Brian Huffling: Science Cannot Prove the God of Christianity But Philosophy Can [2020 NCCA Confc, 4]

This continues our series on the 2020 NCCA apologetics conference. Dr. Huffling is director of the PhD program at Southern Evangelical Seminary (SES) in Charlotte, NC, which hosted this conference. He brings SES’s trademark Thomistic philosophical approach to bear on arguments for the existence of God. He asserts that natural science (e.g. the fine tuning of cosmological constants) cannot provide clear proof for the God of Christianity. Such a demonstration can be made, however, within the framework of Aristotelian philosophy.

Here we will summarize Dr. Huffling’s talk which was titled Why Arguments from Natural Science Cannot Prove the God of Christianity and Why Philosophy Can (Oct. 13, Talk 6)

Defining the Issues

Dr. Huffling summarizes some key characteristics of the God of the Bible as:   One (Tri-une); Immaterial;  Transcendent;  Depends on nothing else (aseity);  Creator of everything besides himself.  It is this type of being, as opposed to some Zeus-like, powerful-but-humanoid “god”, that Christian thinkers are concerned with establishing.

There are two broad classes of arguments for the existence of God:

A priori arguments (before experience), which don’t depend on any particular physical observations, but rather work from general notions in our minds (e.g. the ontological argument).

A posteriori arguments (after experience) – – These approaches start from observations of the natural world, including humans. These include various teleological/cosmological and moral approaches. The arguments considered in this talk are of this type.

Natural science may be defined as a collection of various disciplines that study the natural, physical world via (usually) direct empirical investigation. In contrast, philosophy is an investigation into the nature and causes of things. Unlike science, philosophy can help adjudicate questions that transcend the physical world:

“While philosophy is informed by natural science, it is not limited to the physical world as it can reason from the physical world as an effect to an immaterial being as its cause.”

Cosmological / Teleological / Design Arguments

Design arguments point to aspects of the physical world which seem unlikely to have arisen just by chance. Rather, they point to an intelligent cause, a purposeful Designer or Creator.  One such approach, in the biochemical realm, looks at the intricate, complex mechanisms that operate in the simplest cells, and asserts that such complicated, interdependent processes could not have arisen from plain chemicals without intelligent intervention. We can observe some spontaneous self-organization in matter today, but nothing like the origin of life.

Other arguments employed by theists look at the universe as a whole. The “kalaam” cosmological argument, popularized by William Lane Craig, reasons from the temporal beginning of our universe to a cause which is external to that universe. It is further argued that this cause must be immaterial and uncaused, and probably had volitional (free-will) agency.

A related approach looks at the fine-tuning of various physical constants which make it possible for matter and higher life-forms to exist at all. This fine-tuning is evident at several levels, including:

Laws of Nature (e.g. forces of gravity, and strong/weak/electromagnetic forces)

Constants of Physics (e.g. “If the mass of the neutron were increased by about one part in 700, stable hydrogen burning stars would cease to exist; if the weak force were slightly weaker by one part in 109 of the range of the force strengths, then the existence of complex life would be severely inhibited”)

Initial Conditions of the Universe  (…”Roger Penrose states that in order to come up with a universe like ours, ‘The Creator would have to aim for an absurdly tiny volume of phase space of possible universe’ ”.)

Dr. Huffling recognizes that there are counter-arguments (and counter-counter arguments) on all these matters, but adjudicating their technical merits was not the subject of his talk. He noted that these arguments can be quite persuasive for many people:

Though in the past it has been criticized for its lack of rigor and thoroughness, the design argument has consistently proved itself to be the most compelling argument for God. That’s because the design argument is simple, concrete, and tangible. – Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos

In the West today, people are very oriented toward the “tangible”, and also science is esteemed as a method to describe reality. Thus, these arguments from biochemistry and astronomy seem substantive and credible.

Fundamental Weaknesses in These Design-Type Arguments

Dr. Huffling does not disagree with these arguments, but he cautions that they can only provide a limited measure of support for theism.  He cites three main points drawn from the work of Maurice Holloway:

Atheist Richard Carrier argues that science can handle anything that exists. But that would make God out as part of nature; such a being is simply not the Biblical God under discussion here. It is incoherent to assert that biology or physics, which by definition study the natural order, could provide answers regarding a supernatural being.

Even if design arguments can demonstrate the necessity of some cause or agent that is beyond our perceived physical order or understanding, they could not show that this cause is the Biblical God, as defined above. They cannot tell us the nature of the designer, nor how many designers there were.  Nevertheless, such arguments “may have a certain apologetic or ad hominem value for those who have absolute and exclusive faith in the laws of positive science”, as well has having a “suasive force for ordinary people”. The bottom line from Holloway is, “Since positive science functions in an entirely different order from philosophy, it is as equally incapable of disproving there is a God as of proving it.”

