends are aware of my strong views on abortion, but unless they have witnessed me having a conversation about it, they are unlikely to know why I hold the views that I do. So I thought it would be worth me giving a brief outline of what’s wrong with abortion, and why arguments for the ‘pro-choice’ position fail. Much more could be said, but I have a habit of writing blogs too long for people to read, so if you are unsatisfied with anything said here, feel free to ask me about it, rather than assuming that there is nothing else I could add to my case. My first post will lay out the positive case against abortion, while my second post will respond to typical pro-choice arguments.

Against abortion

There are 3 main arguments against abortion which I find persuasive, though it would be wrong to think that they are not closely linked. The first is that the unborn are human beings, and that it is wrong to kill human beings. The second is that it is implausible to suppose that there is a moral difference between newborns and the unborn – and since it is wrong to kill newborns, it is also wrong to kill the unborn. The third is a prudential reason: if we are unsure whether something has a right to life, but we believe that there is a moderate chance that it has a right to life, then it is wrong to kill it. Since there is a moderate chance that the unborn have a right to life, then it is wrong to kill the unborn.

I should add that these arguments are all enough to convince me that even a zygote ought not be killed. So I will frame my argument that way – but they can all apply (even more strongly) to foetuses. So do not reject my arguments simply on the basis that you find the zygote being a human being very unintuitive – think also about foetuses, and whether you ought to at least oppose abortion of the unborn at a late stage.

Argument 1

The first argument is that the foetus is a human being, and that it is wrong to kill human beings.

The first premise seems correct. After all, most of us would agree that we began to exist when we were conceived by our parents, even though we have changed significantly(!) over time. This intuitive position is assumed in most embryology textbooks, which tend to say in no uncertain terms that conception is the beginning of human life. In any case, it seems very difficult to suggest that the unborn entity turns into a completely different person just from a short trip down the birth canal. Both mothers and fathers have a particular responsibility to their children, and this is because it is their union which causes a new human organism to exist. It is intuitive to think that this human organism begins to exist when the gametes from the two parents meet, and it is intuitive to think that we are the same organism as the baby our mothers gave birth to, and that we are the same organism as the baby two days before birth, and so on. If this were not the case, it would be meaningless to talk about our gestation, or our conception. If we can maintain that I am the same person as yesterday, despite the fact that my body has changed location, developed and matured, and despite the fact that I might not currently be conscious (I might be asleep, for example), then there is no reason why we should say that the newborn baby is a different person to the day before, despite changes in location, development, and conscious capacity. So it seems clear that the unborn is a human being. After all, it is the same thing as me, and I am essentially a human organism.

The second premise also seems correct. On the surface of it, it is very obviously true. There doesn’t seem to be much reason to think that murder is wrong unless we hold to a principle at least something like this principle. Of course, there is much debate about why, exactly, killing human beings is wrong. Some say it is because it deprives them of a future, others because life is sacred, others because it frustrates desires. But it seems to me that most plausible accounts of why killing is wrong apply just as much to the unborn as they do to adults. It can’t just be because killing is painful, because some killing is not. It can’t just be because killing causes relatives and friends to suffer, since it would still be wrong to kill someone even if they were hated and outcast from society – indeed, we would typically see this as even worse! It seems like there is something intrinsic to humans that makes them valuable, and gives them a right to life. But this doesn’t seem to be dependent on how loved or treasured they are by fellow humans, or how much pain they feel, or how many good things they’ve achieved or done, or whether they’re conscious (it’s wrong to kill people in comas too). If it were, then it would be more wrong to kill those who are popular, or those whose deaths are more painful, or those who have a more fulfilling conscious life (and less wrong to kill newborns, blind people, mentally disabled people, and so on). But the value of human life doesn’t come in gradations – it’s not the case that some people are more valuable than others, or that some people have more of a right to life than others. Why think that this should change when humans are the other end of the birth canal? The worth and rights of humans do not come from any of these other things, and they does not come in gradations. So all human beings have a right to life, and all humans are equally valuable. This confirms the second premise. It follows that killing the unborn is the immoral killing of a human being – an extremely serious issue.

(Side-remark: of course, some people do think that killing is permissible in certain circumstances, e.g. in war, or in capital punishment. I personally think that killing is never permissible, but even if you disagree, you could easily modify this premise to something like, “it is wrong to kill an innocent human being”. Few would argue that the unborn are not innocent, so this argument seems to work just as well.)

Argument 2

The second argument against abortion is very clearly linked to the first, and it is difficult to separate the two. This argument argues from the failure of pro-abortion advocates to advance a plausible account of when and why, between conception and infancy, the child gains human rights.

Interestingly, this point has even been conceded by some of the foremost pro-abortion ethicists, like Peter Singer and Michael Tooley. The conclusion they draw is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with killing infants either. If, like most people, you agree that killing infants is seriously immoral, then you ought to apply the same principles to the unborn, since there is no morally significant difference between them.

There are many criteria which people put forward as the criteria by which humans gain rights. But usually these are incredibly arbitrary. Moreover, they usually exclude newborns – but since killing newborns is obviously very immoral, then this suggests that these criteria are false. There are a few criteria which do differentiate between the unborn and newborns, and these are helpfully summarised in what has become popularly known as the SLED test.

SLED stands for “Size, Level of Development, Environment, and Degree of Dependency”. These are supposed to cover the major differences between the unborn and the newborn, and they will suffice for the discussion here. It is clear that size does not determine rights – big people have no more rights than small people. Similarly, it is difficult to suggest that level of development determines rights. Adults have no more rights than newborns – they are an all or nothing affair. Environment should not determine rights: people do not have more or less rights depending on where they are – the birth canal, in particular, cannot plausibly be seen as a physical boundary to the extension of human rights. Degree of dependency also does not determine rights. We rightly care for the outcasts and dependent in our society by providing them with food, education and healthcare. The fact that they are dependent on us does not mean they have less of a right to life. If anything, they need more protection and help than the rest of us. So it seems like none of the main differences between the unborn and the infant are capable of conferring value. The most plausible conclusion to draw from this is that the unborn has all the same rights as the newborn, because of what it is: a human being, with human rights.

Argument 3

The third argument against abortion is prudential, and says that if there is a moderate chance that something is a human being with a right to life, then it is wrong to kill it.

This reason can be best explained with an analogy. Suppose you are in charge of the demolition of a building, and you have a whole team hired to help you do the job. In particular, you hire a group to make sure that no one is in the building at the time of demolition. Now, suppose you are waiting on the final checks and ready to blow the building up. You ask your health and safety officer whether there is anyone in the building, and she replies, “well, I don’t really know. I don’t think so, but I’m not really sure.” Surely it would be clearly wrong for you to proceed without exceptionally strong evidence that there was no one in the building, even if you consider it relatively unlikely that someone is in there. Similarly, in view of the above arguments, and in the absence of strong evidence that the unborn are not humans with rights, it would be clearly wrong to proceed simply on the basis of agnosticism.

There is a danger that calling this a prudential reason implies that it is not wrong, but simply unwise, to support abortion. I hope this implication is not believed: it would be an immoral kind of recklessness and disdain for human life which allowed the demolition of the building still to proceed, and the same is true of abortion. If we really care about human life, we would take the utmost care to ensure that we do not end it. To take it any less seriously is to disregard life and to act immorally.


It follows from these arguments that it is wrong to kill the unborn. Note the gravity of this: if these arguments are correct, abortion is not just trivially wrong, like a white lie. It is not the kind of thing which can easily be counterbalanced by considerations of convenience, autonomy, and so on. In the same way that killing newborns is an extremely serious matter, and that killing newborns cannot be justified by appeal to convenience, health, or women’s choice, so abortion, if my argument is correct, is an extremely serious matter, and one which cannot be justified by these appeals. If my argument is correct, abortion is the killing of a human with the same rights as any other human. And that means it cannot be dismissed as an unimportant issue. If it’s possible that 200,000 human beings with human rights are being killed annually in the UK alone, the claim deserves investigation, and we’d need a very good argument that the unborn are not human beings.

It follows that any argument for abortion based on these other considerations begs the question. It assumes that the unborn does not have this kind of value or these rights. In order for these pro-abortion arguments to work, they first need to establish that the unborn has no rights. Otherwise, convenience and choice are irrelevant – they simply cannot overcome the right to life, just as with newborn babies.

My next blog post will address pro-choice arguments.

When Ideology Trumps Evidence: Abortion and Mental Health

The legal justification for 98% of abortions in the UK is that “the pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman” (section 1 of the Abortion Act ,1967). The overwhelming majority of these are based on the “mental health” clause. That is, the overwhelming majority of abortions in this country are based on the ostensible risk of mental health to the mother.

But the problem is that there is minimal evidence that abortion has any positive effect on mental health, and some evidence that abortion worsens mental health. This is the conclusion, at least, of the pro-choice atheist David Fergusson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Otago, New Zealand:

“…at the present time there is no credible evidence to support the research hypothesis that abortion reduces any mental health risks associated with unwanted or unplanned pregnancy that come to term…

“These conclusions have important, if uncomfortable, implications for clinical practice and the interpretation of the law in those jurisdictions (England, Wales, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand) which require abortion to be authorized on medical grounds. In these jurisdictions, the great majority of abortions are authorized on mental health grounds… The present re-analysis suggests that, currently, there is no evidence that would support this practice…

“…this conclusion suggests an urgent need to revisit both clinical practice and the law in those jurisdictions in which mental health grounds are the principal criteria for recommending and authorizing abortion. The history of abortion law and law reforms shows that this is likely to resurrect politically uncomfortable and socially divisive debates about access to legal abortion… It is probably awareness of these consequences that explains the almost complete lack of discussion of the evidence for therapeutic benefits of abortion in recent reviews of abortion and mental health. However, it is our view that the growing evidence suggesting that abortion does not have therapeutic benefits cannot be ignored indefinitely, and it is unacceptable for clinicians to authorize large numbers of abortions on grounds for which there is, currently, no scientific evidence.” (David M Fergusson et al (2013), “Does abortion reduce the mental health risks of unwanted or unintended pregnancy? A re-appraisal of the evidence.” Aust N Z J Psychiatry, 47(9), 819-27.)

This 2013 review comes on the back of several studies by Fergusson and his colleagues, His 2006 cohort study concluded that “[those] having an abortion had elevated rates of subsequent mental health problems including depression, anxiety, suicidal behaviours and substance use disorders. This association persisted after adjustment for confounding factors.” (David M Fergusson et al (2006), “Abortion in young women and subsequent mental health.” J Child Psychol Psychiatry, 47(1), 16-24.) His 2008 study had a similar conclusion (David M Fergusson et al (2008), “Abortion and mental health disorders: evidence from a 30-year longitudinal study.” Br J Psychiatry, 193(6), 444-51.)

This more recent review surveys a wider range of data from various authors, concluding that “[there] is no available evidence to suggest that abortion has therapeutic effects in reducing the mental health risks of unwanted or unintended pregnancy. There is suggestive evidence that abortion may be associated with small to moderate increases in risks of some mental health problems.” Fergusson discusses two other recent reviews, one of which concluded that abortion was associated with increased risk of mental health problems, the other of which declared that there was no association either way. The theme common to all 3 reviews, Fergusson notes, is that the evidence linking abortion with better mental health is non-existent.

The implication, Fergusson rightly points out, is that these results render the practice of UK (and other) clinicians thoroughly dubious on legal grounds alone: “Given the high frequency with which mental health grounds are used in these jurisdictions to authorize abortion, it becomes important for both clinical and legislative reasons to examine the evidence on the extent to which abortion has therapeutic benefits that mitigate any mental health effects of unwanted pregnancy.” Clinical practice is often based on specious evidential grounds, but surely rarely as specious as this. If we’re going to put an end to human life, we’d better be sure that we have some very good grounds to do so, and that the evidence supports these grounds. But if the grounds are mental health, and the only evidence we have shows either no association or that abortion damages mental health, then the ideological motivations for clinical decisions become clear, taking precedence not only over the life of the thousands of foetuses aborted in the UK every year, but even over the mental health of those whose lives we can all agree are valuable: the thousands of young women in the UK in this situation. In any other clinical domain, we would have the evidence-based medicine proponents out in droves, lambasting the poor evidential basis for this “treatment”. We would even have legitimate legal cases against doctors who advised or carried out these procedures. But when it comes to abortion, evidence is sacrificed at the altar of women’s choice, and we continue to pour NHS money and effort into these procedures to preserve it.

