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.