Engaging with people on the problem of evil

Guest article written by Michael Otto. Originally posted at www.nzcatholic.org.nz/2018/07/11/engaging-with-people-on-the-problem-of-evil/. Republished with permission from NZ Catholic.

It is not often that St Augustine and his wisdom are subjects of everyday conversation, but his thinking might be given more of an airing after US Christian apologist Mary Jo Sharp visited New Zealand. Mrs Sharp, a Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, spoke in Christchurch, Auckland and Tauranga recently, courtesy of Thinking Matters, a ministry that “encourages New Zealand Christians to think more deeply about what they believe, and why they believe it, so they can present the Christian faith as both rational and true”.

In Auckland, Mrs Sharp spoke at the Greenlane Christian Centre on May 25, with her main address titled “Encountering the Problem of Evil in Everyday Conversation”, at the start of a two-day conference on “Confident Christianity”.

She outlined a three-step approach for engaging people on this topic in a way that is aimed not at putting them on the defensive, but rather freeing them to think. The steps are essentially “refine the objections [to belief in God based on evil]”, “define the terms” and “outline your view”.

St Augustine’s treatment of the topic of good and evil was summarised under the second heading.

But Mrs Sharp, a former atheist, introduced the subject on a more personal note, sharing what happened on one occasion after she had given a talk at a women’s ministry event on life having meaning and purpose in God.

“At the end of my talk, a group of women came down to ask me some questions afterwards. There was one lady that just kept hanging towards the back of the group. She kept catching my attention because I noticed that her eyes were completely red. She had been holding back tears.

“As soon as everyone was gone, she made her way up to me and she said, I want to make sure that everyone else had a chance to talk to you because I’m having some real problems about my belief in God. My son died of leukaemia when he was three years old. And I can’t reconcile that with the Church’s teaching on God being good. So I just need to have some conversation with you on this matter.”

Mrs Sharp said this woman’s “questioning lament, her deep grief over the problem of pain and suffering in her own life, is something that is common amongst us as humans”.

“So while a person could say that the argument from evil seems purely academic . . . our experiences in this life continue to thrust it into the conversation, by means of our own suffering. We do not have the luxury of purely pontificating on the matter. We all experience evil and will have to handle it one way or another.”

“One of the first things we need to do,” Mrs Sharp said, “when we encounter this problem in conversation is help the person clarify their objection.”

“So what we are working towards is developing an environment in which both parties can add to the conversation in meaningful ways. So to help create the environment, we want to discover, how does the objector understand their objection? What do they think they mean. To do so we can ask questions, we should ask questions.”


At this point, Mrs Sharp made a caveat, one of several that punctuated her talk.

“Because when the lady came to me and said, how can I believe God is good when my son died of leukaemia at three years old, I’m not going to launch into a series of questions to see if she knows what she is saying or what did she mean by that?

“The first thing I am going to do is figure out if this is a person who is grieving and they need me to console, or listen, or if this is a person who wants the answers. . . .

“So with the lady who came up to me, I said, what do you need? Do you need answers or do you need a hug, because I am good for both. She said I think I need a little of both. That’s my intro, that’s where I’m OK to keep going.

“You are going to hear me caveat this all the way through, because the problem of evil has been handled at such a philosophical level so removed from the experience of suffering, we feel that we can lay that philosophical bomb on people without considering where they are at.”

Having made sure her audience was absolutely clear on this point, Mrs Sharp continued: “One of the first questions I always ask is: What do you mean by that?”

“Do you mean to say that this particular instance of evil wouldn’t have happened if God was good?

“Do you mean to say that no evil ever happens if God is good?

“I will just keep asking clarifying questions until they find something that they can say, yes, that’s what I mean, and something I can understand too.” Having refined the objection in this way, the next step is to define terms, Mrs Sharp said, especially what is meant by “evil”.

“When someone makes an objection to God using the existence of some evil as the basis of that objection, they are making an assumption — they are assuming that evil is real.

“They have to believe that evil has some sort of real existence in order to make the objection.”

Mrs Sharp said she asks people making this objection to give their definition of evil and then she can respond with her own thinking.

“I suggest that in order for us to understand what is evil, we need to know what is good. The two concepts are inextricably tied together. For evil has a parasitic relationship to good.

“As St Augustine said, there can be no evil, where there is no good.