As a firm pro-choicer, Fergusson has no pro-life axe of his own to grind, and so he recommends a solution: “the most straightforward way of resolving these tensions between the law and clinical practice in jurisdictions that use health criteria as grounds for authorizing abortion is to extend these criteria to include serious threats to the social, educational, or economic wellbeing of the woman and her immediate family as legitimate grounds for authorizing abortion. This revision would more closely align the criteria for authorizing abortion with the multiple personal reasons… for which women seek abortion.”

Of course, such a solution would undermine those doctors within the NHS who want to recommend abortions for any unplanned pregnancy, as well as undermining the NHS’ financial and infrastructural support for abortions. And it would make clear that abortion really has nothing to do with mental health, and everything to do with women’s choice to do what they want with their children (so long as they’re at the politically insignificant end of the birth canal) which, of course, sounds much less like a clinical decision about healthcare when one puts it that way.

Of course, this should not detract from the proper grounds of opposition to abortion. The danger of highlighting various secondary problems in the position and practice of pro-choicers is that they may give the impression that opposition to abortion is really based on things like mental health and taxpayers’ money. Of course, these things are to some small extent relevant, but they occasionally obscure the real reason pro-lifers are against abortion: because abortion is the killing of a member of the human family (and yes, many of us are pro-life in other domains too). None of the secondary arguments are even remotely as important as this. So my point here is not to bolster the case for being pro-life; it is to expose the rampant ideological motivations at the heart of the pro-choice movement ostensibly concerned about women’s mental health. It is to give just one demonstration of the extent to which this ideology has entrenched itself in our society, such that even objective evidence is contradicted in order to pretend that we have some sort of justification for the practice.

Do not be fooled, ladies and gentlemen, into thinking that the pro-choice movement is about women’s health, or that it relies on honest and scientifically substantive tactics and information, or that it makes the most compelling arguments for its cause. Even within the allegedly neutral scientific community, David Fergusson had trouble publishing his results on account of their inconvenience. Fergusson himself expected the link between abortion and poorer mental health to be explained by confounding factors, but his own statistical inquiry led him to believe otherwise, that abortion was an independent risk factor. And, of course, he was asked by his country’s government-appointed Abortion Supervisory Committee not to publish the results in case they were used for political purposes. No prizes for guessing which side they were concerned about using them. All of this should make pro-choicers and clinicians who have not thought about the matter wary. Most of them have simply been indoctrinated while growing up into thinking that abortion is perfectly acceptable, that it is often a clinically beneficial decision, and that there is no way this teaching is just a result of pure, evidentially vacuous ideology on the part of the pro-choice lobby. The fact that we have government committees asking for scientific results not to be published, and that scientifically untenable hypotheses are wholly and unquestioningly endorsed by the medical community (which, in the UK alone, licenses around 200,000 abortions every year), and the fact that the widespread clear-contravention of UK law in clinical practice is virtually ignored should alert us to the fact that there may be something amiss in the pro-choice misinformation thrown onto us and bullied into us as we grow up. And indeed it is.

The simple fact is this: out of nearly 200,000 abortions performed every year in the UK, 97-98% are licensed (and most of those funded) by the NHS on the grounds of risk to mental health of the mother. The only evidence we have shows no connection, or that abortion is independent risk factor for mental health problems, even when the data is corrected for plausible confounding factors. Any other practice so widespread and so contrary to the evidence would rightly be condemned as negligent at best, especially if it involved the killing of human life which, for all we know, could be valuable. But because of the political correctness and expedience of supporting the pro-choice agenda at all costs and against any intellectual, scientific or ethical integrity, the practice persists. Please speak up against it.

Some concerns about kalam

People have been asking for a while why I don’t find the kalam cosmological argument very convincing, so I thought it would be useful to have this to refer them to. For those who are unfamiliar with this argument, see my outline of it here.

1) I don’t think objections based on A/B-theory of time are very good. It seems to me that a KCA could just as easily be made using a B-theory of time.
2) Most objections to the KCA are terrible. If you’re objecting because you think the KCA commits the fallacy of composition, or if you’re objecting because you’re a mereological nihilist, then you are not objecting to it properly.
3) I am enormously grateful to William Lane Craig for his work in Christian apologetics, and his work has greatly inspired my own. This shouldn’t be taken as a personal attack!

Now that those indefensibly dismissive disclaimers are out of the way, I can turn to my own concerns.

P1 Everything which begins to exist has a cause

Craig’s three arguments for this premise are as follows:

1.1   Ex nihilo, nihil fit (out of nothing, nothing comes)
1.2   The non-discrimination of nothingness
1.3   Experiential confirmation

1.1 Ex nihilo, nihil fit

It is hard to see exactly what 1.1 means in this context, and how it supports P1. There are two options: either “out of nothing, nothing comes” is semantically equivalent to “everything which begins to exist has a cause”, or it is not. If it is, then this clearly cannot be used as a non-question-begging premise in support of P1. If not, then we will have to give a clearer analysis of what it means. If Craig means the following:

For any time t, if at t nothing exists, then for any positive n, at time t + n nothing exists.

Then the principle seems very probably correct (ignoring concerns about whether “nothing exists at t” is even possible, and the relevant semantics and truth conditions for counterpossibles). But then it is difficult to see how the principle supports P1. For surely no reasonable (note the emphasis – clearly many atheists actually think this) atheist is going to think that there really was a time when nothing existed, and that there was then a later a time when something existed. It seems to me that most atheists will say either that time extends infinitely in the past, and that at each past time something has existed (and so they will reject P2), or that time itself had a beginning, and so there was no time when nothing existed. This latter option is perfectly compatible with P2 and with ex nihilo, nihil fit (as I have construed it), but also seems perfectly consistent with the rejection of P1.

1.2 The non-discrimination of nothingness

A similar objection can be brought against 1.2. Craig seems to want to say that if an atheist denies P1, they will have to think that nothingness can give rise to universes, but not to anything else. Even if it were true that an atheist would have to agree that universes were unique in the relevant respect, it would not be true that an atheist has to think that nothingness can give rise to universes. The reason for this is given above: that no reasonable atheist will really think that nothingness gives rises to universes in any intelligible sense.

1.3 Experiential confirmation

Craig’s third argument for P1 is an inductive one: Craig alleges that we have overwhelming inductive confirmation of the principle, since everything we have observed (other than the universe – this caveat will be assumed henceforth) which began to exist has had a cause. But there are a few problems here: firstly, it’s not clear that everything we have observed which began to exist had a cause. Secondly, it’s not clear that we observe causes at all, so it’s difficult to see that we have overwhelming experiential/observational confirmation of this principle. Thirdly, it’s hard to see exactly what kind of inductive inference is used to reach P1 from this ostensible fact. Even if it was known to be the case that everything we have observed which began to exist had a cause, we would have to explain what kind of inductive inference we are using to reach P1. I am firmly of the opinion that statistical syllogisms are invalid, since we can easily come up with parodies:

A1) Everything we have observed so far (except the universe) has not been a universe.

Therefore (with high probability),

A2) The universe is not a universe.

This is obviously absurd. Even weaker inductive principles saying that P(the universe is not a universe) > 0.5 clearly fail. Consider this parody too:

B1) Everything we have observed so far has had a cause.

Therefore (with high probability):

B2) Everything has a cause.

Theists will obviously want to deny this move, since they deny that God has a cause. So the inference is not necessarily a good one.

It seems to me that Bayesianism provides the best account of valid inductive inference. For 1.3 to be useful, we will want an argument that P(P1|E1 & E2) is pretty high, where E1 is the information that everything else we have observed which began to exist had a cause, and E2 is everything else we know (again, this is only useful supposing we grant E1). This depends on P(P1|E2), P(E1|P1 & E2) and P(E1|E2). But it hasn’t been shown that P(P1|E2) is particularly high, and we might have very good reason to think it is low to the extent that we think it is intrinsically probable that  just one thing began to exist without a cause. To overcome this intrinsic improbability, the ratio P(E1|P1 & E2)/P(E1|E2) must be sufficiently large. But this does not seem demonstrably true. P(E1|P1 & E2) is 1, to be sure. But P(E1|E2) does not seem to me to be very low. Our whole reason for thinking P1 is false might be that while it seems plausible that most things which begin to exist have causes, it seems implausible that the universe as a whole should have a cause. This is a perfectly intelligible idea: we readily accept that B2 is implausible because there is at least one exception (viz. God), even though we expect (almost) everything else we observe to have a cause. Similarly, P1 might be implausible because there is one exception (the universe), even though we expect (almost) everything else we observe which began to exist to have a cause.

So at the very least, the inductive step will have to be made a lot clearer for us to consider 1.3 to be a good justification for P1.

Another concern

Aside from these problems, there is some ambiguity over exactly what is meant by a cause. In particular, we will have to find out if “cause” is understood in the classical sense where causes necessitate their effects, or if causes do not necessitate their effects. If causation is understood classically and P1 is granted, then we run into a problem: there must be intra-universal determinism. But even Craig doesn’t grant this: Craig holds that humans have libertarian free will, and therefore are not compelled by anything in certain circumstances. But then certain things (free intentions to perform an action) do not have causes in the classical sense.

Of course, it is possible to reject the classical understanding of causation, but this brings its own attendant problems: in the first place, it is difficult to see what it means to say that some event is caused if the cause isn’t sufficient for the event. I would love to defend this in greater detail, but here is not the place. Perhaps this concern can be alleviated. But allowing that causes do not have to be sufficient for their effects may create further trouble for Craig’s arguments for the personhood of the cause – we will see this later.

P2 The universe began to exist

I don’t have much objection to this premise, but it’s worth noting a few issues. Firstly, it is unclear whether the universe mentioned here is what physicists often mean by a universe (that is, just one local region of space-time, possibly as part of larger multiverse), or whether “all of space-time” (including other space-times minimally or not at all related to ours) is meant. For Craig’s later arguments to work, he needs to mean “all of space-time”, but then it seems to me that the scientific arguments for the universe having a beginning are not as powerful as we might think. While the impression I get is that most physicists would agree that this local region of space-time had a beginning, it is not so clear that physicists would agree that all space-time in existence had a beginning. Many physicists will be hesitant, saying things like, “the Big Bang was the beginning of the universe as we know it”, indicating that there may be more to the story. Perhaps I am overestimating the level of dissent to this thesis within the scientific community. I’m not well-read enough to know, but I simply note this here as a point I am yet to be convinced of, whether that is because of my own ignorance or something else.

Meanwhile, I do not find the philosophical arguments to be persuasive. It is difficult to see how one can hold to the impossibility of an actually infinite number of things existing, while holding to some kind of realism about abstract objects, or even while holding to theism. If one is a realist about, for example, propositions, one will surely have to hold that there are an actually infinite number of propositions. And if one holds to theism, plausibly (though not necessarily) one would agree that God has an actually infinite number of true beliefs. So any argument relying on the impossibility of actual infinities is not going to be too favourable to theism. And I’m personally not convinced that the arguments against the possibility of actual infinities are successful ones. Craig formalises the intuitive argument behind Hilbert’s hotel thus:

(i)                  There are not more things in a multitude M than there are in a multitude M’ if there is a one-to-one correspondence of their members.
(ii)                There are more things in M than there are in M’ if M’ is a proper submultitude of M.
(iii)               An infinite multitude exists.

These three propositions cannot all be true. Since (i) and (ii) seem the most innocuous, we should reject (iii).

But (i) and (ii) are far from innocuous, especially when put together. After all, the typical motivation for (i) is an acceptance of standard Cantorian set theory. But anyone who accepts Cantor’s system as a way of understanding infinities will surely reject (ii). (i) and (ii) are far from innocuous when put together. So it doesn’t seem like Craig’s primary philosophical argument for P2 is successful.

A further brief concern about the philosophical justifications for P2: it seems that if something is necessarily false (and certainly known to be so), then the probability of it given any set of propositions is either undefined or 0. If this is the case for P2, then P(P2|theism) = P(P2|atheism) = 0, and so P2 cannot confirm theism over atheism or vice versa. So it is then hard to see how it can be used as a datum in support of theism.