It Takes Metaphysical Investigation to Address Metaphysical Issues

While science as science cannot address transcendent issues, philosophy can. Such questions are the subject matter of metaphysics. Metaphysics is mainly about the nature of reality, of being itself.  Does the world we perceive actually exist? Is there something beyond the physical world? How do we know things? Do things have characteristic “natures”? Some of these are actually quite important questions, including for theology. For instance, what does it mean that Jesus took on human nature?

Well, what are these metaphysical demonstrations of the supernatural? There are several related philosophical proofs.  Due to the time constraint, only a quick fly-over of one of these proofs was presented. These arguments are taken from the writings of Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), which depend in turn on the thinking of Aristotle (384–322 BC). The following slides present the First Way of Aquinas’ Five Ways:

By “motion”, Aquinas means “change”, not just mechanical movement. Thus, the modern reader should substitute the word “change” for “motion” in this quote.

The concept of potency/potentiality versus act/actuality is key here. Dr. Huffling illustrated this by holding up a little toy tractor along with plastic wheels that could go on the tractor. The wheels have the potential to go on the tractor but that potential doesn’t get actualized until he picks up the wheels and sticks them on the tractor.  Something like Dr. Huffling has to actually exist in order to make that sort of change in the tractor actually occur. In the words of Aquinas,

Nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality…It is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect.


…It is impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put into motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again.

[My side comment: the modern reader often thinks Aquinas is describing something like a billiard cue hitting a cue ball which then rolls for a few seconds and then hits another ball, which then rolls and hits another ball. But this type of temporal sequencing of motions, one after the other, is not necessarily what he is talking about. What he is describing is more of a concurrent hierarchy of causation, like the hockey player’s hand pushing the hockey stick which is pushing the puck, all simultaneously. Going back to the billiards example, with various balls ricocheting around the table, the issue is not just how the first ball got rolling, but how the whole universe that contains the pool hall is held in a state of existence where change occurs at all. This proof would fall apart if the observable universe were some sort of eternally unchanging, static entity. But in the universe in which we live, we see that there is change or “motion” going on].

Finally, Aquinas argues that an infinite regress of this sort of causation is not logically possible. There must be a First Mover or Unchanged Changer, which upon further analysis (see below), has the characteristics of the theistic God:

These kinds of arguments transcend the created order, because they are universally applicable to all being, not just finite being. The most common objections to this reasoning have long been recognized and answered. See, for instance, Edward Feser’s Five Proofs for the Existence of God. In this talk Dr. Huffling is not trying to defend whether or not these arguments are sound. Rather, he notes that if they are sound, they give a good deal of information about what the Ultimate Cause of the physical world is and is not.

What Philosophical Proofs Can Tell Us About God

These philosophical proofs show us that:

It would take a short course to justify all these inferences. Dr. Huffling briefly described some of the reasoning involved here:

These proofs tell us that God (as defined here) is a necessary being; he has no potentiality, meaning he is pure act or pure infinite existence. A being that is pure existence and has none of the limitations which potential would put on it is a necessary being. He must exist, he can’t not exist. As pure Act, he is infinite existence.

There can only be one such being. Why? Because there can only be one infinite being. If they were two infinite beings they would have to differ in some way. They couldn’t differ by non-being. Rather, one would have to have something the other didn’t have. But if God is an infinite being, you can’t have anything more or anything else so there can only be one truly infinite being.

All other beings are dependent according to this proof, because all other beings are composed or put together. They are dependent on God for their very existence.  This argument and the one after it, Thomas’ Second Way, argue that God is required for the ongoing existence of these things, not just for their design or initial assembly. So God created ex nihilo; there was no preexistent matter.

There are further attributes that follow from God being Pure Act:

God cannot be “put together”; if something is composed of a bunch of parts, it cannot put itself together.  It would take some other, presumably intelligent agent to put these parts together, like the wheels being put on the toy tractor. God cannot be composed of parts, otherwise he would have needed some more fundamental cause to put those parts together. (Historically, the Trinity is not understood as three different parts). Thus, God is simple.

We can say he is immutable or unchangeable; potency is by definition the ability or capacity for changing, but God (as pure Act) has no potency, and so he cannot change.  Therefore he can’t be affected by things external to him like the physical world, and so he is impassible. And if he’s not changing, and since time is a measure of change, if he never changes, then he must be eternal.

Utility of These Philosophical Proofs

Dr. Huffling acknowledges that these arguments are “difficult and foreign to the non-philosopher.” These notions of act and potency are very abstract and difficult to understand. To use Aristotle’s terminology, it is a habit or way of thinking that most people don’t have normally.   