“Evil is not a thing in itself, evil is a corruption of some good thing, evil is a privation of good. That’s what we mean when we say ‘evil’ .

“There are various corruptions of good – physical, moral. . . .”

“So for objective or real evil to exist, some kind of objective good must exist as well,” Mrs Sharp said. “In order to make the objection to God on the basis of evil, we need to know what is good and where we get that from.

“What I hear most frequently are arguments that assume there is some kind of objective good and there is some kind of standard, without ever giving a basis for how we know something is good at all.

“What we need is a standard of goodness.”


Mrs Sharp explained what would be necessary for such a standard.

“Whatever they bring to you [as a source for a standard for goodness], what you are checking for in that source, is — does that source effectively establish a standard of goodness for all people, at all times, at all places, something that is unchanging and consistent, because that is what we mean when we say ‘standard’.

“Why? — so that everyone would have the potential to discover good, so that we can have can have intelligible and consistent discovery.

But some people might respond that there is no such objective standard, Mrs Sharp said.

“I might say something [to them]. . . along the lines of this seems to me to be a tremendously important issue to investigate. You seem to be a person who believes in good and evil, you seem to live like they are real, you also don’t seem to be the kind of person who wants to be deceived, or hold on to delusions, so it appears we might have to do some homework in this area between us. And I might suggest a book or a website article we both can read and then come back and discuss.”

But if people adamantly insist “there is no standard at all? Then there is no objection from evil [to the existence of God]”.

At this point in other, more fruitful conversations, it would be helpful to ask the person if the Christian view can be shared, Mrs Sharp said.

“I might say can I tell you why I believe Christianity offers an objective standard of goodness and why it further explains the presence of evil as well as offering answers to the problem?” she said.

Starting with Jesus’ statement that “no-one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18), Mrs Sharp spoke on the goodness of God and how “objective moral values have their source in the eternal character, nature and substance of a loving, just and self-sufficient God” (quoting evangelical Christian philosopher Douglas Groothuis).

She then gave an outline of salvation history from an evangelical Protestant Christian perspective, finishing by stating: “God defeats the consequence of our evil, he defeats death. The way God does this is he steps into the experience himself.”

“Though the problem of evil is the greatest objection to the existence of God, as [philosopher] William Lane Craig says, paradoxically, at the end of the day, God is the only solution to the problem of evil. If God does not exist, then we are lost without hope in a life filled with gratuitous and unredeemed suffering.

“He said God is the final answer to the problem of evil, for he redeems us from evil, and takes us into the everlasting joy of an immeasurable good, fellowship with himself.” Mrs Sharp finished her talk by revisiting her conversation with “that lady I was talking to about the problem of her son”.

“I walked through this with her, and though I gave her a lot of answers, she has still got a long way to go.

“What I want to remind you of is it is not going to be that easy for people. The problem of evil is a very hard question. And though we can find the answers and say that makes sense, when you experience the problem of evil, when you experience pain and suffering in your own life, sometimes it is going to feel like it doesn’t make sense. So we need to remind ourselves of what God is doing on that cross for us.

“It is the most powerful event in human history.”

The Simulation Hypothesis

The Hypothesis

The concept of a computer simulation is familiar enough to the modern reader. It is a model world built by a computer scientist to test his or her theories of meteorology, the spread of diseases, economics and so forth. The proponent of the Simulation Hypothesis begins by supposing that there are no limits to the development of this technology: It may be that our scientifically advanced descendants will be able to build and run simulations that replicate life on Earth with exhaustive accuracy—digitally reconstructing not only the atomic composition of every object on Earth but also the neurological structure of every human brain. And this, they suggest, has the unsettling entailment that the postulated simulation might include a simulated but conscious version of you and me.1

Present day simulations single out a particular natural phenomenon for analysis. What possible purpose could such unconstrained simulations serve? Westerhoff offers a suggestion.2 We often wonder how history might have turned out if some small but crucial detail of the past had been different. What if, say, Mao Zedong had died of a heart attack during his famous swim across the Yangze River? To us such questions are unanswerable. But perhaps not to our descendants. They could (so the theory goes) run a simulation of Earth between 1875 and 2018, a simulation that matched to history at every point with one exception: Mao Zedong dies on July 16, 1966.