The nature of the cause

Craig holds that the cause of the universe must be immaterial, timeless, uncaused and personal. As I mentioned earlier, for the arguments for an immaterial and timeless cause to work, Craig has to argue that all space-time has a cause – and even then it’s not obvious that the cause must be timeless. For example, perhaps something within time but non-spatial caused all space-time to exist – to object to this, one has to show that it is sufficiently improbable, in light of our knowledge, that there should be something which is inside time but outside of space-time. But the real problem, for me, is with Craig’s arguments for the personhood of the cause. Craig offers three arguments here:

2.1 There are two candidates for timeless, immaterial beings: abstract objects and unembodied minds. Abstract objects cannot cause anything. So the cause of the universe must be an unembodied mind.

2.2 There are two types of causal explanation: personal explanation and scientific explanation. Scientific explanations involve laws acting on initial conditions and therefore cannot explain the universe, since there were no initial conditions before the universe. So the explanation must be personal.

2.3 A mechanistic cause provides sufficient conditions for its effect. But this means that if a cause of the universe existed timelessly, then the universe would exist timelessly too. But since the universe doesn’t exist timelessly, the cause cannot be timeless. So only a personal agent with real freedom is capable of causing a universe to exist.

It seems difficult to justify the claim that 2.1 exhausts all the possible causes of the universe. Defenders of the KCA will typically ask for alternative possibilities – but it should be obvious that we don’t need to come up with another detailed possibility in order to rationally resist the idea that abstract objects and minds are the only alternatives. In any case, we should be immediately suspicious of any argument based on such a fluid expression as “materialism”. Our physics has changed enough over the past century to show us that plenty of non-personal things exist which might not previously have been considered “material” – many of these things will not have been conceived of at some time in the past. But they nevertheless existed as conceivable, non-personal things with causal power, and which eventually came to stand under the umbrella of the material. So it seems far too quick to assume that the lack of a presently conceived detailed alternative would show that a personal agent must have done it.

Moreover, it is surely difficult to defend the idea that a timeless unembodied mind is much more prima facie coherent than a timeless material object. I have about as much reason to think one is impossible as the other (aside from religious commitments), since both are relatively inconceivable to me. The only reason I have for thinking that a timeless non-personal cause is incoherent is that I cannot conceive of one – but I have an exactly parallel reason for thinking that a timeless personal cause is incoherent. So this argument will not do much to persuade me that the cause is more plausibly personal than impersonal.

I cannot quite see the force behind 2.2. Craig relies on Swinburne’s distinction between personal and inanimate explanations, and the reason inanimate explanations fail in this case is because, on Swinburne’s characterisation, they involve laws acting on initial conditions to bring about later conditions. That is, the action of the law necessarily involves a change in time. But Craig thinks that simultaneous causation is possible, and gives examples of inanimate causes causing a simultaneous effect to support this, which undermines Swinburne’s characterisation of inanimate explanation completely. Craig denies the very proposition which is required for inanimate explanations to fail in explaining the universe, and so I fail to be persuaded by this argument.

2.3 seems to me to equivocate on “timeless”, seems to rely on some very dubious premises, doesn’t seem to exclude every option other than personal agents, and seems to present a comparable difficulty for theism. In the first place, it relies on the premise that if a mechanistic cause existed timelessly/eternally, then so would its effect. But I don’t see much reason to think that this should be the case. This can be illustrated by considering a similar difficulty for theism: if God’s intention is sufficient for the universe to exist, and if God’s intention existed timelessly, then the universe should exist timelessly.

Perhaps the premise would have some plausibility if it were something more akin to this: “if a mechanistic cause existed atemporally, then so would its effect”. But Craig’s premise is more like, “if a mechanistic cause existed “timelessly” in at least one sense, then its effect would also exist “timelessly” in another sense.” I simply don’t see why any premise of this kind should be persuasive. There doesn’t seem to me to be anything in the metaphysics of causation to suggest that causes and effects should have an extremely similar relation to time, and indeed, the theist will want to deny that causes and effects necessarily have such similar relations. So I can’t see that this is a good justification for thinking that the cause of the universe is personal.

Finally, 2.3 doesn’t seem to exclude non-mechanistic non-personal causes. Since Craig seems to think that some x can cause some y even though x is not sufficient for y (that is, with a rejection of the classical understanding of causation), this seems to be a perfectly plausible option. I have little more to say on this point, but I note it for completeness.

One final problem

Again, for completeness, I should briefly detail one or two final concerns. These are to do with the framework of the argument as a whole. The first is that in general, I find many deductive arguments unsatisfactory. It is not always clear how the plausibility of the premises is supposed to relate to the plausibility of the conclusion. To secure a conclusion which, given our evidence, is more probable than not, the conjunction of the premises of a deductive argument must have a probability of greater than 0.5. But the fact that each premise is more likely than not, given our evidence, is certainly not sufficient to establish this.

This raises a further problem, something of a “dwindling probabilities” argument: we can only guarantee a probability of the conclusion insofar as the conjunction of the argument’s premises is probable. But if each premise is only somewhat more probable than not, the probability of the conclusion we can derive drops off pretty quickly. Suppose we think that P(P1) = P(P2|P1) = 0.7: then P(P1 & P2) = 0.49. Let P3 be the premise that if the universe has a cause, the cause of the universe is personal. Suppose P(P3|P1 & P2) = 0.7. Then P(P1 & P2 & P3) = 0.343.  Of course, some might question these probabilities: but it is clear that the more uncertain steps there are, the more the probability we can guarantee for the conclusion decreases. Since a lot of steps in the KCA are far from certain, and since some seem only slightly more probable than their negations, this presents a serious problem for the KCA.


In conclusion, there are a number of problems with the KCA. I know that Craig has addressed many of these, and I have read some of Craig’s responses – I invite my reader to assume that I have found them unconvincing, but I have not had enough time so far to read the voluminous literature Craig has produced on the subject. I am happy to concede that I would not be surprised if Craig addressed at least some of these concerns adequately (particularly regarding the scientific arguments). I’m happy to be proven wrong – it’s always nice to have another compelling argument for theism – but I have to be honest in saying that I find the KCA uncompelling, at least as a deductive argument.*

* I have recently written a paper explicating a Bayesian approach to the kalam cosmological argument. I am hoping to publish it so cannot say much here – but watch this space!

Why Christians should oppose the death penalty

This piece is largely for my brothers and sisters over the world: the issue is not really a current one in the UK and I can’t see us implementing the death penalty anytime soon. But I have some strong feelings on this issue which need to be aired. I should note that I haven’t read much on this topic and so my arguments will only be rudimentary in form. And before my liberal friends express joy at the conclusion and my conservative Christian friends worry that I’ve pandered to liberal social trends, I warn that secular liberals will find little joy in this article. Indeed, I shall be arguing that conservative Christianity has most reason to oppose capital punishment (though NB I do not commit myself to all these theses here): Liberals will probably get as angry at some of the claims here as they would at a piece in favour of it. I will not be dealing with certain practical considerations (e.g. whether we can achieve certainty about a judgment of guilt, or whether the penalty unfairly targets a particular economic or ethnic group), but will try to stick to principled reasons.

Bad reasons to oppose the death penalty

Let me begin with some bad reasons to oppose it. Firstly, that the death penalty is barbaric. It’s hard to see what this should mean. Primitive? Well, lots of primitive cultures got lots of things right (even some of the things modern cultures got wrong). If it’s about moraI sophistication, this really begs the question against the many modern people who support the death penalty. It buys into the myth of the steady moral progress of humanity, and it neglects the fact that primitive cultures could have taught us a great deal about morality which we seem to have forgotten. And, to state the obvious, if it’s about the level of technological sophistication, then modern death penalties are quite clearly not primitive. Cruel? Well, so was the crime, and most death penalty proponents are likely to think that the cruelty of the crime and the need for a proportionate punishment is exactly when we should be being “cruel”. Part of the whole point of punishment (in many people’s eyes) is to cause some suffering as retribution, and if causing suffering counts as cruelty then so be it. Sadistic? Perhaps some death penalty proponents are sadistic. But this is clearly just a strawman against all those proponents who support the death penalty, not because they take pleasure out of seeing suffering per se, but because they think it is just. So the accusation of barbarism ought not be persuasive.

A second bad argument is that it’s a violation of inalienable human rights, or “because the UN said so”. Human rights (in the modern sense) simply don’t appear as a conceptual framework in the Bible, in Jesus’ teaching, or in patristic literature (and it’s hard to see how to justify/ground their existence on a non-theistic epistemology/ontology, too). It’s hard to see that humans have inalienable rights to anything, at least not in virtue of their intrinsic merit. Everything that humans have is a gift from God, and their value comes from God – but this is never expressed in terms of inalienable human rights. To the contrary, there are suggestions that humans do give up their “rights”: by rejecting God fully and permanently, they give up their “right” to life. And even if such rights existed but were not inalienable, it would be hard to see why murderers, for example, should not have given up their right when they violated someone else’s right to life. So this line of argument is profoundly lacking too, I think.

A final bad argument is to say that no one deserves to die. I cannot see how anyone (who has not been brainwashed in liberal ethical obfuscation of the most abject kind) could find this remotely plausible. Perhaps it would be plausible if one denied that anyone deserved anything, but I cannot think of a reasonable understanding of the notion of deserving on which it would make sense to say that absolutely no-one deserved to die. Such a suggestion violates all our ethical intuitions, all our natural language and (for Christians) Biblical considerations. More on this later.

Prima facie dissonance, death as an enemy

So why do I oppose the death penalty? As I said, the reasons are not very well thought out, but it seems to have prima facie dissonance with our witness to forgiveness, grace, mercy and salvation from the powers of death, in Christ. Which Christian response shows people more of the grave, forgiveness and undeserved salvation of God through Jesus – the clamouring for retribution (despite Jesus supposedly taking it, and despite our not being prepared to suffer retribution for our own transgressions), or those who have had family members murdered and who declare forgiveness and service to the guilty, as a microcosm of the gospel? I know which one I think sounds more like Jesus, and which one I think shows people more about the God I worship: “when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Paul, who himself would probably not have written half the New Testament if the death penalty was applied in the way that most people want it applied, goes on to tell us that “just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Elsewhere, he writes of death as the last enemy, to be destroyed, quoting Isaiah: “On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever” and Hosea: “Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?”


So death is portrayed as an enemy, an evil (even if a necessary one, for the sake of justice). But the whole point of the gospel is that it is an evil borne by Jesus himself, so that we don’t have to be burdened with it. We already knew that it was an evil – God asks in Ezekiel: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” Capital punishment removes the possibility of this: and it seems to be in clear contravention of what God wants. How much more, then, do we know this through Jesus? Surely the only reason for capital punishment is for retribution – but how can we do this in light of Jesus’ satisfaction of any need for retribution? And why do we limit it to certain cases? I will argue shortly that this “threshold” criterion, or the restriction of capital punishment to particularly heinous cases, fails dramatically. So even if justice does mean giving people what they’ve given of (which is controversial), it seems clear that any need for justice, so understood, was fulfilled by Jesus on the cross.