[I have found that to be true in my experience. The first several times I read or heard about these Thomistic reasonings, they seemed like just a bunch of words. I had a hard time taking them seriously. When I have described these arguments to friends who are normally intellectually curious folks, the response has basically been a bored yawn. Folks seem suspicious or resentful when presented with a line of reasoning rather than a quick compelling photo or sound bite.

One challenge in getting folks to affirm these arguments, or even to understand them at all, is that they depend largely on the validity of the whole Aristotelian view of reality. Modern thought has moved so far from the classical way of thinking, that we don’t even have familiar vocabulary to properly describe it. Lecturers like Dr. Huffling and Dr. Howe (see  Richard Howe: How Do I Know That I Know?; Defining the Good [2020 NCCA Apologetics Confc, 2] ) have to spend the first part of their talks simply defining key terms like “potentiality”, “actuality”, “motion”, “nature” and “essence”.]

Despite their unfamiliarity, these philosophical proofs are “more robust regarding the existence and nature of God than the scientific proofs.”

The arguments from design (e.g. origin of life, Big Bang beginning of the universe, fine-tuning of physical constants) are far more easily grasped in our materialistic age. However, they depend on the state of our scientific knowledge, which can change.

[I would add that they depend, more precisely, on the state of our scientific ignorance, since they are to some extent God-of-the-gaps arguments: we cannot currently provide a plausible complete natural, mechanistic explanation for these things, and therefore we propose that a supernatural Agent has acted. But if tomorrow it were announced that some scientist had succeeded in finding conditions where a tub of chemicals assemble into self-reproducing vesicles based on DNA and protein, the origin of life argument would suddenly lose much of its appeal.]

 Moreover, even if these design arguments are valid, they would not tell us much for sure about the Designer. Maybe there was more than one Designer, and maybe he/they have died or gone defunct since their creative efforts so long ago.

In contrast, the philosophical proofs are not only independent of the vagaries of specific scientific proposals, but (if sound) they immediately provide a great deal of information about the characteristics of God.  He is necessary, immutable, infinite, eternal, and so on. There is only one such being, and all other beings depend on him for their ongoing existence.

These classical reasonings may not be engaging for most people. However, for men and women with the patience and tenacity to work through them, these arguments can bring more confidence and coherence in their theistic worldview.

Q & A Session: Laws of Logic; the Trinity; Historical Proofs; Big Bang Cosmology; and More.

Question 1. How would you argue that the laws of logic may be used to prove something?

[Note: Christian presuppositionalist apologists make these kinds of arguments, claiming that immaterial but seemingly objective things like the laws of logic can only be explained by God].

Dr. Huffling’s answer: he would not try to use the laws of logic to prove something else. He thinks that the laws of logic, along with principles of numbers and mathematics, are explainable as our abstractions or generalizations from real, sensible, material things.

In terms of our immediate knowledge, for example, a man holding his phone cannot say that “This is a phone” and “This is not a phone” at the same time in the same sense. That’s just the principle of non-contradiction.  The law of identity: If it’s a phone, it’s a phone. And the principle of the excluded middle says it’s either a phone or it’s not a phone. So we can abstract these notions to get the laws of logic from the physical, material world.

Because he thinks we can explain logic through the material world, he would not use logic to prove the existence of something. But he thinks we’re going to have to explain the material world from a non-material cause, which is God, so ultimately logic is grounded in God in so far as he is being and logic is grounded in being.

Question 2: Where can we go to learn more about these concepts?

Answer: Dr. Huffling has a blog, as does Richard Howe. See also Edward Feser’s blog. Writings by Brian Davies are recommended, as are books by Edward Feser. Feser’s books include Five Proofs of the Existence of God, and The Last Superstition. The latter book serves as an introduction to philosophy, as well as a critique of the so-called New Atheism.

Question 3. For your point that there can only be one ultimate thing, how do you explain the Trinity? How do you explain to someone about Jesus and the Holy Spirit?

Answer: This is a difficult question to answer quickly.  The Trinity, classically understood, does not say that the three persons are “parts”. There is one God, he is one being with one essence, and in some mysterious way the members of the Trinity are all identical to that essence without being identical to each other.

There are different ways of explaining this. The starting point is that four key assertions are found in the Bible: There is only one God; Jesus is called God; the Father is called God; and the Holy Spirit is called God. This is a genuine mystery from the point of view of our finite understanding.

 Father, Son and Spirit are not classically seen to be different persons or entities the way you and I are different persons. So we wouldn’t say they all have their own intellect, will, and emotions sitting over here and over there and there; that would be more of a tri-theism. They are not three beings or three equal persons in the sense that we use the word “persons” today. Rather, they are just analogously persons, so we understand them in those terms. There are various efforts to illuminate this point, e.g. Augustine’s psychological model, but they are only analogies.