And here, claims Westerhoff, arises a still more unsettling possibility: The possibility that we are living in one of these simulations; the possibility that, say, Mao Zedong did die in 1966 and the architects of the simulation are interested to see how human history would have turned out had he lived. Nor should our ignorance of our unreality come as a surprise: Since the historical persons on which we are modelled did not believe they lived in a simulation, nor do we.

It is a wild hypothesis. But if we are willing to indulge for a moment its key presuppositions, it also has a certain probabilistic force. And this is because there is in principle no obvious limit to the number of simulations our descendants might choose to run. It is not unreasonable to suppose that they would run tens of thousands or even millions of simulations. And in that case the 100 billion actual humans who have ever existed on Earth might comprise a tiny fraction of the sum total of conscious beings—simulated and actual—who have ever existed. And in that case the probability that you are a simulated human being is on balance greater than the probability that you are an actual human being.3

On the face of it the Simulation Hypothesis (like Last Thursdayism, like Berkeleyan Idealism) would appear to be undisprovable: Faced with any datum advanced against the hypothesis, the proponent could claim that that datum is also part of the simulation. If that were how things stood the hypothesis would still be rationally unaffirmable.However, I am now going to argue that the Simulation Hypothesis is demonstrably false.

A First Pass: Westerhoff

Westerhoff himself considers an argument against the scenario.

Since the computer supervening over the simulation could not be infinite in its computational resources, there is, he says, a regress problem for any simulated world that can run its own simulations, which simulations, ex hypothesi, could run their own simulations in turn, and so on, infinitely. And so any world in which simulations are possible or even an accessible concept is probably not itself a simulation: The architects of the simulation, if they exist, would need to calibrate the program to avoid this scenario.

A Second Pass: Natural Theology

Westerhoff’s counterargument is of limited force. A proponent of the Simulation Hypothesis could just postulate that there is some undiscovered constraint in the simulated physics of our universe which prevents an infinite regress of simulations.5 But this need not trouble an opponent of the hypothesis which faces far more serious difficulties.

The first arises from Natural Theology. Since in its usual formulation, and also by definition, the Simulation Hypothesis imagines that our observable universe is a simulation of an actual universe, even allowing that we are in a simulation fails to discharge all the traditional arguments of Natural Theology. We can therefore argue of the actual universe (which we observe in the mirror image of the simulation) what philosophical theologians have always argued; namely, that Theism is an inference to the best explanation for the ex nihilio origination of material reality, the fine tuning of the laws and constants of physics, the origin of life and human mental and moral experience.

What possible relevance does Natural Theology have to the Simulation Hypothesis? It might be argued that the Simulation Hypothesist could simply set the question of the existence of God to one side. Its relevance is this: If these arguments obtain and God exists there are good a priori grounds for believing that a perfect moral agent would not allow fallible moral patients to themselves become moral agents over other moral patients in an unlimited and unconditional way—in the manner of Roko’s Basilisk. So the proponent of the simulation theory has an insupportable burden of proof to shoulder. To make his argument plausible he must prove that God does not exit.

Here, as a last resort, a Simulation Hypothesist might deny that our simulated universe bears any meaningful resemblance to the actual universe. The philosophical cost of this reply is high (since it would greatly attenuate the grounds for postulating the hypothesis in the first place) and profits him not at all. For the most forceful and indefeasible argument for the existence of God is the Cosmological Argument which obtains so long as a single finite and contingent particular is observed.6 And since the simulated universe, if it exists, is itself a contingent and finite particular, the Cosmological Argument obtains even if we allow that we can know nothing at all of the actual universe. As before, to make his argument plausible, the Simulation Hypothesist must first discharge the most forceful argument of Natural Theology in order to prove that God does not exit.

The Death Blow: The Hard Problem

The foregoing difficulties are considerable. But they are trivial compared to the central problem with the Simulation Hypothesis.

In postulating conscious minds that exist in a computer, the hypothesis presupposes that consciousness can be instantiated in a physical substrate and thereby presupposes in turn and without argument a solution to the so-called Hard Problem of consciousness. In fact, it can be shown that mental states are irreducible to the physical in principle. A key feature of the hypothesis is therefore falsifiable. To warrant serious attention, the proponent of the Simulation Hypothesis must first complete an insurmountable task. He must solve the Hard Problem by demonstrating how mental states (intentionality, qualia, first person ontology) are susceptible of reduction to the physical.7

The Simulation Hypothesis has a certain grip on the popular imagination— perhaps in particular among a generation who have grown up playing computer games. It does not, however, stand up to careful scrutiny.