Biblical injunctions against evil

And if death is an evil (or, at least, if killing is), it is hard to see how Christians can support the death penalty in light of Peter’s command: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” Murder is an evil, sure. And yet here Christians are called to bless those who do evil. Is killing someone back a blessing? Is letting the government kill them a blessing? Surely that is immensely implausible. Paul goes further:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse … do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doin this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

The relevance of this passage hardly needs explicating. Every single verse is so blindingly obviously against retribution – Jesus has paid retribution for our sins, so that we don’t have to. And if anyone rejects the forgiveness found in Jesus, God will deal with them in the end. It is hardly the case that if we don’t enact retributive justice, no one will. And Paul, at least, is explicitly clear that we are to leave it to God. And if you don’t like Paul, there’s always Jesus himself:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

Jesus’ treatment of those deserving of death

It is also instructive to look at how Jesus treated people who deserved death. To begin with, the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 seems to provide overwhelming evidence against the admissibility of the death penalty for Christians. A Christian’s chief moral direction should come from the teachings and actions of Jesus, and this seems to be as good an example as any of Jesus’ attitude towards those who society (and even God) thought deserving of the death penalty. An adultress is brought in, guilty and deserving death, according to God’s law. What is Jesus’ response? “You’re right, this person is beyond redemption, kill her!” Or perhaps “I guess this woman could be a recipient of God’s grace… but this is just so heinous, I think we’d better give the enemy what he wants by killing her.” Or maybe even: “Ah, yes, well as much as I might be against individual humans killing her, the government can totally go for it!” These responses rightly seem ridiculous in light of what Jesus actually says: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her … has no one condemned you? … [No] … then neither do I condemn you.” This final sentence is particularly interesting. Jesus takes the death penalty not to be a God-endorsed function of the state, nor an appropriate means of protecting society, but a condemnation. And yet what does Jesus command elsewhere? “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” And that even he (at least in his first coming) “did not come to condemn the world, but to save it”. If Jesus himself commands us not to judge, that even he did not condemn, and that the death penalty (even when deserved) is a condemnation of a person, what right on heaven or earth do we have to exercise it?

But Jesus’ response is far more extreme than that. Jesus died for those who deserved death – if we are truly followers of him taking up our own crosses, we should be prepared to do the same. Did Christ call for others to kill murderers? Did he call for the government to do it? No, he blessed them, called for their forgiveness, died for them, and asked his followers to do the same. This is seen most powerfully when we examine the threshold view – that the death penalty is warranted only in some extreme cases of moral depravity. For, on this account, first-degree murder is one of the instances most deserving of death. But in the most dramatic encounter between Jesus and murderers – Jesus’ crucifixion itself – what is Jesus’ response? “Father, forgive them”.

But there are far worse problems with this threshold view: not only is it incompatible with Jesus’ actions towards those who deserved death, but it seems to say that God’s grace is not really wide enough. To say that something is just “too far” limits God’s mercy in an almost blasphemous way. For “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Are we saying that God’s grace is not enough to save murderers?

But even this doesn’t get at the most fundamental problem with the threshold view. I was once in a discussion about capital punishment, when someone said (as an argument for the death penalty), “I seem to read [Acts 25:11] as Paul implying that there are cases where someone could be guilty of a crime deserving death.” This understatement astonished me, because the fact is that, according to Biblical Christianity, we are all deserving of death, we are all murderers, and we are all guilty of the most heinous crime imaginable. It amazes me that people talk of murderers deserving the death penalty, forgetting that they themselves are part of a race which has rejected and hated God, and killed his Son. Jesus took the punishment of death for all of us – to say that we don’t deserve death rejects this fact, and to suppose that we are not all guilty of this most heinous crime is simply false. But if we are all guilty of this, it seems absurd to limit the death penalty only to a few people who we think are just extra bad. The fact is that we are all overwhelmingly bad, so bad that God died in place of us. We are all guilty of the worst crime and deserving of death, and yet none of us are so bad that God cannot save and forgive us. As odd as it sounds, even murder, a symptom of this primary sin, pales in comparison. And it seems hugely implausible that our punishment of different humans should vary so dramatically when there is proportionately so little difference in the level and severity of sin between humans.

It gets worse than this, though. Consider Jesus’ words: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgemen. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” John puts this even more starkly: Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer.” Can anyone honestly say they have never hated anyone? I doubt it. And yet, according to the Bible, this makes us all murderers. How, then, can we call for the death of others and not of ourselves? Such a position attributes ourselves with the most abject false righteousness. To propose the death penalty is to undermine our own sin, and to undermine our own sin is to undermine God’s grace. I submit that only when we really take our own sin and depravity seriously do we really grasp God’s grace – and that taking it seriously undermines any support for a non-universal death penalty. And what is Jesus’ response to all of us? To call for our death? Or to bless us, forgive us, and extend the offer of life? If Jesus extends the offer of life to us while we were his enemies and murderers, how can we fail to do the same to others?

Why conservatives should oppose the death penalty

Let me offer a few final thoughts on why conservative Christian positions ought to lead to even more opposition to the death penalty. Firstly, those who think that one has to be a Christian in this life to avoid hell (i.e. soteriological exclusivists) would be supporting the decision to completely end someone’s chances of eternal life, and so effectively consigning the person to hell. This seems to me obviously completely inadmissible – that, rather than heeding Paul’s wish that “I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ” for the sake of others’ salvation, we are instead in favour of putting an end to someone’s chance of salvation for the sake of retribution which we are told has been paid by Jesus.

Secondly, as I hope has been made clear in the last section, a full and extensive recognition of sin is precisely the kind of view which illuminates God’s grace, and which highlights the fact that, if the death penalty were ever appropriate, we should all be on the receiving end.

Thirdly, opposition to the death penalty comports best with extreme pro-life positions. According to the most conservative Christian positions, even the unborn are, in some sense, implicated in sin. On the most conservative rendering, even they are not innocent. But in that case, it is hard to see why one should be pro-life when it comes to abortion but not when it comes to capital punishment.

Fourthly, the death penalty is at odds with the position of the early church. In light of the passages examined in this article, it is no wonder the early Christians were unanimously against capital punishment, and even against serving in the army. I am thankful that the Roman Catholic Church has preserved at least this former tradition to this day.

Final comments

So I think there is very good reason for Christians to oppose the death penalty. In my experience, alternative interpretations of the passages given here, and alternative ethical frameworks which accept the passages but still support capital punishment, seem to be much more contrived, and seem to have to squish the Biblical passages into a framework which already holds to capital punishment, for whatever reason. I think it is obvious that the rejection of the death penalty allows us to accept the most natural interpretations of these passages, without forcing us to adopt any contrived or complicated ethical framework. The question we really have to honestly ask ourselves is, what are the most natural interpretations and frameworks? And if we came to the debate with a neutral view, waiting to hear what the Bible had to say on the issue, on which side would the balance of evidence lie? Do we see critics of capital punishment make contrived manoeuvres to try and fit Jesus’ teaching into their pre-conceived framework, or do we see proponents of capital punishment do so? Bear in mind that, if the critics are right, then capital punishment is murder. This suggests that we should be extremely prudent and be really sure that capital punishment is acceptable before allowing it. Can supporters really be so confident that Jesus endorses it that they are willing to risk being complicit in murder? That seems to me extremely implausible. In the end it comes down to Jesus. What sounds more characteristic of him? “You’re all sinners who have rejected God, been his enemy and killed his Son, and you are all murderers because you have hated in your heart, but I am extending this offer of life to all of you, so that you might receive mercy and forgiveness” or “You’re all sinners who have rejected God, been his enemy and killed his Son, and you are all murderers because you have hated in your heart, but a few of you have committed some extra particular sins which I feel make you deserve death even more, so I think the government should kill you”?

To me, it’s obvious.

Is God supernatural?

I cannot think of any reasonable definition of “natural”, “physical” or “material” which is concordant with our everyday use of the terms. It is remarkable how much time is spent arguing over theses like “naturalism” when most of the participants are not even able to give reasonable definitions of these terms. Of course, there is an easy answer: naturalism is the view that nature is all that there is. Similarly, physicalism might be the view that only physical things exist. That people find this satisfying is remarkable to me. Is it not obvious that this pushes the question back to what is meant by “natural”, “physical”, etc? And when I ask for definitions of these, all the answers I get are different in content and similar in inadequacy.

One common tactic is to attempt a definition by giving examples of ostensibly natural and supernatural things. Not only is this a peculiar way to answer the question, it almost always gives rise to an absurd way of reasoning. Many, for example, argue that theism is supernatural, and then give examples of supernatural things like ghosts, fairies, magic, and so on – essentially, anything that is implausible or in some sense disconfirmed by scientific inquiry. It is then an easy induction from the fact that all other supernatural things are implausible or disconfirmed to the conclusion that, therefore, theism is implausible or disconfirmed, and requires such a huge shift in our ontology that the explanatory benefit is outweighed by these considerations. But this is obviously absurd if we can’t give a useful unifying definition of “natural” which explains why all these other entities/theories, including God, are implausible.

What really seems to be happening is that people are making a set of all implausible things, adding God, giving it an artificial name, and then declaring that the inductive inference from all other members having a property (i.e. being implausible) to God having the property. But this is obviously absurd. I could just as easily give a stipulative definition of a new term “falseism”: a proposition is a falseism if and only if it is either false, or it is the proposition, “there are no Gods” (call this proposition A for expedience). Then, I could easily construct any number of parodies of arguments typically used against theism on account of its being supernatural. For example, I could make a simple inductive argument from the falsehood of every single other falseism to the falsehood of A. Or perhaps we could pull a Hume: we’ve never observed a falseism to be true, and so no amount of evidence or reasoning could reasonably convince us that any new falseism is true (for example, A): “There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every [falseism], otherwise the [proposition] would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the [truth] of any [falseism]; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the [falseism] rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.”

And, of course, we can come up with any number of these arguments. Adding a falseism to our epistemology would be so outrageously different such that we would need extraordinary warrant, and certainly no warrant which we can practically attain. There’s no evidence of any other falseism being true – so we don’t even know if it’s possible that this falseism (A) could be true. And so on. Most arguments against theism (on grounds of supernaturalism) can be parodied this way.

One more thought: don’t these terms seem a bit ad hoc? Surely things that we now accept as natural or physical would have, at some point, been deemed supernatural or non-physical? What about certain concepts entertained in contemporary physics – string theory? Wormholes? Special relativity and the implications for time? Energy? Dark energy? Dark matter? Virtual particles? It’s easy to imagine these being seen as non-natural by people before they were taken seriously within physics, but it seems very much like serious consideration by the scientific community is enough to deem them supernatural. It simply doesn’t seem like “naturalism” has the semantic consistency to be a useful label.

And so that’s why, in short, I don’t buy the natural-supernatural distinction. It’s much easier to talk more specifically about ideas than to frame these debates as being about these two labels, with ever-changing meanings. I’d rather someone tell me why theism is false than why supernatural phenomena generally are false. And I’d rather argue simply for the truth of theism (or falsehood of atheism) rather than weigh myself down with gratuitous burdens like demonstrating the existence of things beyond nature (whatever that means).

Of course, I may be wrong. And I know that some attempts have been made to define it more rigorously (though usually, in my experience, at the expense of our intuitions about what we normally mean by “natural”). I’m happy to entertain such attempts, and this is no guarantee that I won’t eventually call myself a naturalist (or supernaturalist) if the terms become relatively fixed. But this is why, for now, I can’t see any merit in appealing to those labels.

(For those so inclined, atheist philosopher Gregory Dawes has an excellent discussion of this whole issue in his “Theism and Explanation”, in the first chapter. Much of the rest of the book is unpersuasive, but his first chapter is excellent).