Question 4. Do you think that Big Bang cosmology squares with biblical creation?

Answer:  We can divorce the age of these issues from the facts of the issues. For example, there’s nothing controversial about saying that the universe is expanding like the Big Bang says, or that the second law of thermodynamics shows the universe is running down, or that the radiation echo discovered by Penzias and Wilson shows what we would expect to see if there was a great explosion at the beginning of the universe.

There are different arguments regarding the age of the universe, but the dates as such are not at odds with the Bible. Now, atheists are going to say it was uncaused or there was another universe that caused ours, and that’s completely unbiblical. But in terms of the Big Bang, he holds to an old earth personally and he thinks that the Big Bang fits biblically with the Genesis account.

Question 5. It seems that the limitations that you outlined concerning the scientific proofs could be similarly limiting for the historical or archaeological proofs. Would this then undermine the apologetics we have around the resurrection as a historical event?

Answer: No, because with the resurrection we are looking at an event in space and time, with a physical human being, and history and archaeology do study those kinds of events; they are meant to study those subjects. Biology and physics are meant to study nature, which is why they cannot go beyond nature.

When it comes to the existence of God, he would not want to use historical or archaeological proofs. But when it comes to the reliability of the Bible and the resurrection of Jesus, you have to use those things because that’s the only thing you have available to you.  We’re going to look at eyewitness accounts, enemy accounts, what are the minimal facts that nearly all scholars can agree on, etc. Because archaeology and history are meant to study those things, it’s appropriate to use them there.

 Question 6. (Follow-up to Question 1 on laws of logic) I wanted to see how someone would answer because some agnostics stick to their agnosticism because they don’t think they can trust anything to prove anything and that could even include logic.

Answer:  That’s a separate issue, if you’ve got a skeptic or agnostic who wants to question our senses. Aquinas says that certain things like change are evident to our senses. That is, I don’t assume that tree out my window is there, I know it’s there because I can see it.  I don’t have to question my senses to know it’s there. For someone like me, because of my metaphysical view of the nature of man – – unlike Immanuel Kant and unlike these agnostics – – I don’t have this natural gap between me and the world. They think there is a separation between the mind and the body. But those in my view don’t have that separation; we have a unity of being regarding the person. I know I am holding this Gatorade bottle because I have a unity of being.  I don’t have to jump over some epistemological gap or defeat some problem, so I don’t have any real problem in this regard like the agnostics do.

They can’t legitimately question logic; you can’t question logic because that would be self-defeating. You can’t say “We can’t know anything” because that would be a thing that you could know. You have to use logic to argue against logic – – you can’t use those very principles to disprove the thing you’re trying to get rid of.

Question 7. How would you go about establishing or authenticating the special revelation of the Bible without using presuppositionalism?

Answer: As a classical apologist, the first step I’m going make is proving God’s existence [using philosophy] and then showing that miracles can happen because God exists. And then miracles, including the resurrection, can be used to confirm a message of God. Then the methods we just discussed can be used: historical inquiry to show the New Testament is historically reliable and the testimony of the disciples and their changed lives and their willingness to suffer death and imprisonment and the empty tomb, and so on.

Question 8. Do you know of any philosophers or theologians who speak in less technical terms, not just layman’s terms but using the art in nature to explain their pointing to God; more of a poetic approach?

Answer: He is not really familiar with the poetic approach; he has read recommendations for David Bentley Hart’s, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. He noted that poetry can be difficult for getting your philosophical points across. We see this in the dialogues of Plato. Plato wrote in a very conversational tone, which makes them hard to understand. In contrast, Aristotle’s prose style is much clearer.      

Question 9. It’s clear we need philosophy to interpret science, yet so many affirm that they only need science to find truth. What is an effective way to expose this illogical thinking?

Answer: He would point out that the argument that “all knowledge comes from science” is a philosophical argument. They are not using science to make that point. That’s why scientism (the notion that only science gives us knowledge) is self-defeating.     Similarly the lines are blurry even with the teleological or design types of arguments for God, because at some point you cross the line from science to philosophy without even realizing it.

About Scott Buchanan

Ph D chemical engineer, interested in intersection of science with my evangelical Christian faith. This intersection includes creation(ism) and miracles. I also write on random topics of interest, such as economics, theology, folding scooters, and composting toilets, at . Background: B.A. in Near Eastern Studies, a year at seminary and a year working as a plumber and a lab technician. Then a B.S.E. and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Since then, conducted research in an industrial laboratory. Published a number of papers on heterogeneous catalysis, and an inventor on over 100 U.S. patents in diverse technical areas. Now retired and repurposed as a grandparent.
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10 Responses to Brian Huffling: Science Cannot Prove the God of Christianity But Philosophy Can [2020 NCCA Confc, 4]

  1. says:

    None of that makes any sense to me. A few points.

