The “Intrinsic Probability” of Theism

Before coming to the evidence for the existence of God, a preliminary question needs to be asked: How plausible is it, a priori, that God exists?

Consider the case of John and Jane. John assumes that the existence of God is profoundly unlikely and therefore views theistic proofs with deep suspicion and finds them unpersuasive. Jane, on the other hand, assumes that the existence and nonexistence of God are about equiprobable and therefore views those same proofs with an open mind and finds them persuasive.

The point is that our presuppositions about the “intrinsic probability” of theism (where the “intrinsic probability” of a hypothesis is a measure of its simplicity prior to the evidence) are crucial to the outcome of any discussion of evidence for the existence of God and so need to be taken into account. [1]

It is at first tempting to think that John is correct. The existence of God seems about as improbable as anything can be. God, if he exists, is unlimited: infinite in power, knowledge and love. The principle of parsimony, which recommends the simpler of any two competing explanations, would seem to recommend an atheistic explanation in every possible case: Whenever there are two possible explanations for the evidence, one which appeals to the existence of God and one which does not, the explanation which does not appeal to the existence of God is simpler and therefore has greater intrinsic probability. Prejudice against theistic claims is, it seems, justified.

However, in The Existence of God, Oxford professor of philosophy Richard Swinburne presents a strong counterargument to this view. He first notes that to postulate a limited force is to postulate two things: The force and whatever constrains it; while to postulate an unlimited force is to postulate one thing: The force, which, being unlimited, is not constrained by anything. “For this reason,” he continues, “scientists have always favoured a hypothesis ascribing zero or infinite value to some entity over a hypothesis ascribing a finite value when both hypotheses are compatible with the data.” Thus, “the hypothesis that some particle has zero or infinite mass is simpler than the hypothesis that it has a mass of 0.3412 or a velocity of 301,000 kilometres per second.”

Theism is the proposition that the ultimate explanation of the universe is a single immaterial person that is of the simplest kind imaginable because it is unlimited: Since a person is, “a conscious entity that has rational thoughts, moral awareness, intentions, continuity of identity and who is able to perform basic actions,” a person having zero powers would not be a person at all. [2] And so it follows that in postulating a person with infinite powers the theist is postulating the simplest person logically possible.

The intrinsic probability of theism is therefore high and prejudice against theistic claim unwarranted.

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[1] Some philosophers do not recognise the concept of “intrinsic probability.” Plantinga, for example, thinks it is doubtful that there is such thing as intrinsic logical probability but concedes that, “we certainly do favour simplicity and we are inclined to think that simple explanations and hypotheses are more likely to be true than complicated epicyclic ones.” The reader who shares this view can simply equate “intrinsic probability” with the notion that, all things being equal, simpler hypotheses commend themselves over complex ones.

[2] As Dallas Willard notes in The Divine Conspiracy, “Any being that has say over nothing at all is no person. We only have to imagine what that would be like to see that this is so. Such ‘persons’ would not even be able to command their own thoughts. They would be reduced to completely passive observers who count for nothing, who make no difference.”

 

Thoughts on urgency and apologetics

The view from my house looks out over Auckland – West, North to East. It is a stunning view and one I doubt I will ever get used to. It is spectacular at dusk as the whole city is a mass of sparkling lights beneath a massive deepening blue sky. Magnificent.

I am often moved to prayer when I look at that view, for that mass of sparkling lights represents over a million people and many of them aren’t aware there is a God who truly loves them. When I look at that huge expanse of sky, I can’t help think how small we truly are compared to God and how just one drop of His glory could flood a city. Yet despite this, Jesus called us to spread His glory, to share His good news in the darkening world we live in (Matthew 28:18-20). The Bible exhorts us to be ready in season and out with the reason for our faith (1 Peter 3:15). Much of God’s glory is found in what we do and what we say. God gave us the honour of being part of His story by both living it and sharing it. His works in our lives create rich narratives of incredible love and redemption and are always, always meant to be shared.

Maybe you struggle with the battle between building and enjoying your life in this world; yet sense a deep restlessness that leaves you feeling perhaps there is something more you could be doing for the world to come. The stirrings of Christ-led urgency.