Stephen Law, fine tuning and Evil God

I recently attended a talk by philosopher Stephen Law on fine-tuning and the Evil God hypothesis. What follows is an e-mail I sent afterwards to Dr Law, making some responses to his criticisms of the fine-tuning argument. I don’t have the time to turn this into a proper article, but I hope it will still be useful. Do feel free to skip to the section on Evil God if that is your main interest.
Dear Dr Law,
Thanks again for your talk at Oxford Brookes last night – very much enjoyed it! This might turn into quite a long e-mail, but I hope some of it is useful for your reflection, and I’ll try to make it as concise as possible. I had some possible responses for everything except the 3rd concern: I haven’t read a huge amount on metaphysics or the internal coherence of theism, so don’t have much to say on that 3rd concern that you won’t have already heard.
1st concern: Stenger et al, and multiverse
This might be an area for caution, but I think the fine-tuning advocate still has the support of the majority of the scientific community (including atheists), so I think it probably ought to be granted. I know you mentioned some of Stenger’s own calculations, but I think those are pretty problematic. Collins and Barnes, in particular, have offered a fair bit in response to Stenger’s work in this area, so (for example) Collins notes that whether stars exist seems to be the only factor Stenger considers to be necessary for life in his model. He doesn’t seem to deal much with other possible life-inhibiting factors (such as the lack of atoms with greater atomic number than 1), and doesn’t seem to take into account many of the fine-tuned constants (e.g the strong nuclear force), or even the ostensibly fine-tuned initial conditions (pertaining to entropy, and so on). Collins also has some particular queries about the simplicity of Stenger’s equation:
“the equation he uses is based on a simple star model of stellar evolution. The equation does not take into account the complexities of a stellar evolution, such as whether the energy transport from the center of the star to the surface is by convection or radiative diffusion. More importantly, it assumes that the star is made mostly of hydrogen, which would not be the case if the strong force were increased beyond a small amount; further, it does not take into account the effects on star stability of quantum degeneracy, which require much more sophisticated codes to take into account.”
The relevant physics is pretty beyond me, but I think the pertinent points are that objectors to fine tuning are in the minority, and that the fact of fine-tuning has the support of not only most, but also the most prominent, physicists. Stenger’s models have been critiqued from within the physics community, and I don’t think his concerns (in this regard, at least), ought to be regarded as too damaging to the fine-tuning case.
I’ve actually written a paper on the multiverse which I’m hoping will be published, and I expect it’d be too long to recount now! In informal terms, though, I think it ought to be noted that, so long as the fine-tuning argument is only construed as an inductive (or perhaps Bayesian/C-inductive) argument to the conclusion that some fact related to fine-tuning constitutes evidence for theism, the mere possibility of a multiverse will not do much to damage the case. Other possible explanations can be advanced for any observed datum in experimental science, but obviously that doesn’t prevent us from concluding that the datum constitutes evidence for some particular hypothesis! I think this point can be demonstrated formally, too (you can skip this section if you’re particularly uninterested in probability theory!): the relevant probabilities for deciding whether some fine-tuning related fact constitutes evidence for theism are P(EPU|T & k) and P(EPU|¬T & k), where EPU =df there exists an embodied moral agent-permitting universe, T =df theism is true and k =df other background information (but, importantly, not everything we currently happen to know). Then,
P(EPU|¬T & k) = [P(EPU|M & ¬T & k)·P(M|¬T & k)] + [P(EPU|¬M & ¬T & k)·P(¬M|¬T & k)]
Where M =df there exists a multiverse. Now, supposing we grant that P(EPU|¬M & ¬T & k) is negligible (for the sake of argument – supposing that the multiverse is the only objection we have), P(EPU|¬T & k) will approximate to P(EPU|M & ¬T & k)·P(M|¬T & k). But then it is clear that the multiverse is only relevant to the argument insofar as P(M|¬T & k) and P(EPU|M & ¬T & k) are both reasonably high. But clearly most people will be reluctant to say that a multiverse probably exists, conditioned only on atheism and some other background information: after all, there seems to be no independent evidence for it with which we can raise P(M|¬T & k). So I don’t think the theist ought to think that the multiverse does damage to a C-inductive argument from fine-tuning to theism. Much more can be written about this (and I can send my paper if you like), but I’ll spare you for the time being!
2nd concern: Kinds of probability
As I intimated in the debate, I found this a bit misleading. Clearly theists (mostly) mean to use epistemic probability in their formulations, since physical probability is far more inscrutable when discussing kinds of universes, and since many fine-tuning proponents have explicitly outlined accounts of epistemic probability in advancing the argument (for a section on epistemic probability in this context, see e.g. Collins, “The Teleological Argument” in Craig & Moreland eds. The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. 226-239). So the most that could be said, I think, is that they ought not use epistemic probability.
Now, obviously you did not have time in your talk to go into the different accounts of epistemic probability, but you did make one objection to the use of epistemic probability which I don’t think the fine-tuning proponent (or target) ought to find convincing, viz. that the epistemic probability of my (or any other embodied moral agent’s) existence is 1. I don’t think this is true. I ( and any sophisticated fine-tuning proponent) would agree that P(EPU|my experiences) = 1, but the fine-tuning proponent is not arguing that P(EPU|my experiences) << 1, so that particular conditional is quite irrelevant to the argument. Rather, she is arguing that P(EPU|¬T & k) is low, where k is some background information which, importantly, does not include the fact of our existence. There seems to me to be nothing in the probability calculus itself which precludes us from coming up with conditional probabilities where some known data are not included in the conditional, so I think any objection (e.g. Sober, 2003) which insists that all known information is included in the conditional is palpably unjustified – especially as it would lead to some quite counter-intuitive and counter-scientific consequences! Indeed, the eminent (atheist) Colin Howson thinks such “old evidence” objections to Bayesian arguments are so bad that the section of his book responding to them begins: “We have tried to deal with the objections which we feel merit serious discussion. We shall end, however, with one that doesn’t.” He then goes on to explain how one can (and must, if one is to pursue science rationally) provide an axiomatisation of the conditional which removes certain known data from the conditional, to come up with these other epistemic probabilities. But the summarised point is that the epistemic probability that I exist is only 1 conditioned on certain facts, but these facts are (justifiably) excluded from the conditionals in Bayesian fine-tuning arguments, so I do not think this will be a successful response to the argument.
4th concern: Doesn’t prove one god in particular
Again, I think this only ought to be a concern if it is construed deductively. If the fine-tuning argument is framed in Bayesian terms, then the objection seems trivial: of course it doesn’t prove one god in particular, but it does constitute evidence for theism, and that is what it was intended to do. Of course, a related objection is that the argument does not prove the God of a particular religion, even if it demonstrates theism to be true. But this seems to me to be is a complete red herring. Take Christianity as an example. For Christianity to be true, its essential doctrines ought to be true, theism being one of these. The question of “the Christian God’s” existence presumably depends on some essential properties of the “Christian God” which are dissimilar to other conceptions of God. But Christianity has traditionally emphasised what God has done in history, and used this ostensible action as the basis for other theological doctrines. So let us concede for the sake of argument that the question of whether the Christian God exists is a meaningful one, separate from the question of whether God exists. Such a being’s essential properties will then presumably include, for example, the property, “became incarnate in Jesus, and raised Jesus from the dead”. In this case, it will be clear how the kalam cosmological argument, if sound, contributes to the Christian case. This is because the probability of God becoming incarnate in Jesus, and raising Jesus from the dead, is far greater (indeed, infinitely greater) given theism than given atheism. Thus, any arguments providing strong evidence for theism generally are likely to make Christianity significantly more probable than previously. Whatever one’s assessment of Christianity and of whether belief in these doctrines is warranted, then, they should nevertheless agree that this objection – that the fine-tuning argument, even if sound, cannot strengthen a particular religion’s case – is clearly mistaken.
5th concern: Evil God
I find this quite an intriguing suggestion, and indeed agree that almost all theists (including perhaps the majority of theistic philosophers) would be unequipped to meet this challenge. I don’t find moral or ontological arguments convincing (though I think they can be made more rigorous than is often assumed, such as Maydole’s modal perfection argument from 2003, with which I only really take issue with the use of the Barcan Formula and perhaps one of the premises). I think there are plausibly asymmetries in arguments from miracles and arguments from (first person) religious experience (if one accepts, for example, the principle of credulity). For example, one might reasonably suppose that, if God existed, he would make certain facts pertaining to the resurrection obtaining, whereas this is not so clear (and, at any rate, it seems far less simple) on Evil God. But perhaps  this can be brought out further by considering what I think is a far more powerful objection to the Evil God challenge: simplicity.
Of course, the Evil God challenge is an instance of the classic problem of under-determination and empirical equivalence – so we have to be clear that this is no problem unique to theism: indeed, it impinges on every scientific theory. And it seems to me that the primary criterion involved in deciding between empirically equivalent theories is something like simplicity, or prima facie believability, or something like that. And clearly one could come up with all sorts of sceptical hypotheses which are empirically equivalent to the ordinary scientific account of the world: that the universe was created 5 minutes ago with the appearance of age, for example, or Putnam’s brain in a vat scenario, or some Cartesian demonic hypothesis. And it seems to me that the overriding criterion for theory appraisal (or, for Bayesians, intrinsic probability) in empirically equivalent theories is simplicity or believability. Indeed, Graham Oppy, with whom I am sure you are familiar, insists that “theists will not (and indeed ought not to) concede that the case for an orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god can be paralleled by the case for [evil gods]” and that “theists reasonably judge that the cases are not parallel” (Arguing About Gods, 2006),on grounds of simplicity/believability alone. (NB: Oppy also thinks that an atheist can reasonably accept the symmetry thesis, so he makes clear an important distinction in uses of these challenges: “there are two quite different contexts in which arguments involving [evil god] appear – and different considerations must be appealed to in the assessment of these arguments in these different contexts … one suggestion is that there is an argument against belief in an orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god … another suggestion is that there is a reply to theistic arguments for belief in an orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god that can be based upon [evil god].” Oppy thinks the challenge succeeds in the latter task, but fails in the former task: I think it fails in both.) I can think of no good reason why the standard scientific, naïve realist account of the world should be thought of as simpler than the aforementioned sceptical hypotheses, without maintaining that theism is also simpler than the evil god hypothesis.
But I think some more analytic considerations can be taken into account, to explicate theism’s simplicity more fully. The reasonable theist, I think, might do well to appeal to some particular concept of God to appraise through Bayesian confirmation, and I think the most promising line of reasoning is to appeal to some Swinburnian considerations re: what is involved in personal explanation, and what, precisely, the theist is positing as an explanation. Here, while I think Daniels’ account is mistaken, I also think that there is something to it, namely a kind of complexity in the idea of a being knowing all moral truths (and therefore all moral “goods”) and knowingly acting contrarily to the good, which isn’t symmetrically present in theism. I don’t think it is incoherent, but I think it has an added complexity. Now, when further Swinburnian considerations are added, such as the idea of God as essentially perfectly free, I think the case is strengthened manifold. The point here is that, according to the theistic explanation, personal explanation consists of explaining some datum/data by positing an agent with intentions and so on, who generally act for some good. According to the theistic account, the only reason persons do not act for the good is in case of ignorance of the good or because of some irrational, external influence (such as some malignant desire). But clearly an omniscient being (such as Evil God) would not act against the good in the first case, since he would know all moral truths. And since God is defined as perfectly free, that is, not being subject to irrational, external influences, it seems to follow directly, according to the account of personal explanation, that God would be all-good. Now, in the case of Evil God, one would have an omniscient being who is not perfectly free (since they could otherwise not do evil), and who was thus subject to irrational, external influences. But the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, eternal being who was nevertheles, not only partially affected by, but completely engulfed by and determined by irrational, external influences, seems to have an enormous amount of prima facieunbelievability and complexity, even if not incoherence. So it seems plain to me that the traditional theistic account is simpler in that respect.
Additionally, if one finds some of the arguments for a free  cause of the universe to be remotely persuasive, this would make a perfectly free being not only simpler, but also more explanatorily powerful than Evil God. For example, the kalam cosmological argument and some arguments from contingency might argue that freedom (or some other kind of indeterminacy) is the only thing which can account for the existence of the world – in the first case because it is alleged that only a free cause could exist “eternally” without giving rise to an “eternal” effect, and in the second case because freedom might seem to be the only way that contingency can arise from a necessary being (with some argument for a necessary being independently adduced, though I tend to find arguments for a necessary being persuasive, even if we cannot get much of a grasp on what the necessary being is – Oppy, for example, is inclined to think that the Big Bang singularity was necessary).
I’m also inclined to think that there might be some kind of argument relating to meta-ethics and modality, particularly if one was inclined to think that moral truths were necessary. Since I don’t know your position on whether moral truths are necessary, and since I haven’t thought about such an argument in much detail, I’ll leave that for now, but I’d be very interested to hear whether you think moral truths are necessary or what they are grounded in, if you wouldn’t mind?
Of course, you do concede in your paper that theism seems simpler, and you even give an argument independent from any of these to that conclusion. But, as I noted after the talk, your only response to this is to say that simplicity is not a big factor when both hypotheses are strongly disconfirmed by the evidence. But this assumes, of course, that both hypotheses are strongly disconfirmed. It seems to me perfectly plausible that one might think that theodicies and reverse theodicies (or defences à la Plantinga, or assurances à la M. Adams) might all be successful in rejecting arguments from evil or from good, and that theism is simpler than Evil God, and thus that there is very good reason to prefer theism. Without giving a fuller account of the problem of evil (and of good), then, I don’t think anyone who already rejects the problem of evil ought to be troubled by Evil God. I attach a spreadsheet allowing for a formalisation of this: T is theism, EG is the Evil God hypothesis, and E is our observational evidence about the world. The problems of evil and good seem to suggest that P(E|T) and P(E|EG) are both very low with respect to P(E|¬T & ¬EG). If this is indeed the case then, indeed, the posterior probabilities of T and EG are likely to be low (this can be seen by filling in values for those three probabilities, on the left hand side). But supposing one considers the theodicies/defences/assurances persuasive against the problem of evil, or even that one considers evil to have evidential power against T and EG, but nevertheless thinks that other observational evidence overcomes this improbability and provides even better evidence for T and EG. In that case, simplicity becomes important (as can be noted by making P(E|EG) ≈ P(E|T) ≈ P(E|¬T & ¬EG), and making P(EG) and P(T) discrepant on  grounds of simplicity). Note that this does not even require the success of theodicies, depending on how strong other evidence for T and EG is (and what the priors of T and EG are). But clearly any reasonable theist is going to a) reject the problem of evil and consider it to have no or little evidential force against theism, or b) accept the problem of evil, but think that there are other evidences for theism, such that the totality of the available evidence acts somewhat in theism’s favour. In that case, simplicity will be perfectly adequate to reject the symmetry thesis. And so, I think, in order to persuade the theist that their position is problematic, one has to show that either a) theism is not simpler (but this is implausible), or b) the problem of evil works and is significantly stronger than all the evidence for theism. This is a much bigger task. That is not to say that it cannot be done, but I think the theist ought to feel comfortable in their position until these tasks are satisfactorily completed. (NB: There are also relevant considerations pertaining to priors here: it may be the case that the prior for theism is so high that even if the problem of evil works and is much stronger than the positive evidence for theism, theism is still overall probable. I don’t think many people would be comfortable with such a high prior for theism (including most theists), but it is worth mentioning purely for completeness).
Much more that could be said, of course, but I’ve taken enough of your time for now! Look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Best wishes,