    1. Science doesn’t prove anything, it uses evidence to form hypotheses and hypotheses to make predictions. Those whose predictions work enough to be useful become theories. So far there is no physical evidence to point to a god. Which a god could easily provide (and used to provide according to tribal tall tales) but instead, if it exists it is (now) in hiding. There is also no evidence of any mechanisms it could use to read our minds (all eight billion at once, supposedly) or create universes. The whole thought of a god creating the vast universe we see all around us just so one biological species could evolve on one small planet is megalomania on a grand scale.

    2. Meanwhile, everything we do understand well enough to make predictions about works without a god (we don’t need a Fire God to make fire, or a Rain God to make rain), and the rest is simply unknown, so postulating a god adds no explanatory value. For explanatory value we would have to understand mechanisms of when, where, and how it acts, which is conveniently postulated to be beyond our comprehension. Is this not beginning to sound like a classic con game? The universe exists and has certain properties. We don’t know how or why. Now add a god: we don’t know how or why it exists or how it makes universes and we have no direct evidence of it. Philosophically, what have we added? What would Occam’s Razor say to do with that hypothesis?

    3. All this stuff about fine-tuning to produce such noble, magnificent creatures as ourselves … have we looked at ourselves recently? Take Trump–please! (Take me, for that matter.) Computers with 1/100,000th of our neuron capacity (about one million simulated neurons, maximum) can beat our grand champions at chess, go, and protein-folding predictions. If I were this god, I would scrap this universe and make a much better one. (Probably with intelligent, self-reproducing quantum arrays that didn’t need stars or planets.)

    • Hi Jim, I will offer a few thoughts in response to your thoughtful comments. Perhaps someday a card-carrying Thomist will show up here and enlighten us both.

      A. Agreed, we don’t need to invoke a supernatural factor in order to understand and make use of the physical processes in the universe. Both the Bible and our observations support the viewpoint that normally things happen in regular ways in the universe. Theism does not claim to compete with secular explanations on that level.

      B. Regarding direct evidence. God is not a object within the physical universe, so we should not expect to observe a divine arm or leg sticking in from the edge of the cosmos. If I understand Dr. Huffling correctly, he would say that the universe as a whole is evidence for God. On his analysis, if we carefully think through the notions of change and of causation, they point to a creator and sustainer of the universe (including a multi-verse, if there is such a thing). And, as outlined here, by extending the analysis, we can infer some characteristics of such a creator.

      Can’t rehearse all the arguments and counter arguments and counter counter arguments here. But all of our experience indicates that things don’t happen or come into existence without a sufficient cause. And so it seems to me special pleading to say well, the universe/multiverse is an exception to that universal observation – -it just happens to be here, with no sufficient cause.

      C. Dr. Huffling also touched on the documentary evidence for Jesus resurrection. Again, don’t want to get into all the weeds and pros and cons, but there’s no reasonable doubt that there were a bunch of guys running around the Mediterranean world in the mid-first century who had known Jesus during his earthly lifetime, and were convinced that they all had had physical visitations with him after his death, and were willing to suffer imprisonment, torture, and death to spread that message. More than one atheist has become a reluctant convert after reviewing and attempting to refute that evidence.

      D. At the start of my blog post here, I point out the difference between the classical conception of God, versus a popular misconception of “god”, which would be just a very powerful, knowledgeable version of as humans. Agreed that with such a humanoid, Zeus-like god, it might be problematic trying to imagine mechanisms he could use to read all of our minds. But I don’t think that would be an issue for a God who holds every molecule in the universe in being every second.

      E. Regarding creating a whole vast universe perhaps just as a home for our less-than-admirable species… In my view, it wasn’t a particularly hard or onerous thing for God to make the universe. Apparently, he did feel the effort was worth it. In the Christian view, God as the Trinity is bubbling with life and love, and is more than willing to expand the bubble of life and love by sharing it with creatures like you and like me.

      Cheers, and hope you get vaccination soon. I got my first shot a few weeks ago, so am pretty well immune by now. I still wear a mask in public for a good example, but feel like I have been let out of prison.

      • josephurban says:

        I always enjoy your posts because they make me think. I cannot agree with your points B and C.

        B. It seems a sneaky way out of the defense of god. God, you seem to be saying, cannot be known by any physical means except by the manifestation of his works. But that presupposes that the billions of galaxies, etc. which are physical things, were created by some being without substance. It really stretches the imagination.

        Being raised a Catholic I am vaguely familiar with some of Aquinas’s arguments; the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover, etc. The problem, as I see it, is that those same arguments can be applied to any concept of “god”. What caused god? Since nothing can exist without a “cause”? If the answer is that god always existed, there is no reason to suggest the same answer can apply to the universe. So, god is not necessary for a universe. The universe has always existed.