[1] It is worth noting a problem that arises with the Simulation Hypothesis right out of the gate: Recovering enough information about persons long-dead to simulate them is fundamentally impossible since most of the information would have been dissipated as heat and radiated away from Earth at light speed. No finite computing power, however powerful, could complete the task.

[2] Jan Westerhoff, Reality: A Very Short Introduction.

[3] Others, while entertaining the outlandish hypothesis, are more conservative in their probabilities. David Chalmers has estimated the probability that he is living in a simulation at 20 percent.

[4] Hoffman and Rosenkrantz take the view that if something belongs to a universal and commonsense ontology, “then there is a prima facie presumption in favour of its reality. Those who deny its existence assume the burden of proof.” Swinburne has formalised this idea into a basic principle of epistemology which he calls the Principle of Credulity: We should, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, believe that things are the way they seem to be. An unprovable and undisprovable hypothesis that conflicts with our universal and commonsense ontology is therefore to be dismissed on pain of irrationality.

[5] On this view the discovery of such a constraint would provide inductive evidence that we are in a simulation.

[6] See The Cosmological Argument.

[7] See the Argument from Consciousness summarised here in five parts: Qualia, Intentionality, Privileged Access, Nonphysicality and the Conclusion.

Thoughts on why the Holy Bible is worth reading…

“‘The Authority and Relevance of the Bible in the Modern World’ – centers in the truth of the basic assumption of Biblical Christianity that the Bible, the Old Testament and the New, is what throughout it claims to be, the record of an unfolding revelation of God.” – E. M. Blacklock[1]

I was given my first Bible when I was 19 years old. At the time I was transitioning from years as a student and competitive swimmer, to a typical life of a young adult leaving a life of strict discipline. I struck up an unlikely friendship with a young Christian man who spent many months trying to convert me to Christianity. He didn’t quite convince me, but sometime in our friendship he gave me a Bible. It became my most treasured possession. Many years later when I became a believer my Bible became essential as I navigated this radical way of living called Christianity.

Currently, a third of the world’s population identify as Christian[2]. Those 2.2 billion people recognise the Bible as the source of the doctrines of their Christian faith. Yet, despite its popularity, no book in history has been so viciously maligned, intensely scrutinised, misused (unfortunately sometimes for atrocities) and misrepresented.

In April 2018, GQ Magazine published an article: ‘21 Classic Books You Don’t Have To Read By The Time You’re Thirty.’ On the list at number 12 was the Bible. Part of it’s blurb read:

The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it. Those who have read it know there are some good parts, but overall it is certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced. It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned… 

Many Christians rushed to online forums to express their outrage. Yet the comments were nothing new, being reflective of the Bible’s standing in our western secular culture. But was the author correct in his descriptions of the Bible?

While it is true many Christians in the West do neglect personal Bible reading, many of us do read it daily. There are also many Christians who risk their lives to own a Bible in countries where it is dangerous to be a Christian.

The Bible is not a single book with one author. It is an extraordinary collection of 66 individual books and letters. 39 books make up the Old Testament (or the Hebrew Scriptures), and the other 27 make up the New Testament. These books were put together in a Biblical Canon – books that meet the standard and criteria of authoritative inspirational writings[3].

The books of the Bible were written by around 40 authors over a timespan of around 1600 years on three continents – Asia, Africa and Europe, and in three different languages – Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. The authors came from different cultures, education and socio-economic backgrounds, and included: Kings, prophets, battle hardened military leaders, sea battered fishermen, a tax collector, a physician, and even a zealous Pharisee!

Miraculously, despite such diversity, there is a clear meta-narrative – a Golden Thread[4] – weaved throughout the books of the Bible, revealing the story of a creative, relational God and the Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration of humanity. The Bible is beautifully unique in both its complexity and unusual unity.

Is the Bible repetitious?

