I authored a letter to the editor titled “Natural Explanation for Flood Prevention” which was a response to a published article in which a local reverend claimed that prayer had something to do with stopping the September flooding in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I argued, in less than 250 words, that naturalistic explanations are better than supernatural explanations and, when we have a perfectly reasonable naturalistic explanation, we ought to reject a supernatural explanation. I quoted Theodore Shick in the letter who said, among other things, “You shouldn't assume the existence of anything that's not needed to explain the phenomena.”
A letter to the editor published on December 11 – approximately a month after mine was published – titled “Life explanation rests with God” argues that my “naturalistic world view is inadequate to explain the bigger questions of life” and “A good hypothesis such as the God of the Bible provides a consistent metaphysical foundation for explaining the important realities and phenomena encountered in life.”
Here is the letter that was published:
Life’s explanation rests with God
The third paragraph of his letter to the editor posits “the naturalistic atheistic model” which the writer says “hold that (a) the universe was created from nothing; (b) life came from non-life; © persons came from the impersonal; (d) minds come from the mindless; (e) order from the orderless; (f) reason from the non-rational; (g) morality from the non-moral; (h) information without a sender; (I) code from a nonprogrammer; (j) truth from an accident.
The phrase “naturalistic atheistic model” should be the first red flag here. The reader uses a certain term and seemingly posits what all naturalists (those who believe that the natural world is all that exists) believe when there is no 'unifying dogma' or 'set beliefs' for atheists or naturalists because there is often disagreement on issues. It is also important to note that not all atheists are naturalists and not all naturalists are atheists. Do all naturalists and atheists believe what the reader posits, are the points even relevant, and are there fundamental misunderstandings taking place?
Contention A, right from the start, is problematic because there is wide disagreement about the origin of the universe. Personally, I do not know where to stand on matters of 'becoming' regarding the universe, but the Big Bang is certainly an adequate model to describe the expansion of the universe and the start of time as we know it.
When someone asks, “What happened before the Big Bang?” I often respond by saying, “If the Big Bang is the start of time as we know it, how can we talk about 'before time?” and, after some further discussion when God is typically invoked, say “If God is uncaused and you use God to explain the universe, why can't I say that the universe was uncaused or there is an unknown cause?” Claiming that God was the cause of the universe when lacking an explanation appears to be what is called the argument from ignorance or the 'god of the gaps' argument – because we lack an explanation, theists believe they are justified in positing God to answer the question. This method of reasoning, of course, is fallacious; just because we happen to lack an explanation does not mean that one can be justified in saying “God did it.” Why not say, “I don't know” and continue research and/or suspend judgment until there is a solid answer?
Naturalists need not posit that “the universe was created from nothing,” but rather can offer other explanations or simply suspend judgment on the matter.
Contention B, I would wager, is something that a vast majority of naturalists (if not almost all of them) would believe, but this is not a problematic assertion. When considering questions of the origins of life, answers are not always clear or well-defined as some (including myself) would like them to be, but this is not a problem once we start considering probability. Consider the vastness of the universe, all of the stars that explode and emit elements, and the age of the universe. Of all the 'chances' that could have lead to life, the probability seems quite high that life, somewhere and somehow, would originate. We, of course, are the lucky ones who happen to be experiencing life today. The Miller/Urey experiments, for those interested, show that life can indeed come from non-life. Additionally, Craig Venter has created synthetic life.
A lack of explanation regarding exactly how life arose from non-life does not justify belief in God, but rather should lead us to pursue further research and not assume that God “had to intervene” or have some part in the process just because we might lack an explanation.
Contention C is interesting because I am not quite sure what it means. The idea of person, as I understand it, is a philosophical concept similar to 'identity' in which we ascribe labels to homo sapiens. Are persons 'coming' from anything? It seems not. Personhood is simply an idea and a label we put on human beings. Perhaps the letter writer will elaborate on this.
Contention D claims that naturalists believe that minds come from the mindless, but there is disagreement regarding theories of mind amongst naturalists; there is not one 'set' idea that naturalists must believe. Some naturalists, for example, are eliminative materialists - those who believe that there is no mind, but only the brain.
Mindedness and consciousness may still have some 'gaps' and it might be the case that there is much understanding that is currently not had, but this, once again, does not allow one to justifiably posit God because we lack an explanation.