Online calculator for the resurrection

Following on from a few previous posts about the Jesus’ resurrection and the probability calculus, I’ve come up with a little calculator for finding out how the probabilities you put in modify the final probability of theism and of Jesus’ resurrection.

How it works: You fill in five probabilities related to theism, Jesus’ resurrection and the evidence for it, and it tells you the final resulting probability of theism, as well as the final resulting probability that Jesus was resurrected. Simple! I’m aiming to make it more comprehensive and rigorous once I’ve finished my exams, but this will at least give an easy-to-use, brief idea of how changing different probabilities modifies the final probabilities. Hopefully it will suffice for now! Check it out here.

Conditions for a piece of evidence concerning Jesus’ resurrection to constitute evidence for theism

So, I have derived, with the help of probability theory, the necessary and sufficient conditions (just about – it assumes none of the probabilities are 0 or 1, etc) for a piece of evidence concerning Jesus’ resurrection (e.g. the empty tomb) to constitute evidence for theism in general.

The result? Where D = some datum, R = Jesus was raised from the dead, and T = theism, some datum D constitutes evidence for T iff:

[P(D|T&R)•P(R|T) + P(D|T&~R)•P(~R|T)]  >  [P(T)•(P(D|T&R)•P(R|T) + P(D|T&~R)•P(~R|T)) + P(~T)•(P(D|~T&R)•P(R|~T) + P(D|~T&~R)•P(~R|~T))]

Do I win the award for most unhelpful piece of information of the year?

Free will and neuroscience

Ever get told that neuroscience has disproved free will?

Well, I’m still undecided on free will (in the libertarian sense) so don’t really have an agenda to push, but I know that this is pretty much rubbish. I don’t have time to go into it now, but check out this conclusion from Libet’s own 1985 paper (2 years after his original pioneering work was published):

“This is not the place to debate the issue of free will versus determinism in connection with an apparently endogenous voluntary action that one experiences subjectively as freely willed and self-controllable (see Eccles 1980; Hook 1960; Nagel 1979; Popper & Eccles 1977). However, it is important to emphasize that the present experimental findings and analysis do not exclude t he potential for “philosophically real” individual responsibility and free will. Although the volitional process may be initiated by unconscious cerebral activities, conscious control of the actual motor performance of voluntary acts definitely remains possible. The findings should therefore be taken not as being antagonistic to free will but rather as affecting the view of how free will might operate. Processes associated with individual responsibility and free will would “operate” not to initiate a voluntary act but to select and control volitional outcomes.”

Take it from the pioneer of this area of neuroscience!

On the normalizability problem for fine tuning

This is just copied from a discussion I had, so not really written in a blog format. But, in short, this is why I think the fine tuning argument can withstand the normalizability objection.

In the first place, it’s not clear that the normalizability objection can be applied to the initial conditions of the universe (i.e. the low entropy). I may be mistaken and don’t know enough about the relevant physics, but it doesn’t seem to me to be a typical example, or of the same kind of fine tuning as the constants in the laws of nature.

Secondly, I think we might be able to look at it by way of analogy. This would say that, even if there is an infinite range of possible values, we can still talk of relative frequency. Imagine, for example, a 1Hz sinusoidal wave, running on the x-axis from 0 to +5. Suppose that we pick any point at random: the probability that it will have a positive gradient is 0.5, and the probability that it will have a negative gradient is 0.5 also (ignoring the turning points of gradient = 0). As we extend the sine wave along the x-axis beyond +5, the proportion of positive gradient remains roughly 0.5, and the probability of any given point having a positive gradient is also around 0.5. Even in this case, it seems entirely counterintuitive to suppose that, although the longer the curve goes on, the proportion/probability remains (or even tends to) 0.5, yet when one actually extends the curve to infinity, we can no longer reasonably suppose the probability of any given point having positive gradient to be 0.5.

Now, when considering fine tuning, the analogy is not quite right: what we have in the case of fine tuning is an epistemically illuminated region, which is the range of constant-values for which we can tell whether a universe with those values would be life-permitting or not (and, arguably, which constitutes the range of which it makes sense at all to talk about the constants existing – this being finite). We thus have a finite sample of possible universes over which we can judge the proportion of life-permitting universes. For all we know, the proportion might change drastically above the cutoff point (i.e. the upper bound of the epistemically illuminated region) – this would be analogous to our sine wave ceasing to be a sine wave at, say, +5, and instead curving upwards indefinitely and asymptotically (so that there is still a finite boundary on the x-axis). Alternatively, it may make no sense for us to talk about constant-values higher than the cutoff point, in which the sine wave would simply stop at some finite point on the x-axis. In any case, given that we have a finite sample with a definite proportion of life-permitting universes, it seems to me intuitively wrong that we should deny that this proportion is meaningful or informative even the same pattern is potentially extended to infinity (though I’m not entirely convinced that it can potentially be extended to infinity).

Thirdly, I’m not convinced that it is illicit to add in our ‘sample’ knowledge to the background information. Let me explain: let us define Ei as the proposition that the constants fall into the epistemically illuminated region. T will be theism, NSU will be the naturalistic single universe hypothesis and k will be background knowledge (for simplicity in following Collins’ terminology – I think he uses this technique and calls Ei ‘Q’, but I can’t remember). Then it seems to me that we can make the argument that P(EPU|T&Ei&k) is moderate, whereas P(EPU|NSU&Ei&k) is extremely low. The purported problem is that P(EPU|NSU&k) is undefined, since we are using the principle of indifference to distribute probabilities a priori, but the infinite range makes this impossible. However, if we include Ei in the background knowledge, it seems to me that we can come up with well defined probabilities here. If I recall correctly, Tim wrote somewhere that we need a warrant to add this into the background information (though I can’t remember where or when!), but I don’t see that this is the case. It seems to me that the ordered adding of data in Bayes’ Theorem is more for convenience than anything else, so as long as Ei is true it seems to me to be justified. Indeed, one can actually prove this, as in Howson (2006, p20). I’m aware, too, that my position can be subject to a parody here, in a contrived acquisition of background knowledge which prima facie lends strong evidential support to something which clearly seems counterintuitive. I have a response to this, just in case anyone brings it up!

I’ve also offered some thoughts (though largely borrowed from Collins) here, if anyone is interested.  (Note: I will eventually try and incorporate this blog post into that article, and also that I am less convinced of the coarse tuning argument and rejection of countable additivity than I am of the points made in this more recent blog)

I’m aware that some others have responded with different suggestions, too: for instance, Plantinga has given a response (though I haven’t read it yet), and Swinburne rejects the principle of indifference in this instance, arguing that lower values have higher intrinsic probabilities.

Why the resurrection data can be evidence for theism, and why arguments for resurrection need not presuppose theism – formal demonstrations

It is often assumed, among Christians and non-Christians alike, that one can only make an argument for the resurrection after showing theism to be probably true already. Or, perhaps, that the resurrection evidence cannot support theism, but can only support the resurrection given theism. Here, I aim to show, briefly, the formal underpinnings (in terms of probability theory) of how the evidence for the resurrection might support theism. I will show how this evidence can work in two ways: to support theism, and also to support the resurrection independently of whether theism is considered to be priorly unlikely or not. NOTE: I AM NOT ADVOCATING THESE PROBABILITIES AS TRUE. I AM SIMPLY SHOWING HOW, IF PEOPLE DO COME TO AGREE ON SOME PROBABILITIES, THE RESURRECTION DATA CAN BE EVIDENCE FOR THEISM, AND HOW ARGUMENTS FOR THE RESURRECTION CAN GIVE AN OVERALL HIGH PROBABILITY EVEN WITH A LOW PRIOR PROBABILITY FOR THEISM.

I am not here aiming to show that the resurrection data show theism to be true or that they show the resurrection to have occurred, only how it would do so. So, let us begin with defining some conditional probabilities:

Let T = theism, R = the resurrection of Jesus, and D = the specific historical data pertinent to Jesus’ resurrection (e.g. empty tomb, appearances, etc)

P(T) includes natural theology, and is 0.01 (that is, the prior probability of theism – I think it is higher than this, but this is only a demonstration)

P(~T) = 0.99 (the prior probability of atheism = 1 – P(T))

P(R|T) is around 0.0001 (that is, the probability of Jesus being resurrected on theism – unlikely, but not inconceivably unlikely)

P(R|~T) is 0.00000001 (that is, the probability of Jesus being resurrected on atheism – very unlikely, probably much lower than this)

P(D|R) = 0.75 (that is, the probability of empty tomb, appearances, etc, given Jesus’ resurrection. This is, again, an artificially precise number, but the point is that it is relatively high)

P(D|~R) = 0.00000001 ( that is, the probability of empty tomb, appearances, etc, given that Jesus was not resurrected. Again, artificially precise, but very unlikely)

Let us work out P(D|~T) to begin with, the probability of  the data on atheism. This is equal to sum of the individual probabilities of all the different kinds of ways the data could obtain on atheism – in our case, the probability of the data on R and on ~R.  So, P(D|~T) = P(D|~T & R)•P(R|~T) + P(D|~T & ~R)•P(~R|~T). With our given probabilities, this is equal to 0.75 x 0.00000001 + 0.00000001 x 0.99999999, which in total is roughly 0.0000000175

Now, we can do the same for P(D|T), which will be equal to P(D|T & R)•P(R|T) + P(D|T & ~R)•P(~R|T). Plugging in our probabilities, this will be equal to 0.75 x 0.0001 + 0.00000001 x 0.9999, which in total is roughly 0.00007501

Now, it follows from Bayes’ Theorem that  P(T|D) = [P(T)•P(D|T)] / [P(T)•P(D|T) + P(~T)•P(D|~T)] (see the derivation of Bayes’ Theorem here). Plugging in our additional beginning probabilities, we note that this is equal to (0.01 x 0.00007501) / (0.01 x 0.00007501 + 0.99 x 0.0000000175) = 0.0000007501 / (0.0000007501 + roughly 0.0000000175), all of which is roughly 0.977 And so the probability of theism given the empty tomb, etc, would be 0.977, whereas the prior probability of theism was only 0.01. Thus, the data, through looking at the different ways it might obtain (that is, under R and ~R), supports theism significantly, and this support does not presuppose a high prior probability of theism.