Repetition is often used in the Bible, giving readers varied perspectives and a more thorough view of events. It also emphasises ideas and themes of importance such as the laws of the Old Testament, or God’s repeated patience with His rebellious people.  The Bible also contains many ‘undesigned coincidences’ where small details in one account of a story add further detail or meaning to accounts by other authors. These are more easily found in repeated narratives such as the Gospels[5].

An example of repetition often put forth by Bible detractors is the question of why there needs to be four Gospels. In the Gospels we are given four very different eyewitness accounts of Jesus. Matthew writes a theological biography of Jesus; Mark from a literal, discipleship perspective; Luke from an historian’s perspective; while John writes from the perspective of an evangelist, prophet and pastor seeking to strengthen the faith of Christians[6]. These four independent perspectives add depth and meaning to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Is the Bible self-contradictory?

As the Bible is a collection of ancient near eastern texts they should not be read through the filter of our western perspective. Many so-called contradictions are not contradictions at all, they are differences, misunderstanding of the text or textual variants. Most English Bibles add textual variants in footnotes. An example of a biblical contradiction is Mark 15:25 where Jesus is crucified on the third hour, whereas John 19: 14-15 has Jesus still standing before Pilot in the sixth hour.  Mark is using Jewish time reckoning – dawn to sundown – placing the crucifixion at around 9am. John if using Roman time reckoning – midnight to midday – places Jesus before Pilot at 6am. John appears to use Roman time reckoning throughout his gospel. 

Is the Bible sententious?

The Bible is full of moral sayings, proverbs and parables. There are lessons to be learned and warnings given, but always with the aim of improving the lives of communities and individuals to whom they were given. Biblical narratives, whether historical or proverbial, give examples of the need for moral laws by sharing the real traits of Biblical characters. Raw emotions, actions, reactions and over reactions are laid bare in both Old and New Testaments. Sins, faults and shameful behaviour and their consequences are exposed rather than hidden. .

Is the Bible foolish?

It is doubtful a ‘foolish’ book could continue the serious worldwide influence the Bible has maintained for over a thousand years. Ironically, this often maligned book continues to sell more copies than any other book in history. People have risked their lives to ensure the Bible reaches believers in countries where it is banned. Others have dedicated their lives to making sure it is translated into indigenous languages. 

The Bible’s influence has brought more good to the world than any other book in history. A few examples are:

Martin Luther King Jnr and his call for human equality; Christian missionaries and their self-less, determined education of the poor, indigenous people and women; William Wilberforce and his tireless and often seemingly hopeless work to end the slave trade; Kate Sheppard and her leadership in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in New Zealand, resulting in the first votes for women in the world[7]; The incredible intensity and beauty found in Classical art, literature and music.

All of the above have their roots in a Christian worldview based on the truths found in the Bible. These truths reveal  every human being as having intrinsic worth and purpose and were created by an awesome loving God. Biblical Christianity was a dominant influence in forming our democratic western culture with all the freedoms we enjoy today.

Is the Bible ill-intentioned?

By its continued existence, despite constant opposition, the Bible proves its own worth and standing. It is a book of good intention and has offered direction, hope and purpose for billions of people over thousands of years. 

The Holy Bible is worth reading. It is a rich library of books and letters containing various literary genres from poetry and prose, through to history, philosophy, and theology. This great Book acknowledges and answers the questions of life giving meaning and a salve to what C. S. Lewis describes as that ‘old ache[8].’

I opened this post with a quote from E. M. Blaiklock’s 1975 lecture and I will finish with his closing remarks:

J. G. Lockhart tells of Sir Walter Scotts last days. The great writer was incapacitated by a stroke. Lockhart writes: ‘He desired to be drawn into the library, and placed by the central window that he might look down upon the Tweed. Here he expressed a wish that I should read to him, and, when I asked from what book, he said – “Need you ask? There is but one.” ‘  True. There is still but one.


[1] E. M. Blaiklock, OBE, The Authority and Relevance of the Bible in the Modern World, The 2nd Olivier Beguin Memorial Lecture. 1975. E. M. Blaiklock was Chair of Classics at Auckland University from 1947 to 1968. He was a prolific writer of Christian Apologetics. 

[2] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/

[3] These are the number of books in the Protestant Canon accepted by Protestants from the time of the Reformation, although all 66 books were accepted as authoritative from the first century.  There are several other books included in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canon’s such as the Old & New Testament Apocrypha. I will discuss these further in my next post. See also: Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Klein, WW, Dr., Blomberg, C. L. Dr., Hubbard, Jr, R. L. Dr. 2004, Ch. 4, The Canon and Translations.