I recently came across a ‘judgement day’ video online that I found disturbing and as a fellow Christian – embarrassing! The producers meant well I am sure. I can best describe the short movie as having been made up of a script invoking ‘80s or ‘90s hellfire preaching with added graphic visuals to add to the effect. Yes, it did contain some truth about hell, but it was cringe worthy. I can’t imagine a postmodern being converted by it – although God sometimes uses the most unlikely things to capture our attention! I envisage many would label the short as scaremongering and manipulative – exploiting fear – despite the shades of postmodern surrealism within the movie itself. Watching the short did, however, cause me to think about urgency and perhaps this was its purpose. I couldn’t help but be stirred by those words and images because I believe in hell and I love people. It reminded me about the importance of not only sharing our faith, but also sharing it as often as possible. It gave me a sense of urgency. It also, indirectly reminded me of the importance of discipleship where the full story of our origin, meaning, morality and destiny (1) could begin to be fully explored, discussed and lived out biblically.

In our crazy busy lives, it is easy to let time slip by without stopping to think who we are as Christians and what we are called to do. Yet there is a world of people around us desperate for answers even as they put up their hands in denial of truth. Behind many hard questions are hearts and minds that genuinely want to believe there is a God that can help them make sense of the world. Yet, even if the questioner is hardened to the truth of God, there is usually a silent listener or reader nearby who is desperate for that truth.

Those sparkling lights.

Maybe we need to change our perspective and see that sense of urgency not as a manipulative tool, but rather an energising one. I challenge you to pray for that sense of urgency if you lack it. This may or may not be the end times, but these are your end times and mine. This is the only life we have in which to make a difference eternally.

With all the apologetic and evangelism resources, ministries and schools available to us, we are so blessed! I have found apologetic study invigorating! Finding answers for those tricky questions; thinking deeply on the things that are happening in the world around us; looking at issues through the lens of a well thought out Christian worldview; and using both our intellect and our spirituality – always guided by the Holy Spirit – is a powerful way to get closer to our God and make a difference in this world! I encourage you to start with your own questions. Find the answers in books and websites such as this, and begin to share.

But in your hearts set Christ apart [as holy—acknowledging Him, giving Him first place in your lives] as Lord. Always be ready to give a [logical] defense to anyone who asks you to account for the hope and confident assurance [elicited by faith] that is within you, yet [do it] with gentleness and respect. 1 Peter 3:15 (AMP)

(1) The contexts of our origin, meaning, morality and destiny, form part of the core apologetics module at RZIM Academy. 

Allan Sandage

It is often assumed that religious belief diminishes in ratio to scientific knowledge. “You’d expect,” begins one Newsweek article on the subject of God and science, “that the more deeply scientists see into the secrets of the universe, the more God would fade away from their hearts and minds.” There are many striking counterexamples to this assumption—but few more striking than that of Allan Rex Sandage.

Allan Sandage was one of the most important astronomers of the twenthieth century. He began his career in cosmology in the 1940s as a protégé of Edwin Hubble (the astronomer who discovered the expansion of the universe) and, after Hubble died of a heart attack in 1953, Sandage continued Hubble’s ambitious research project of measuring the size and age of the universe.

By some accounts Sandage was a difficult man—it was said that you were no one in astronomy if Sandage had not stopped talking to you. But an uncooperative attitude did not prevent him from making numerous groundbreaking contributions to cosmology. It was Sandage, for instance, who worked out the first reasonably accurate values for the elusive Hubble constant and the age of the universe (!) and Sandage again who discovered the first quasar.

For over forty years until his retirement in 1997, Sandage was regarded as the world’s foremost observational cosmologist and chalked up numerous further contributions to his field: publishing influential papers and improving all aspects of the cosmological distance scale—both within our own Milky Way and beyond to distant galaxies. The accolades and awards accordingly followed, including the prestigious Crafoord Prize—the Nobel of the astronomy world. In 1991, the New York Times noted that Sandage was now popularly referred to as, “the Grand Old Man of Cosmology.”