Now, when looking at the probability of the resurrection, we can come up with a prior probability of the resurrection based on the prior probabilities of theism and atheism, and the likelihood of the resurrection on each of those alternatives. Again, we do not need to give theism a high prior probability to conclude posteriorly that the resurrection probably happened. P(R) is equal to P(R|T)•P(T) + P(R|~T)•P(~T), and our values for these yield a prior probability of R equal to 0.0001 x 0.01 + 0.00000001 x 0.99, which is roughly 0.00000101

Our posterior probability P(R|D) will then be equal to [P(R)•P(D|R)] / [P(R)•P(D|R) + P(~R)•P(D|~R)] (again, from Bayes’ Theorem). and plugging in our values gives us (0.00000101 x 0.75) / (0.00000101 x 0.75 + 0.99999899 x 0.00000001) = 0.0000007575 / (0.0000007575 + roughly 0.00000001) = 0.987. Thus, the prior probability of the resurrection and of theism might be very low (0.00000101 and 0.01, respectively), and yet the historical data might well be strong enough to overcome this, allowing us to conclude that the resurrection happened.

This, then, serves as a rejoinder to those philosophers of religion who do not see the argument from miracles as supporting theism at all, or who think that one need to presuppose theism to argue for a miracle. Neither of these are true, and I hope to have shown this decisively through formal use of the probability calculus. As noted at the start, I am not intending to argue that the probabilities given at the start are correct, only that it is in principle very much possible for one to argue to theism from miracle evidence, and that it is also possible to argue for a particular miracle without presupposing theism.

Why I don’t advocate Intelligent Design

At recent request, I’m just going to give a brief  outline of my reasons why I don’t advocate ID. I’m not particularly anti-ID, and I am well aware that it has been unfairly maligned since the movement began. It is not creationism in disguise, and it is at least putatively scientific. That said, I do not advocate it. I have not thought or read in huge depth about it, so these are at best preliminary thoughts.

The first, boring answer is that I haven’t seen the logical argument spelled out anywhere. This is probably my own fault, and I should probably have made more of an effort, but the literature seems to focus very much on enormous improbabilities within evolution, which I don’t think tells us very much on its own. I’m aware that attempts have been made to solve this, and Dembski in particular has done some work on the logic of Intelligent Design. But I haven’t, so far, seen anything with concrete premises advanced, even once we’ve added in things like “specified” complexity. I am very open to someone providing an argument, though: feel free to comment!

But what I think is more difficult is that it doesn’t seem to make sense why God would bother fine tuning the universe to give parameters “necessary” for life if he had to carry on intervening to create life. Or, put another way, any parameters would be life-permitting if you had an omnipotent God prone to tinkering with molecules to aid abiogenesis.

Of course, this will be of no consequence to an ID proponent who doesn’t use the fine tuning argument for God, but most do, in my experience. And, in any case, I think fine tuning is much stronger – we can have more of an idea of possible comparison ranges for the values of constants, and we lack the probabilistic resources which are so abundant for the biological arguments (viz. multiverse and different planets, respectively). If one is making an argument that it is extremely unlikely that any planets would have the required conditions for life, then we seem to be making a fine tuning argument, not an argument from irreducible complexity (or whatever other datum is used as the explanans).

In terms of Bayes’ Theorem – which is the way I generally look at natural theology – my argument would be that I cannot identify any datum from the Intelligent Design movement which increases the probability of theism, once we have already put fine tuning into the equation. For something to constitute evidence for God, it must be such that P(E|T&k) > P(E|~T&k), where E is the evidence in question, T is theism, and k is our background information (which includes fine tuning). If ID proponents can suggest some E which satisfy this criterion – and can demonstrate that it does indeed satisfy this criterion – I will be very willing to hear.

Can the UCL atheists and free speech heroes defend themselves?

I’d like to think they could, but I have a feeling they have done an extraordinary job in misrepresenting the situation.

You may be aware of recent events at University College, London, where the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society were asked to take down pictures of the “Jesus and Mo” pictures they put up. “Jesus and Mo” is a comic which, though relatively harmless to most people and barely offensive to Christians, is very offensive to Muslims because it contains, for example, depictions of Muhammad drinking beer. The comics are hardly the epitome of intellectual rigour which ostensibly characterises atheism, and perhaps reflect a wider, mocking attitude towards religion more than an approach which favours rationalism and substantive dialogue or argumentation. That said, most people would agree that they are not terribly offensive.

So let’s be clear: I don’t think people have a right not to be offended. Nor do I think there should be much censorship of, or attacks on, free speech. Similarly, I would never encourage an enforcement of this kind of censorship. Obvious exceptions are patient-doctor confidentiality, but I think even most Muslims in the UK would agree that Jesus and Mo is not the same kind of appropriately regulated situation as that.

But it is precisely because we have this mutual understanding of and commitment to free speech that I think the atheists have got it all wrong, in this case. I cannot find anything to suggest that any groups waere trying to enforce a Jesus and Mo ban on UCL ASH. Having looked at some of the exchanges between Muslim groups and UCL ASH, it very much looks to me as if UCL ASH have fundamentally misunderstood the purpose and behaviour of these groups. It very much seems as if they asked UCL ASH to take down the pictures, not out of threatened enforcement, but simply because it is an immature and needless offence to Muslims. And it looks like their appeal to the Student Union was not an appeal for enforcement, but for an official recognition that the things posted were insensitive.

The appropriateness of the civil liberty of free speech does not seem to me to constitute justification for being needlessly offensive. Nor does the fact that we cannot see why something would be offensive make it morally acceptable for us to be offensive. I cannot personally fathom why Hindus have so much respect for cows. I do not have a post-modern, anti-disagreement approach towards religion, and I am very happy with people saying that they disagree with religion. I am fine with them disagreeing with my own religion, and I would never seek to censor them or wish them to keep their opinions to themselves. There is no relativist, anti-liberty agenda on my part. But yet I would not openly and superfluously disrespect cows around Hindus. Why? Because I am anti-liberty? No. Because I think people have a right to not have things which are offensive to them put in their environment? No. Because I am an Orwellian fascist who seeks to censor the views of anyone who disagrees with me? Again, no. Primarily, the reason I do not disrespect Hindus this way is because I am not an ass. There is not much more to it than that.

This not fundamentally a legal issue, nor one of civil liberties. It is a moral one. The disagreement, so far as I can see, has always been moral. I have not seen any attempt at legal enforcement; all I have seen is requests for the picture to be taken down. If someone were criticising my mother, my asking them to stop would not constitute reasonable grounds for a campaign about civil liberties. Nor would it be grounds for them to caricature my position as fascist censorship. Might it just be possible that, rather than Muslim groups trying to enforce a ban on atheist activities and speech, all they wanted was for people not to be needlessly disrespectful to them? I don’t agree with Islam, and I’m happy to say things which are perhaps offensive to them – for example, that Jesus was God, and that Muhammad probably wasn’t a prophet. Indeed, I support my liberty to voice these opinions. But the difference here is that I say these things because I think they are genuinely important, and constitute responsible uses of free speech which are usually backed by intellectual rigour and politeness. In other words, not the superfluous offence caused by putative ‘Brights’, who apparently have nothing better to do than mock other people’s beliefs with no obvious substance behind it, and who then are happy in caricaturing them as opponents of free speech.

Of course, I am happy to be proved wrong. And I do not doubt that there are probably some individual Muslims who would like an enforced ban on Jesus and Mo. But evidence for Muslim groups seeking to censor in this way has not been forthcoming, and until we are presented with it I think we can reasonably be sceptical of the secularists’ attempt to portray them this way. If I am presented with strong evidence that Muslim groups attempted censorship, I will recant this post.

P.S. One does wonder why this libertarianism and civil liberties stuff comes out at conspicuously tactical times. I do not see quite the same demographic campaigning for free speech when it comes to Christians being fired or cautioned for their views, whether expressed or not. Swings and roundabouts, eh? One example might be this recent motion, also passed at the UCL Student Union: http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2012/01/25/student-union-attempts-to-restrict-pro-life-talks/

P.P.S. I have received this confirmation from UCL’s AMSA group:

“Dear Calum,

Firstly, my sincere apologies for not getting back to you sooner. For some odd reason, new received messages have not been showing up as notifications on the facebook profile, which is odd, which is why I’ve only just come across your message.

My name is Tahir Nasser-the treasurer of the AMSA and the letter writer. Thank you for your kind message. You are absolutely right-we have never made any request to the Union to force the cartoons to be removed-our request was always directed at the UCLU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society and we requested them to remove the cartoon themselves, on the basis of mutual goodwill and consideration for the sensibilities of others.

I have received a deluge of messages from others attacking my letter, so thank you for being able to read our intentions clearly and having the good sense to see the wood from the trees. This cartoon-nonsense was never a question of free-speech from our point of view. It’s always been a question of behaving like grown-ups and not wielding one’s freedoms in an obnoxious manner.

Tahir Nasser
UCLU AMSA Treasurer”

Tahir also confirmed: “Moreover, no Muslim group requested the removal of the cartoons”, even though “Individual Muslims complained to the Union”.

Derivation of Bayes’ Theorem

I’m hoping, when I get round to it, to give a full explanation of Bayes’ Theorem, it’s use and different forms of it. For now, since I’ve just been formalising the derivations in preparation for a paper I’m writing, I thought I might as well type it up, and no reason not to share in case people want to have a look.

So we begin with a basic axiom of probability theory:

P(A \cap B) = P(B) \cdot P(A|B)

This is to say that the probability of both A and B being the case is the probability of B being the case multiplied by the probability of A given B. One can also put this the other way round:

P(A \cap B) = P(A) \cdot P(B|A)

Since both these latter halves are equal to P(A \cap B), it follows that:

P(B) \cdot P(A|B) = P(A) \cdot P(B|A)

Now, if we divide both sides by P(B), we get:

P(A|B) = \frac{P(A) \cdot P(B|A)}{P(B)}

This, in short, is Bayes’ Theorem, which says that the probability of A given B is equal to the probability of A, multiplied by the probability of B given A, divided by the probability of B.

Now, to get to the odds form, we need to do a few more things: firstly, we note that:

P(B) = P(A) \cdot P(B|A) + P(\sim A) \cdot P(B|\sim A)

And so we can deduce that:

P(A|B) = \frac{P(A) \cdot P(B|A)}{P(A) \cdot P(B|A) + P(\sim A) \cdot P(B|\sim A)}

The odds form allows us to compare P(A) and P(\sim A) directly. To get further towards this, we can go through the whole process again, this time using P(\sim A) in place of P(A). This will eventually give us:

P(\sim A|B) = \frac{P(\sim A) \cdot P(B|\sim A)}{P(\sim A) \cdot P(B|\sim A) + P(A) \cdot P(B|A)}

From this, we find we can divide P(A|B) by P(\sim A|B), which gives us the following:

\frac{P(A|B)}{P(\sim A|B)} = \frac{(\frac{P(A) \cdot P(B|A)}{P(A) \cdot P(B|A) + P(\sim A) \cdot P(B|\sim A)})}{(\frac{P(\sim A) \cdot P(B|\sim A)}{P(\sim A) \cdot P(B|\sim A) + P(A) \cdot P(B|A)})}

This may look confusing, but we can note that the denominators of both the top half and of the lower half are the same – if we multiply top and bottom by that denominator, we get the much simpler equation:

\frac{P(A|B)}{P(\sim A|B)} = \frac{P(A) \cdot P(B|A)}{P(\sim A) \cdot P(B|\sim A)}

Separate out some of the terms on the right hand side, and you get:

\frac{P(A|B)}{P(\sim A|B)} = \frac{P(A)}{P(\sim A)} \times \frac{P(B|A)}{P(B|\sim A)}

And you now have the odds form of Bayes’ Theorem! Perfect. As I said, I won’t go into its use or anything here: this is purely to provide the formal derivation for future reference. I hope you won’t be too disappointed, therefore, if you find that there is nothing at all interesting to you in this post.

Calum Miller

Robin Le Poidevin’s “Arguing for Atheism”

Last time I mentioned I’ve been reading Robin Le Poidevin’s “Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion”. Having now finished it, I’m in a better position to comment on it as a whole. As I wrote before, this is purportedly one of the foremost challenges to theism (Keith Parsons describing Le Poidevin as one of those who had “[devastated] the theistic arguments in their classical and most recent formulations”), so I was keen to read it to see if it offered any convincing responses to typical theistic arguments, and to see if it offered any arguments for atheism.