[4] John Dickson, A Doubters Guide to the Bible. 2014.

[5] Due to space I have not added examples of undesigned coincidences in this post but will in a future post as it is an interesting topic. The concept of coincidences that are undesigned was first discussed in William Paley’s Horae Paulinae, 1869, and followed further by John James Blunt in his Undesigned Coincidences, 1869. A contemporary book has been written by Lydia McGrew – Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts, 2017.

[6] The Holman Concise Bible Commentary, B & H Publishing, 2010.

[7] https://nzhistory.govt.nz/files/documents/womenandthevoteinNewZealand.pdf

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. “Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honor beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.” 

Why Does Anything At All Exist? Pt. 2

This is the second in a series of posts examining the argument for God’s existence from contingent beings. Click here to read the first post.

In my previous post, I presented the cosmological argument from contingent beings[i], and defended the second premise. As a reminder, here’s how the argument runs:

  1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence.
  2. The universe exists.
  3. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence
  4. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God[ii].

In this post I’ll argue that (1) is plausibly true—that everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, and that nothing exists inexplicably.  

Observation Supports (1)

As far as observation and evidence go, (1) is very well supported. We regularly observe that things have explanations. For example, we observe that a particular animal exists because its parents reproduced and gave birth to it, or that a house exists because a builder was contracted to construct it. Furthermore, history shows that in instances when humankind once lacked good explanations for some phenomena, an explanation has since been discovered. This gives us good reason to think that someday we’ll be able to explain things that we currently cannot.

Additionally, if (1) were false, then we would expect to observe things that don’t have explanations. But this is not what we observe. As noted above, when we search for explanations, we generally find them, and have good grounds to think we’ll discover one if we don’t. Edward Feser writes “[if (1) were false then] events without any evident explanation would surely be occurring constantly, and the world would simply not have the intelligibility that makes science and everyday common sense as successful as they are. That the world is as orderly and intelligible as it is would be a miracle”[iii].

The Self-Evidence of (1)

As well as being supported by everyday observation, (1) is also somewhat self-evident; consider this example. Imagine you’re tramping through Aotearoa’s native bush with a friend. Together you marvel at the beauty of tui and fantails, and your friend offers intriguing explanations of their behaviours. As you walk and talk, you also ponder the comparative rarity of kauri trees and explanations for their scarcity. Moments later, you spot a smooth, translucent sphere resting among the bushes. “What’s that?” you wonder aloud. Glancing momentarily, your friend responds, “Oh that? It just exists inexplicably” and continues along the track.

What conclusion would you draw? Unless your friend has a propensity for extreme literalism, you would surely assume that she’s joking, and just wants to keep walking. Since we know that things have explanations, no one would take seriously the claim that the sphere literally exists without an explanation.  

Imagine further that the sphere was larger—large enough to encompass New Zealand. Would this negate the need for an explanation? What if it were the size of the earth, or as large as the universe? In both cases, it still calls for explanation. As William Lane Craig writes, “merely increasing the size of the ball does nothing to affect the need of an explanation[iv]”. Similarly, just as the sphere requires an explanation regardless of its size, so the universe seems to require an explanation, despite its immensity.

The idea that everything has an explanation of its existence, then, is supported both by our observation of the world around us, and by our intuitions regarding explanations. Several other arguments can be offered for this notion, and, if you’re interested in further reading, I recommend Edward Feser’s book “Five Proofs of the Existence of God” (particularly chapter 5). An obvious question raised by (1) is, “if everything has an explanation, then what is God’s explanation?”. It is to this question that I’ll turn in my next post.



[i] Contingent beings are beings whose explanation lies in something outside of themselves. They are contingent upon another being for their existence. More on this, and why the argument is referred to this way, in the next post.

[ii] Craig, W. L. (2010). On guard: defending your faith with reason and precision. US: David C Cook, p. 54.

[iii] Feser, E. (2017). Five proofs of the existence of God. US: Ignatius Press, p. 149

[iv] Craig, W. L. (2010). On guard: defending your faith with reason and precision. US: David C Cook, p. 57.