It was known, meanwhile, that Sandage was a “practicing atheist” as a youth and in a culture of glib scientism the assumption that an astronomer of his expertise and stature would have no truck with the supernatural may have been a fairly natural one. However, in 1985, at a Dallas conference on the theme of science and religion, Sandage surprised his academic peers by taking a seat among the panel of theists. In the context of a discussion about the theological implications of the Big Bang, he then revealed that he had converted to Christianity at the age of fifty. [1] “The world is too complicated in all parts and interconnections to be due to chance alone,” Sandage would explain in numerous subsequent articles on the subject of science and religion. “We can’t understand the universe in any clear way without the supernatural.” [2]

The conversion of Allan Sandage is a testament to the strength of the evidence for theism from modern cosmology and a dramatic counterexample to the belief that increases in scientific knowledge invariably reduce belief in God.

 

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 [1] Interestingly, a young Stephen Meyers was in the audience of this conference. Meyers relates that it was this shocking volte-face by Sandage that inspired his research into the evidence for design in the structure of the cell.

[2] See the Argument from Cosmic Teleology, which I summarise here, and the Argument from Adequation, which I summarise here.

Foetus in the womb

Abortion: Objections to the Pro-Life Position (Pt 2)

Welcome back for the second part of this series, in which we’re looking at common objections to the pro-life perspective on abortion. If you aren’t familiar with the pro-life view, I’d recommend you take a look at some of my previous posts, links to which can be found in the endnotes[i]. In this post, I’m going to address a topic that nearly always crops up in conversations on abortion; namely, rape.

Abortion and rape are very emotionally heated and tense subjects, and to be writing about both of them necessitates extreme reflection, caution, and care. Though I’m about to argue that rape does not provide justification for abortion, I want to take a moment to emphasise that women who are raped are victims of a dreadful and morally reprehensible crime. As such, they deserve our compassion and care regardless of our stance on the moral permissibility of abortion, and regardless of whether or not they do, in fact, opt for abortion. On this point, I’m sure all can agree.

Before moving on, allow me to provide a summary of what follows. First of all, the argument from rape is stated. Then, four responses to the argument, which indicate that it fails, are offered. Finally, a description of the good that can result from a woman choosing to protect her unborn child is presented. In this way, I hope to persuade you that rape does not justify abortion.


The Argument from Rape

Those who appeal to rape as justification for abortion typically argue that abortion should be legal in order to protect the mental wellbeing of women who have been raped. The argument goes like this: Abortion safe-guards the mental health of women who are pregnant by rape. Since the mental wellbeing of the mother is of greater value than the unborn, and since carrying the unborn to term would cause her immense mental anguish, a woman who has conceived due to rape is under no obligation to carry the unborn to term. Additionally, she did not choose to be pregnant, and the unborn is an aggressor against her integrity. Therefore, she is not obligated to allow the unborn to make use of her body, and is justified in terminating her pregnancy.

 Due to the immense emotional impact we justifiably feel when we hear of women who have been raped, this argument has significant rhetorical impact. However, when examined in depth, four problems arise which indicate that, in fact, rape does not justify abortion.

  1. Rape and Abortion on Demand

Let’s take a look at the first problem; namely, this argument fails to support abortion on demand. “Abortion on demand” is the idea that abortion should be allowed for virtually any reason during all 9 months of pregnancy at the request of the mother. It’s this view that pro-choice advocates typically contend for. Does the argument from rape support this view? Let’s grant, for the sake of discussion, that it’s a sound argument. What follows? Simply that abortion is justified in the case of rape. Clearly this conclusion offers no support for allowing abortion whenever and for any reason, and, therefore, it’s irrelevant to the case for abortion on demand.

Additionally, statistics indicate that pregnancy from rape accounts for around 1% of all abortions[ii]. If abortion is justified only in the case of rape, then it follows that 99% of abortions are morally impermissible. Since the argument from rape would justify abortion only in those specific circumstances, if one wishes to secure a right to abortion for all women in all circumstances, one must provide additional reasons besides said argument. Thus, even if we were to grant that abortion is morally permissible in cases of rape, in the absence of additional reasons justifying abortion in other cases, we should still advocate to restrict abortion rights to those relatively few (though still significant) cases.