The book is actually a relatively good introduction to the philosophy of religion – it tackles more contemporary issues than many introductions (such as the kalam version of the cosmological argument), and explains them clearly. It’s honest about its aims: namely, to provide an introduction to the area in the context of arguing for atheism. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a lot better as a normal introduction than as an argument for atheism. I don’t have much time to go through it in  detail, so I’ll just provide the key points of the book:

Part I – The limits of theistic explanation

Here, Le Poidevin criticises arguments for God’s existence, as well as the idea of God as an explanation in general. He discusses the three classical types of arguments (and recent counterparts) – cosmological, ontological and teleological.

Cosmological – temporal
This is essentially the kalam cosmological argument and, as explained in my last blog, the main objection given is that Le Poidevin expresses scepticism over the premise that the universe began to exist. This is not based on anything – it is basically just an assertion that there is no good reason to believe it. The reasons given for the premise are not difficult to find: it is hard to believe that Le Poidevin has seriously implied that he knows of no reason to accept that premise. Both scientific and metaphysical arguments can be given, but there is no time to rehearse them here (if you really care, see my article introducing the Kalam Cosmological Argument).

Next, Le Poidevin tries to question the authority of the first premise, that everything that begins to exist has a cause, asking whether it is an analytic a priori truth, a synthetic a priori truth, or an a posteriori truth. The first suggestion is disregarded, since there is no semantic contradiction in the idea that something begins to exist without a cause.

The second suggestion is dismissed by saying that we cannot conceive of the falsity of an a priori truth, whereas we can conceive of something beginning to exist without a cause. But it is not at all clear that we can conceive of something beginning to exist without a cause – even if we can conceive of something without explicitly conceiving of its cause. Indeed, Le Poidevin takes this point on board, and says that he will give a different objection later.

The third suggestion, that it is an inductively inferred truth, is dismissed by saying that causation is inherently a temporal concept – causation necessarily takes time. There therefore cannot be a cause of something which has existed for all time, and thus we have an intrinsic defeater for the premise. Even if everything within the universe (which did not exist at the very start of the universe) which begins to exist has a cause, it makes no sense to talk of a cause for the universe itself, since a cause is necessarily temporally prior to its effect, and there is nothing temporally prior to the universe. This doesn’t seem to me to be especially convincing – there doesn’t seem to be any prohibition of simultaneous causation. We might explain a dent in a cushion by a ball hitting it. But is the ball’s hitting the cushion temporally prior to the dent? Not really, but the ball is still plausibly interpreted as being the cause of the dent in the cushion.

Cosmological – modal
Here, Le Poidevin turns to the argument from contingency, that everything whose existence is contingent has a cause of its existence, that nothing can be the cause of its own existence, that the universe’s existence is contingent, and therefore that the universe has a cause which is not itself.

The primary objection here is based on the arguments against the temporal version, namely, that there cannot be a cause in the ordinary sense. If the universe is not temporally infinite, then the problem of atemporal causation arises. If the universe is infinite, then there can be no real first cause. I can’t see how any advocates of this kind of Leibnizian argument will be dissuaded by this objection. For these, the argument is not really about causation at all, but about sufficient reason. The idea is that everything which exists has a sufficient reason for its existence. Since the universe is contingent, there must be something necessary which in some sense explains its existence. Many, for example, would point to the analogy of a train. Each carriage’s motion can be explained by its being pulled by the carriage in front. Even if there are an infinite number of carriages, there are still other necessary components: engines, wheels and so on. On the modal version, God would be seen more as an explanation in terms of engines and wheels than in preceding carriages, and so there is no real problem here, either.

#3 will come tomorrow – for now, time to move onto my next few books: Michael Licona’s “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach” and Peter Atkins’ “On Being”. Take care!

Recent Activities: Neuroscience and Robin Le Poidevin

So, I hope you’ve all had a good Christmas! Just thought I’d share what I’m currently working on at the moment.

My main concern at the moment is getting back on course with university – as some of you may know, I broke my leg last term/semester and so (for various subsequent reasons) fell behind quite a lot on work. I’m therefore revising plenty of Neuroscience (my main examination topic), as well as working on my research project and extended essay. For my research, I’m doing a neuroimaging project, quite similar to the work of Libet in the 1980s. Libet was the person who did the famous work on free will, where he – in some people’s view – demonstrated that our free decisions are made before we are consciously aware of them. I’m doing similar work, using magnetoencephalography to look at the difference in brain activity between movements made freely (the subject can choose which hand to use and whenever to move it) and those dictated by an external stimulus. I’ve done all the scans and have moved onto data analysis, so will hopefully come up with something good! I’ll perhaps share some of the eventual results and discussion here, for those who are more interested in that kind of thing. In any case, it’s been interesting to see the apologetic and theological implications of this area of research – and will hopefully allow me to be one of the more informed participants in discussions about whether neurology has gotten rid of the idea of a soul!

For my essay, I’m covering the slightly unusual topic of sex and the brain. I haven’t come up with a more specific subject area yet, but I’m roughly hoping to look at the neurobiology of love, relationships and the rest. This will have obvious apologetic implications too, which are potentially broad (thinking about reductionism, relationship with God, unembodied mind, as well as pastoral issues). The problem is that the field has expanded so rapidly that it’s hard to pick a particular area to focus on. People have looked at genetics, neurotransmitters, similarities with diseases, and sociological/evolutionary studies to look into this area, which has generated some Google searches you might not expect to find on a Christian’s computer (‘chimpanzee sex’, for example). For those interested in this issue further, do feel free to get in contact. The main areas of current exploration seem to be to do with vasopressin, oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine, differing levels and dispersion of these and their receptors having enormous effects on both romantic relationship and general social function. After several rodent studies showed dramatic changes in paternal and mating behaviour after vasopressin changes, for example, the most interesting finding in humans recently is that humans with a particular variant of a vasopressin receptor are substantially more likely to have marital problems than those with the normal variant. Implications abound!

In terms of direct apologetics, philosophy and theology, my recent aims have been to develop as rigorous a natural theology as possible, particularly in light of potential debates I have coming up this year (details to be confirmed – keep watching). In particular, I’m currently trying to get through some of the most cogent defences of atheism around, so received several books on the subject for Christmas. One was Robin Le Poidevin’s “Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion”. I got this on the recommendation of Luke Muehlhauser from Common Sense Atheism, who I consider to be a fair and honest person when it comes to the Philosophy of Religion. This book was included in the “Advanced” section of his recommended books on atheism.

Le Poidevin comes across as a fair and honest philosopher; there is nothing here suggesting any particular antipathy against religion. Indeed, there are hints of Don Cupitt’s ‘religious atheism’ (Cupitt being his doctoral supervisor) in the book. I have no doubt that Le Poidevin is attempting a balanced and sincere critique of natural theology. Having got about halfway through, however, I’m both disappointed and encouraged by this book: disappointed by the weakness of its objections, and encouraged that one of the apparently foremost defenders of atheism in academic philosophy has not really come up with anything remotely detrimental to the project of natural theology.

There are good points, of course, and I do not mean any of this as an attack on Le Poidevin. Indeed, he is a very good teacher, and he does a good job of linking and narrating the Philosophy of Religion. Rather than attacking blatant caricatures from medieval theology, he at least tries to do justice to recent formulations of arguments, giving some space to both William Lane Craig in the cosmological argument and Alvin Plantinga in the ontological argument. His discussion of the ontological argument, in particular, is both clear and interesting, and he does a good job in demonstrating what proponents of the modal version of the argument must do to clarify their proposal. He calls on the defender of the ontological argument to make clear what is meant by necessity, and whether this is the same as analyticity. Four options are given, under two main groups: necessity being the same as analyticity or the two being different. If they are the same, there are three options: (1) “God exists” is an analytic truth. If this is what is being defended, however, the ontological argument is redundant – If what is meant by “God” includes the clause “that he exists”, there is no need to argue for the conclusion that he exists, and so no real need for the ontological argument. Position (2) is that “God exists” is analytically false. Obviously, proponents of the argument will not want to defend this. (3) is that God’s existence is neither analytically true nor analytically false. If this is true, however, the main premise, “If it is possible that God exists, then necessarily, God exists”, is false. The 4th option is the rejection of necessity being the same, in this argument, as analytic truth. This, I think, is what most proponents of the ontological argument would want to defend. But in this case, Le Poidevin argues, we have no reason to prefer the premise, “It is possible that God exists” over the premise, “It is possible that God does not exist”. The modal atheistic argument is then just as convincing, and demonstrates that God’s existence is impossible. Whether or not Le Poidevin refutes the ontological argument in his chapter I am not so sure (I am not persuaded that he does), but he does call, importantly, for advocates to give a clearer notion of necessity than is typically done.

In contrast, his treatments of the cosmological and teleological arguments are surprisingly weak. After giving the “basic” cosmological argument, that everything that exists has a cause of its existence, that nothing can be the cause of its own existence and that the universe exists, Le Poidevin modifies these to give arguments that someone might sanely make: the first premise can say that whatever begins to exist has a cause (à la Craig), or that anything whose existence is contingent has a cause of its own existence (à la Leibniz).

I do not know how Le Poidevin views science so cannot accuse him of hypocrisy, but his main criticism of the “temporal” version (known to most as kalam) is astoundingly weak. After noting that, according to the Big Bang theory, the universe did begin to exist, he argues: “Can we be confident about [the premise that the universe began to exist], however? Suppose that the Big Bang theory is false – not an unreasonable supposition since, after all, cosmological theories are highly controversial, and even if there were universal agreement among physicists on this question – which is not the case, such agreement would not make the theory true. For all we know, the universe may not have had a beginning. This suggests two possibilities: (i) The universe extends infinitely far into the past; (ii) The universe is temporally closed: i.e., it is finite yet has neither a beginning nor an end.”

This is simply puzzling. Aside from the exclusion of the metaphysical arguments for the past’s being finite from discussion, Le Poidevin chooses, apparently arbitrarily, to simply reject physics on this point. It is stated that “such agreement [among physicists] would not make the theory true”, as if theists had ever suggested that the agreement among physicists on this point causes the universe to have a finite past. Creationists might as well argue that, just because evolutionary biologists agree on evolution, does not mean that evolution is true. Well, of course not, but that doesn’t mean that we have good reason to cast doubt on it, or that there isn’t an enormous amount of evidence for its truth which causes the scientists in question to agree on it. This makes Le Poidevin’s subsequent assertion that, “For all we know, the universe may not have had a beginning” especially baffling. For all we know? Is he seriously suggesting that we have just as much evidence for all three of these theories, that physicists have made a significant, axiomatic, foundational change in their belief about the finitude of the past on the basis of sheer whim? This is hard to sustain. Until a few decades ago (up to a century), the overwhelming majority of physicists followed the foundational axiom that the universe has always existed, from eternity. While there is not time here to lay out the evidence for the beginning of the universe, it is incredibly troubling to see how Le Poidevin has suggested that there is nothing really substantive behind this revolution in physics, the evidence for which prompted Stephen Hawking to say that the beginning of the past was probably “the most remarkable discovery of modern cosmology”. That Le Poidevin puts this down to whimsical conjecture seems to me to be remarkable, especially considering that this is held to be one of the most cogent philosophical defences of atheism in contemporary academia (even if it is an introduction for students). If anything, this treatment of the cosmological argument has made me more certain of its soundness than before – not a result I imagine Le Poidevin would have wanted!

There is, of course, more to be said. I will offer some more thoughts in due course, but for now I hope this has given you a little taster of my recent activity. See you soon!

Welcome to the blog!

So after nearly 3 years of Dove Theology, I’ve decided it’s time a blog was put up on the site. I’m hoping here to give some regular thoughts including updates on the rest of the website, as well as thoughts on theology and philosophy which I haven’t had time to develop into articles yet. I’ll also probably give some thoughts on contemporary issues and news stories – we will have to see.

You can subscribe to or share the blog (which will keep you posted on other articles as well) by the link at the top of the home page, and I would appreciate it enormously if you would do so.

Happy reading!