        To go beyond that. Since we are temporary beings who have created the concept of time to explain change and death, perhaps we can only think in terms of causation. We cannot grasp an eternal or never ending or never beginning physical universe. Our own reasoning may lead us to not be able to grasp anything outside of our understanding of life as it relates directly to us?

        On your point C. I would have to seriously challenge any documentary evidence of the divinity of Jesus, although there is fragmented evidence that such a human did exist. I would challenge that as evidence of divinity in two areas.

        First, the concepts of virgin birth, god made man, resurrection, miracle working, etc. are not unique to the Jesus story. In fact, all those ideas predate the Jesus story. Some are Egyptian, others Babylonian, etc. The Jesus story is simply the next in line of the ideas expressed by the early Christians to give validity to their beliefs.

        Second, the ability of men to create fantasies from whole cloth or to exaggerate and repeat false information is really the hallmark of human behavior. Today, when we have the ability to verify just about any information we are given, we see millions of people who will reject evidence and believe what they want to believe. This is not a new phenomenon. The most recent example is the US presidential election. Where, even after the votes have been counted and recounted, a very high percentage of people believe that the loser actually won. There are plenty of other examples, even in modern times when evidence can be easily verified. How much less so in ancient times when no claims could be verified except by those who already held the belief that they were true. For example, the reanimation and resurrection of a dead body. No real evidence of that.

        As I said earlier, I enjoy reading this blog because it gets me thinking about things I have not thought about for a long time.

  2. josephurban says:

    I find philosophical exercises interesting, but nor convincing.
    What I am seeing here is that since we cannot prove the existence of a creator using the tools of evidence and science, we shall ignore evidence and science. It seems to me a contradiction to argue on one hand that god is the creator of a physical world, which can be investigated by science, but can be “proven” by philosophical exercises only, ignoring the physical world.
    Is this an admission of defeat? God, who created the physical world,can not be explained by such a creation?
    Of course, philosophy has a distinct advantage over science when it comes to explanations. That advantage is that philosophical arguments need no proofs. A good philosopher can use language to explain the universe without the added hardship of proving the validity of those linguistic exercises in the real world.
    As I was reading some of the linguistic arguments (are they really philosophical or just wordplay?) I kept thinking of the Easter bunny. To a child the Easter bunny brings eggs. there is no need to challenge that assumption with evidence since the conclusion is “a priori”. I see the same type of argument here. The assumption of a supreme being comes before the collection of evidence. In fact, since there can be no real evidence, the assumption simply stands because… well, just because.

    • Joseph, I appreciate your comments. I blog partly as an exercise to try to figure out things first for myself, and then to put it out there to see if it can hold up to the scrutiny of others. If I am off, I want to know about it.
      A couple of remarks:
      ( 1 ) As I noted in my earlier comment to Jim, God is not an object in the physical world. It is simply a category mistake to rue that we “cannot prove the existence of a creator using the tools of science.” When the Russians first launched Yuri Gagarin into space and gleefully reported that he had not seen God up there, C. S. Lewis replied that Christians would have been very worried if he *had* seen God up there.

      ( 2 ) The Thomists are following in the tradition of Aristotle. He did not start off looking for some way to justify belief in a god/God. Rather, from his analysis of change (“motion”) and causality, he concluded that there must be an unmoved mover, with certain properties such as being as being perfectly beautiful, indivisible, and contemplative, and so on. The Thomists have developed this a bit further, as outlined above, but the fundamental approach is the same. The Unmoved Mover, who is Pure Act, is not an a priori assumption, but an a posteriori conclusion.

      And if there really is a Supreme Being, beyond the physical world, with something like consciousness and agency, that opens the possibility of supernatural intervention, revelations, etc.
      (Now, whether the Aristotelian / Thomist arguments are in fact air-tight at every step, I confess I am not sure of. The whole vocabulary and thought forms are unfamiliar to me. So am still trying to sort this out. But it is certainly not a priori)

      ( 3 ) re “What caused god? Since nothing can exist without a “cause”? If the answer is that god always existed, there is no reason to suggest the same answer can apply to the universe.” Again, I respectfully suggest we are talking different categories here, contingent versus necessary. I think most folks would agree that universe we observe is, in itself, contingent. (By “universe” I am including the multiverse, if there is such a thing – -i.e. all of physical reality). That is, it did not have to be the way it is, with the physical laws and starting conditions it has. Any contingent entity normally calls for an explanation for why it is the way it is. On the other hand, a necessary being, such as God does not require or even allow for any external cause. A necessary being cannot not be.