Contention E claims that “order comes from the orderless.” What we call 'order' is something we view as having some sort of regularity or 'rhyme and rhythm.' When considering the laws of the universe that are guaranteed regularities that arise from the Big Bang, it's quite easy to understand order under a naturalistic worldview. This “sense of design” that the letter writer later mentions is us, as humans, seeing what might rightly be called 'illusions of design' throughout the universe when, instead of assuming design, we can just say 'regularities.'
Contention F posits that naturalists believe reason comes from the non-rational. While the earliest forms of life almost certainly did not have reasoning abilities like humans have today, we can consider an evolutionary perspective and understand quite easily why reasoning abilities would evolve, be beneficial for survival, and be useful.
Alvin Plantinga famously argues that naturalism is not compatible with evolution because, roughly, evolution is not 'concerned' with justified true beliefs, but rather for survival. This argument, though, seems to miss the mark. Those with good reasoning abilities, in times of early hominids, would be better suited for survival. Holding a justified true belief, for example, [that was the product of good reasoning abilities] would allow one to efficiently and accurately gather water, hunt for food in desirable areas, and so much more. Over time, those with good reasoning abilities would survive and those with bad reasoning abilities would die. Of course, not all 'bad reasoners' would die because some can get lucky and be smart in some areas while not-smart in others.
Contention G posits that naturalists believe that morality comes from the non-moral. Not all naturalists will ascribe to notions of morality and may be moral nihilists. Some naturalists also might argue that morality is relative: it differs from person to person and from culture to culture and therefore there are no moral truths or any standing to make a claim about morality. Personally, I use the term 'morality' as short-hand language to describe many things: what actions would be appropriate and inappropriate in certain situations, what actions should lead us to a better society, how we are to treat others, etc.
On a naturalistic view, morality is very plausible. Just on the topic of humans – and to not elaborate too much on this point – we can look around us and realize that other humans have the same basic needs, wants, values. and desires as us; other persons generally value their own lives and consider living to be much more desirable than not living, want to have meaningful relationships with others, want to be secure, and so much more. Because I generally do not want to experience harm, discomfort, and whatever else might make life undesirable and realize that others are like me, I want to behave in a fashion of respect toward other people and act as a functional member of society.
We need no gods to explain morality. It is odd to claim that morality 'comes' from something other than a product of reasoning and as an evolutionary by-product.
Contentions H and I, I believe, rest on a huge equivocation. The reader states that naturalists believe that information exists without a sender and code exists from a nonprogrammer. The reader doesn't elaborate on this, but I believe I understand what he is saying. Equivocation is an informal logical fallacy that occurs when someone tries to use a word two (or more) times, although with different definitions. The reader, I imagine, is thinking of 'programming' and 'code' relating to DNA and thinks that 'programming' and 'code' can only come from thinking beings. When persons talk of 'programming' and 'code' relating to DNA, they do not mean this in the sense that we usually refer to when speaking of computers. Persons talk of DNA as a code because the basic 'letters' of our genetic 'code' are present throughout us.
Finally, Contention J claims that naturalists believe “truth from an accident.” I am not sure what this means because we can use our reasoning faculties to arrive at truths without ever positing a God who had to establish these truths. Consider, for example, one of the laws of logic known as the law of non-contradiction which posits that something can not be both a and not-a. For example, a clock can not be both on the wall and not on the wall. This appears to be a truth and it is no accident; we understand that a clock can not be both on the wall and not on the wall for very good reasons that need not be explained.
We see that contentions A, B, D, and G are not contentions that all naturalists believe. Contention C appears to deal with a philosophical concept that has nothing to do with whether naturalism is reasonable or not. Regarding contention E, the reader believe that naturalism can't account for order, but this simply isn't the case. Naturalism, despite Plantinga's argument, can account for reason and thus 'dispels' contention F. Contentions H and I are based on equivocations and naturalistic perspectives can explain how the 'genetic code' functions without assuming a god. Naturalists can account for truths without appealing to a supernatural truth-maker, so contention J is 'out.'
Now that we see why the contentions the letter writer proposed are not problematic for naturalists, let's explore why theism can't account for certain phenomena and why the explanation of 'God' is a poor explanation.