  1. Begging the Question

Secondly, the argument from rape begs the question by assuming that the unborn is not an intrinsically valuable human being. In philosophy, to “beg the question” means to assume what one is meant to be proving[iii]. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the assertion that the unborn is not a valuable human being is incredibly difficult to establish and maintain. If the unborn, contrary to this assumption, is an intrinsically valuable human being, then it has the same right to life that the mother does, and as such is entitled to the same legal protection that she is.

To make this point clearer, imagine that you were conceived as the result of rape. Furthermore, imagine that every time your mother sees you or thinks of you, she experiences immense emotional anguish as memories of her experience resurface. Is the fact that she experiences such anguish sufficient justification to kill you? Clearly not. Why not? Because you have the same right to life that she does. However, if the unborn also possesses that right to life, then wouldn’t it also be wrong to kill him or her? Therefore, the determining question is not whether the unborn was conceived as the result of rape, but whether the unborn is an intrinsically valuable human being. This can only be determined by considering the nature of the unborn and what makes humans intrinsically valuable.

  1. An Ethical Intuition

Another issue with the argument from rape is this: if the unborn is a valuable human being, then to kill him or her for the benefit of the mother is to violate a clear ethical intuition; namely, that we cannot kill one innocent person in order to benefit another. For example, suppose that I require a replacement of some vital organ in order to continue living. Obviously, it would be wrong to kill you, or any other person, in order to harvest said organ and preserve my life. This doesn’t entail a lack of compassion for me or my imaginary situation. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of your right to life, and, as Francis Beckwith notes, it’s a refusal to commit murder, even for a good cause[iv]. Similarly, to kill an unborn human being in order to benefit the mother is wrong. “Simply because some people believe that an unborn child’s death may result in the happiness of another does not mean that the child has a duty to die”[v].

  1. The Unborn as Aggressor

Finally, it’s vital to note that there are three parties in this equation. The rapist is the aggressor—the one who commits the crime—and the mother is a victim of the crime. However, the mother is not the only victim—we must remember the unborn. Since, in most circumstances, the unborn doesn’t put the mother at risk, it’s hardly accurate to describe him as an aggressor. Rather, he is a consequence, and therefore a victim of, the crime perpetrated by the rapist. Thus, abortion cannot be justified on the grounds that the unborn is an aggressor.


For the reasons outlined above, it seems that rape isn’t sufficient justification for abortion. Evidently, this is a hard truth. Rape is a terrible crime, and most of us can’t begin to imagine the immense turmoil and distress that women experience when they discover they are pregnant by rape. Women in these situations should be met with compassion and generosity. However, the four responses I’ve offered indicate that abortion simply is not an appropriate response. Rather, if a woman chooses to selflessly bear a child conceived by rape, she performs a beautiful, morally praiseworthy act. If, after giving birth, the mother isn’t in a position to care for a child, or doesn’t want the responsibility of motherhood, she has the option of putting the child up for adoption. Doing so acknowledges her desire not to take on the responsibilities of child-rearing, but also heeds the value of the child before birth, and preserves their right to life.

In closing, allow me to dwell for a moment on the virtue of women who are victims of rape, and yet choose to carry the unborn to term. It’s worth repeating that a woman who willingly bears a child conceived by rape performs a beautiful, morally praiseworthy act. Christopher Kazcor poignantly describes this act as:

…in complete contradiction of what takes place in a rape. In rape, a man assaults an innocent human being; in nurturing life, a woman protects an innocent human being. In rape, a man undermines the freedom of another; in nurturing life, a woman grants freedom to another. In rape, a man imposes himself to the great detriment of another; in nurturing life, a woman makes a gift of herself to the great benefit of another… women who face pregnancies due to rape deserve unconditional love and compassion whether they choose abortion or not. But true love and compassion includes honesty about difficult moral truths, and, sometimes, even a call to heroic generosity.[vi]

Sometimes the truth is difficult to bear. But if we join together to support women in these circumstances, perhaps we can turn something ugly and unthinkable into something virtuous and just.


 

Endnotes:

[i] Making the Case: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Addressing Objections: Part 1.

[ii] Kaczor, C. (2015). The ethics of abortion: women’s rights, human life, and the question of justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge, p. 189.