      More formally stated, “Anything that exists must have an explanation for its existence, either through an external cause, or a necessity of its own being.” As a contingent entity, the universe must have an external cause. For something to explain the universe, it would have to be beyond the universe; it would have to be beyond space and time. But for something to be beyond space and time, and to be the ultimate, explanation of all contingent things, is to be something that just is. Which, as can be argued, has a few other properties, and which is commonly known as God.
      Again, adding God to the picture does not help up build better dams or canals. But it does give us an added dimension to life that is lacking with consistent materialism. People differ in how much they value that.

      ( 4 ) If someone has already made up their mind that the material world is all there is, then necessarily they will discount any and all evidence for a miracle. Others can evaluate the evidence more fairly. As documentation in the ancient world goes, the evidence for Jesus’ life and resurrection is quite strong. There is no reasonable doubt that Paul wrote, for instance, his letters to the Galatians and I Corinthians. In those missives he notes in passing that he spent time with e.g. Peter and James, both men who knew Jesus well in his earthly life and were (like many others) convinced very soon after Jesus’ death that he had risen from the dead. These men were conservative Jews, not fertility-cult devotees up in Asia Minor. It was the shocking fact (to them) of the resurrection that drove them to start understanding the Galilean carpenter as a God-man, not the other way around.

      Paul met with these guys no more than 4-5 years after the death of Jesus, and Paul wrote these letters about 25 years later, to churches to whom Peter and James were well-known contemporary personages. And as Paul sorrowfully admits in his letters, he was interacting with (by way of persecuting) local believers in Christ, at least some of whom would have seen the rabble-rousing rabbi in action just a few years prior. This is hardly “fragmented evidence that such a person did exist”. Not to mention the gospels and the references to Jesus by extrabiblical writers. See my for more on this.

      ( 5 ) Agreed that people can deceive themselves, but this cuts both ways. For instance, serious scholarship in the twentieth century has utterly demolished the contention that myths of dying and rising gods were common in the ancient Near East before the time of Christ. This contention was based on wishful thinking and on unwarranted conflations, e.g. not distinguishing between myths and rituals, and not distinguishing between post-death existence in the underworld and a genuine resurrection to the regular world of life. (There are some references to dying/rising in ancient literature, but they tend to be well after Christianity had become widespread, and are more likely reactions to Christianity). For instance, U. Chicago professor Jonathan Z Smith wrote:

      “The category of dying and rising gods, once a major topic of scholarly investigation, must now be understood to have been largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts…. All the deities that have been identified as belonging to the class of dying and rising deities can be subsumed under the two larger classes of disappearing deities or dying deities. In the first case, the deities return but have not died; in the second case, the gods die but do not return. There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity.” – (that article debunks the usual suspects, Adonis, Marduk, Osiris, etc.)

      Nevertheless, modern atheists like Richard Carrier try to spin the facts any which way to try to resurrect this myth of the dying and rising god, as a way to discredit Christianity. And he and other atheists have tried to claim that there is no evidence that Jesus even existed, a claim so preposterous that even arch-skeptic Bart Ehrman has denounced it.
      Just a caution that any one of us, believer or skeptic, is liable to let our presuppositions cloud our interpretation of the facts.

      Well, anyway, I hope you are well and get to enjoy some spring weather.

      • josephurban says:

        Scott. Thanks for the thoughtful responses. I have been thinking about them and here are some of my thoughts.
        (1) I agree with you that any concept of “god” cannot be proven or disproven by science. It is something a person must believe based solely on faith, not evidence.
        (2) I tend to disagree with your comments about the motivation of Thomas. It is my understanding that Thomas was not some seeker of knowledge with no preconceptions about god. After all,from an early age he had been part of a monastery and his entire life was immersed in religion. He did try to bring together the religious and scientific (at the time) knowledge of the time into a coherent defense of the idea of god. But he was not an impartial investigator. He set out to prove the existence of god . At least that is my understanding of his development.
        (3) You make an interesting distinction between “contingent” and “necessary”. But I disagree that the multiverse or all physical reality is “contingent” . I don’t see why that should be the case. In my mind their is no logical reason why all physical reality had to “begin”. There is no reason I can see why the multiverse (like any conception of god) would have to be contingent. Why would you suggest that the multiverse is not “necessary”, after all, we are all here in physical space.

        Using the Thomist argument that “everything that exists must have an explanation” is not convincing to me. Why not? Because you can make the same statement concerning “god”. Why does god exist? How did god come into existence? Does god change? If god does exist, then logically god must be subject to the same logical demands of the universe, no? Simply stating god is not subject to the same reasoning seems to me to be a weakness of the argument, which only holds water if your “a priori” claim is the existence of god.