The letter writer claims that “God uniquely accounts for the physical universe's beginning. How do we know this and better yet, how can we posit that a specific single god created the universe? Even if we were to admit that the universe has a cause, how are we to leap to a specific cause reason, for there, that the god of the Bible is responsible? For all we know, an all-evil god, a time traveler, a council of gods, or a civilization in a parallel universe could have created the universe. All of these hypotheses, while they may seem unreasonable, seem to me no more reasonable than belief in the god of the Bible. Once again, additionally, if the theist asserts that God was uncaused and an uncaused cause is adequate for explaining the origin of the universe, the atheist can rightly posit, while following this logic that the theist assumes, that an uncaused Big Bang is sufficient to explain the universe – and here we are not appealing to the supernatural and we understand that the Big Bang occurred.
The letter writer claims that “God uniquely accounts for the ordered complexity and the design evident in the universe.” Again, why ought the god of the Bible be more reasonable than other unlikely hypotheses? We don't need God to explain order and what we see as design in the universe because we can appeal to natural laws and understand order. Design is simply an illusion that is better explained with the term regularity; while the universe might seem like some sort of being created it because we see order, we need not assume that a being designed the universe.
The letter writer seemingly appeals to the Transcendental Argument for God (TAG) and writes, “God uniquely accounts for the reality of abstract nonphysical realities such as numbers which are the foundation of mathematics and which are not explainable in terms of physical matter and its processes.” Why does the reader assume that numbers are not explainable by physical processes? Numbers, it seems, are contingent upon humans; if humans did not exist, the concept of numbers would not exist. We use numbers as heuristic tools in order to talk about quantities – and the use of numbers is very useful in our everyday lives. Other “abstract nonphysical realities” such as laws of logic are not the product of human thinking and would remain true if all humans were to suddenly die – and this is so because objective truths are separate from us. “The truth is not concerned about what we think of it.”
Speaking of “abstract nonphysical realities,” I'd like to return to the law of non-contradiction and the idea of contradictions. We understand that reasoning breaks down if there were a contradiction and that those who hold contradictory beliefs are behaving in an irrational fashion. For example, if I tell you that I was working at Bill's Market from 8AM to 3PM and was sleeping at home from 8AM to 3PM, you'd be quite puzzled – and for good reason. I can't be both sleeping at home from 8AM to 3PM and working at Bill's Market from 8AM to 3PM. The law of non-contradiction and the concept of a contradiction might be an “abstract nonphysical reality,” but this can be adequately explained without appealing to God. We can quibble about whether we 'discovered' abstract non-physical entities or whether they are contingent (or something else), but this doesn't allow us to justly posit God as the only answer as to how to account for these things. For more on TAG, please listen to this debate.
The letter writer continues to state that “God uniquely accounts for the meaning, purpose, and significance that human beings sense and yearn for.” God has no monopoly on meaning, purpose, and significance. I dealt with this extensively in this post. I argued that whether or not God exists has no bearing on whether meaning can be found in life.
The letter writer writes, “God uniquely accounts for man's sense of design.” I don't understand how this is the case. It can be the case, though, that we look at the universe and consider it to be magnificent, do not understand how the universe can be like it is (especially in earlier times of humans), and believe, then, fallaciously, that a being must be designed it because it appears to be so complex. We see order and assume that God is responsible for the order. With increased knowledge from science, philosophy, and other disciplines, we understand that this thinking is fallacious and can posit naturalistic explanations instead of appealing to the supernatural.
The reader than makes quite an extravagant claim, “Without meaning and purpose, the naturalistic atheistic model leads to angst, despair, dread, and ultimate extinction of human beings.” This claim has no basis. Many naturalists and atheists, of course, are not wallowing in metaphysical anguish of angst, despair, and dread. How ought the 'naturalistic atheistic model' also lead to ultimate extinction of humans? Regardless, whether or not naturalism and atheism 'led' to dread does not show whether or not belief in naturalism or any supernatural entities is justified. This appears to simply be an argument from utility.
We see that belief in naturalism, the idea that all that exists is the natural world, is must more plausible than belief in God. Even if it is the case that naturalism can't account for some realities, this does not mean that one can suddenly 'inject God' and believe that belief in God is justified because naturalism can't account for a phenomena.