The Argument from Consciousness: Conclusion

This is my fifth and last post in a series on the Argument from Consciousness—the basic form of which should by now be familiar. The argument begins by presenting properties of consciousness which cannot in principle be reduced to the physical. It then argues that the existence of conscious agents with these mental properties implicates the existence of a Nonphysical Conscious Agent as their originating cause.

My previous four posts have presented four of these properties (qualia, intentionality, privileged access and nonphysicality) and demonstrated that they are in fact insusceptible of reduction to the physical. And since the last property—libertarian free will—is one that I have already addressed on this blog in a previous post, the reader familiar with that post is ready to consider how irreducible metal properties constitute evidence for the existence of God.

Irreducible Mental Properties and Theism

Suppose that a safe is robbed and our working hypothesis is John stole the money from the safe. During the investigation we may discover two kinds of evidence. First, we may find John’s fingerprints at the crime scene and a sum of money on him matching the sum that was stolen. This will be a posteriori grounds for the truth of the hypothesis; that is, consequences to be expected if the hypothesis is true. Second, we may learn that John has a history of robbing safes and is also in debt. These will be a priori grounds for the truth of the hypothesis; that is, factors that belong outside the scope of the hypothesis but nevertheless increase its probable truth.

In what follows I am going to argue that the existence of agents with irreducible mental properties provide a posteriori grounds for the truth of the hypothesis of theism and that the hypothesis of theism gives us a priori grounds to expect agents with irreducible mental properties.

A Posteriori Grounds

Naturalism holds that mindless particles organised in various ways by mindless forces is all that exists. Theism holds that, “Mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth of the evolution of life, has always existed as the matrix and substrate of physical reality.” [1] It follows that irreducible mental properties are entirely to be expected if theism is true and not at all to be expected if theism is false. And this is because mind, while an intractable problem for the naturalist, is basic to a theistic ontology. God, the Basic Being, is a nonphysical conscious self with mental properties—such as intentionality, privileged access, teleology, rationality and free will. Irreducible mental properties therefore stand in the same relation to the hypothesis of theism as John’s fingerprints on the safe to the hypothesis that John robbed the safe. They are the consequences to be expected if the hypothesis is true and not at all to be expected if it is false.

A Priori Grounds

The Bible, moreover, teaches that God created man in his image. For this reason Abrahamic theists have a priori grounds for expecting irreducible mental properties to be instantiated if God exists. [2] It is no surprise on theism that our most novel and essential feature, our mental life, should be irreducible to the physical. And this is because it is imparted to us by our nonphysical creator. Free will, too, is provocatively suggestive of the imago dei since if man exercises libertarian causation he instantiates in miniature the principle of uncaused causation imputed to God in classical theism.

In Is There a God? Oxford professor of philosophy Swinburne finds further a priori grounds for expecting the existence of conscious agents on theism: If God is unlimited in power and intelligence, it is certain that he could create a universe that contained conscious agents; and if He is perfectly good, it is reasonably probable that He would. Writes Swinburne,

We have some understanding of what a good person will do. Good people will try to make other people happy, happy in doing and enjoying worthwhile things (but not happy in causing pain to others). Good people try to help other people for whom they are responsible (for example, their own children) to be good people themselves. Good people seek to share what they have with others and to cooperate with others in all these activities.

God, in other words, might reasonably be expected to create a universe in order to share with us the good things He has—a mental life, knowledge, freedom, love. All of these things require consciousness. And if all humans are to have access to the greatest good of all, knowledge of God himself, they will need to be able to develop sophisticated metaphysical and theological concepts which will require rational intuition and to undergo religious experiences which require conscious perception. It is therefore credibly probable that agents with these abilities will exist if there is a God but incredibly improbable that they would exist if there is not. [3] The benevolence and omnipotence of God therefore stand in the same relation to the hypothesis that God created conscious agents as John’s debt and criminal past to the hypothesis that John robbed the safe: They are factors that belong outside the scope of the hypothesis but increase its probable truth.

I conclude that the existence of conscious agents with irreducible mental properties provides evidence of two kinds that there is a God who created them.


[1] I am quoting Anthony Flew writing in There Is A God.