        (4) I think you kind of sidestep my point about Jesus in this section. I do not deny the probable existence of Jewish rabbi who thought he was a prophet. After all, there is no shortage of those in Jewish history. So, although the evidence is not convincing me, I will concede the existence of the rabbi.
        But that says nothing about the divinity of the rabbi. The only evidence of divinity are reports by rabid followers. Hardly an independent source of information. In order to accept the divinity of the rabbi one would have to suspend the laws of physics and biology. I am not willing to do so based on the claims of a few followers with no other proof. The suspension of the laws of nature places the death and resurrection in the context of the physical world, so the rules of the physical world must apply.
        Again, I point out the misinformation that runs rampant today even with all the tools of science at our disposal. There is no evidence of divinity of the rabbi other than the claims by some of his followers. Not strong evidence.

        (5) I concede your point about other mythology. I had not known about the newest research. At least there is some legitimate disagreement about other resurrection myths. Or if they existed, were the Jews of the first century familiar with them. I am always open to new data and interpretations. If , in fact, the claim of the resurrection is new and unique to Christians, that does not , in and of itself however, make it true.

        Again, thanks for the responses and the thoughtful blog.
        I have had my 2 Moderna shots so I feel relived. Hopefully we soon will see the end of this pandemic. Stay safe.

      • Joseph,

        Re (2) Just to clarify, when I wrote “He did not start off looking for some way to justify belief in a god/God”, by “He” I meant Aristotle, not Thomas. Sorry for the confusion of pronoun. I certainly agree with you that Thomas was looking for arguments to support theism, even as today’s philosophers look for arguments to support atheism. Aristotle worked well for Thomas, particularly since Aristotle did not, as best we know, start off trying to prove some sort of god/God (and in fact, like Socrates, was accused of atheism). Rather, from analysis of the observable physical world, he concluded that there must be some eternal, immaterial, conscious Cause for this world which is pure Act, no potential.

        Re (3) “ In my mind their is no logical reason why all physical reality had to “begin” “. There are physical arguments to be made why physical reality had to begin, I just don’t want to get into all that here. Maybe some other post, some other time. But the Thomistic approach actually does not depend on the cosmos having a beginning. Aristotle thought the physical cosmos was eternal, and Thomas had no problem with that. I tried to elucidate that in my post by differentiating from the billiard balls example.

        “If god does exist, then logically god must be subject to the same logical demands of the universe, no?” I agree, in the sense of likewise being subject to: “Anything that exists must have an explanation for its existence, either through an external cause, or a necessity of its own being.”

        We don’t actually observe “the universe”. What we do observe are many objects and photons, large and small, hot and cold, in various states of evolution or change or “motion”. They are all contingent on something else, which in turn are caused by or dependent on something else. There are arguments to be made as to the incoherence of an infinite regress of contingent beings (which is a crucial point in this debate), but to draw this to a close I won’t get into them now. The point the Thomists make is that there is a qualitative difference between this collection of (individually) contingent changing objects/photons/fields, (which they argue calls for an explanation outside of itself), versus an immaterial, eternal being, who is pure Act, with no potential and hence no grounds for change. God would not and could not exist as a contingent being in the way that an evolving components of the universe do.

        Re ( 4 ) “In order to accept the divinity of the rabbi one would have to suspend the laws of physics and biology”. The “laws” of nature are simply patterns that we normally observe. They don’t come with any kind of metaphysical necessity; there is no court we could appeal to, to protest some variation from these patterns.
        It comes down to one’s presuppositions. If you go into this inquiry with the view that the natural world is all there is, then all the testimony in the world will not (and should not) persuade you that Jesus rose from the dead. If you have the view that there is a supernatural creator/sustainer of the physical world who happens to have things usually occur in regular ways but could easily have things occasionally occur otherwise, then a miracle is not some huge “violation” of laws that would demand huge extraordinary evidence. One would, of course, want to be judicious as to the quality of the testimony for any particular miraculous claim, as we would with any claim about anything, and carefully explore non-miraculous explanations.

        Obviously we aren’t going to agree here, but I appreciate your courteous and earnest discussion.

        Great to hear you’ve got your shots in. I think we should be past the pandemic stage in the U.S. in a couple of months (Europe will take longer), but I read that mutant variants will keep on cropping up. I suppose we will have to get annual Covid shots along with flu shots. I’m not going to throw out my masks 🙂

  3. The God Who created everything is an eternal Spirit Being that no man can see and does not exist out of three personalities with different characteristics, but is only One Being according to His own infallible Word, the Bible..

  4. Pingback: Richard Howe: How Do I Know That I Know?; Defining the Good [2020 NCCA Apologetics Confc, 2] | Letters to Creationists

  5. Pingback: John Sanford Disputes Evolution [2020 NCCA Apologetics Confc, 5] | Letters to Creationists

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