[iii] For example, suppose a well-meaning Christian were to argue for the reliability of scripture by saying “scripture is trustworthy because the Bible says so”. This statement begs the question, as it’s only by assuming that scripture is trustworthy that we can trust what the Bible says, which is the point our Christian friend is attempting to prove.

[iv] Beckwith, F. J. (2007). Defending life: A moral and legal case against abortion choice. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, p. 106

[v] ibid.

[vi] Kaczor, C. (2015). The ethics of abortion: women’s rights, human life, and the question of justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge, p. 196.

Omnipotence Paradoxes

 

Every Sunday around the world Christians profess their faith in, “God the Father Almighty.” But does the concept of an all-powerful being really make sense?

The claim that God is all-powerful, or “omnipotent,” is the claim that God has unlimited power. While there is no obvious logical incoherence in the concept of omnipotence (the proposition, “There exists a being with unlimited power” does not involve an explicit contradiction in the way that, say, “John is a married bachelor” does) it is sometimes claimed by skeptics that it has paradoxical entailments.

The standard objection presents some action such that a limit is imposed upon God whether he performs it or not. Consider the question, “Can God create a stone too heavy for him to lift?” or, “Can God create a universe too wayward for him to control?” If God can create such a universe, to take the second example, then there is an action he cannot subsequently perform; namely, control it; and if he cannot create such a universe, then there is a different action that he cannot perform; namely, create it. Either way, the argument goes, there will be an action God cannot perform and so omnipotence is logically impossible.    

To see why this objection fails, we need to understand omnipotence in a more careful way. Theologians have always understood omnipotence to mean the power to perform any logically possible action. Thus to note that God could not create a square circle imposes no limit on his powers because creating a square circle is not an action whose difficulty lies in the brute force required to perform it. In fact, it is not an action at all; rather, the imperative Create a square circle is a logically incoherent combination of English words which have no referent in the set of all possible actions performable by an omnipotent being.    

This refinement de-fangs the objection completely. Stones so heavy that unlimited forces cannot lift them and Universes so wayward unlimited forces cannot control them both belong with square circles and married bachelors to a class of logically incoherent entities. The limitations in question are limitations, not of power, but of logical possibility. In a like case, the Bible teaches that God, being perfect, can do no evil and this “limitation” can be understood in the same sense as those just discussed. The phrase, “A morally perfect being who acts immorally,” describes a logically incoherent state of affairs—equivalent to, “A perfectly silent being who sobs loudly,” or, “An invincible being who is overthrown”: God cannot logically be expected to perform an action such that, if it is performed, that action has the entailment that God did not perform it. [1]

It may be that most Christians affirm belief in an omnipotent God on faith and scripture. Those of a more philosophical bent may appeal to a priori grounds—Plantinga’s Ontological Argument, for instance, or Swinburne’s argument for the parsimony of a First Cause unencumbered by limitations. [2] Still others may simply gaze into the vast and beautiful heavens at night and find it a perfectly reasonable property to impute to the creator. But on whatever grounds Christians affirm their belief in an Almighty God, rational reflection suggests that there are no indefeasible a priori objections to doing so.

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[1] All paradoxes of this sort can be simplified to the question, “Can God abrogate his own omnipotence?” As Richard Swinburne notes in his discussion of omnipotence paradoxes, it is logically possible that the answer to this question is yes but God never chooses to do so. In this scenario, too, the paradox is circumvented: God, being omnipotent, can perform the proposed action but, in choosing not to, remains omnipotent.

[2] To postulate a limited force is to postulate two things: The force and whatever constrains it; while to postulate an unlimited force is to postulate one thing: The force, which, being unlimited, is not constrained by anything. “For this reason,” Swinburne says, “scientists have always favoured a hypothesis ascribing zero or infinite value to some entity over a hypothesis ascribing a finite value when both hypotheses are compatible with the data.” Thus, “the hypothesis that some particle has zero or infinite mass is simpler than the hypothesis that it has a mass of 0.3412 or a velocity of 301,000 kilometres per second.” And since a person having zero powers would not be a person at all, by postulating a person with infinite powers the theist is postulating the simplest person logically possible.