[2] We need evidence of John’s criminal past before it can give us reason to expect him to have robbed the safe. Likewise, without independent reasons for thinking that a supreme being of the sort described by classical theism exists, this part of the argument would have no force. However, such independent reasons are available to the proponent of the argument—such as the nine lines of evidence for bare theism presented in Part II of this apologia. Thus the prior probability of the existence of God on evidence X (where God, if he exists, may reasonably be expected to create conscious agents whose existence is otherwise without available explanation) means that X makes the existence of conscious agents more probable. And since the existence of conscious agents with irreducible mental properties also makes the existence of God more probable a posteriori, the coincidence of the two kinds of evidence makes it very probable on the total evidence that God exists and created conscious agents with irreducible mental properties.

[3] Incredibly improbable since, as we have seen in the previous four posts, postulating that mindless particles organised by mindless forces is all that exists leaves us without the explanatory resources to account for our mental life. And of course this is no small matter: That we have a mental life of thoughts and perceptions is the most fundamental fact of human experience and the starting point for every other kind of inquiry.


Why Does Anything at all Exist?

“Philosophy starts in wonder, and wonder impels us to find reasons for things”[i]

When I was a child, on the odd occasion I would find myself lying in bed at night, wondering what it would be like to not-exist. After confounding myself with such reflection, I was naturally led to wonder what it would be like if nothing at all existed. Is it possible that nothing could have existed? Why does anything at all exist? It seems possible that, instead of the cosmos existing, there could have been nothing at all. So why does it exist? It took mere minutes before my frazzled and awestruck mind gave up on these questions and slipped into slumber. Little did I know that such questions have been topics of reflection among intellectuals since the great Greek philosophers. In particular, the question of why anything at all exists is the foundation for a debated argument for God’s existence—the cosmological argument from contingent beings.

The Argument

Why does anything at all exist? Many would agree that things that exist must have an explanation; a reason why they are. Consider the universe—by which I mean everything that has existed, does exist, and will exist. If it’s true that things that exist have an explanation, then, provided the universe exists, there must be an explanation for its existence. Furthermore, various thinkers have suggested that if the universe has an explanation, that explanation is God. Their conclusion, then, is that God is the explanation of the universe’s existence. To summarise:

  1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence.
  2. The universe exists.
  3. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence
  4. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God[ii].

This argument is logically sound—meaning that if someone wants to deny the conclusion (5), then they must deny one or more of the premises (1-4). At first blush, premise 4 may look as though the theist is assuming what she’s meant to be proving. Never fear—I’ll explain and defend that premise in a future post. For now, I’ll examine premise 3 and argue that it is plausibly true.

Is the universe a “thing”?

That the universe exists is patently obvious to virtually all people. You might wonder, then, why bother defending this premise? Well, although hardly any person would deny that the universe exists, some might deny that it is a “thing” that requires an explanation. After all, the universe is a collection of everything that exists, and not all collections of things are actually things themselves.

For example, consider the difference between your body and a collection of random items. Your body is a collection of body parts—hands, feet, legs etc.— and, I think, it is fair to say that it’s a “thing”. We can coherently ask questions like “why is my body weary?”, or “why doesn’t my body feel hungry?”. Or, if we’re feeling philosophical, we might wonder “why does my body exist?”.

In contrast, imagine you have a collection of items sitting on your desk. Included in this collection are a pen, your phone, and a water bottle. These three items are not a “thing” so to speak, but rather a collection. Though it makes sense to ask why any one of these individual items exists (i.e. “why does my phone exist?”), it doesn’t seem to make sense to ask “why does this collection of items exist?”. This is because the individual items are not unified in any way, and once each item has been explained there is no “thing” left to explain[iii].

The objection, then, is that the universe is more like the random collection than it is like your body. Once we explain every individual component of the universe, then there is no “thing” left to explain. And, if the universe is not a “thing”, then it may not need an explanation.

Defending Premise 3

How might a theist respond? Philosopher Stephen Davis argues that the universe is a thing since it possesses two essential properties of things. Firstly, it has an identity apart from other things. “The universe” is not the same as planet earth or your pet cat—it has a distinct identity. In other words, it’s something other than the earth or your cat, or any other thing that exists.

Secondly, it has properties. Davis writes, “[the universe] has certain unique properties like a certain pressure, density, temperature, space-time curvature, and so on. In its very early history everything was so smashed together that there wasn’t even atomic structure, so that the only thing there was the universe itself”[iv].

Davis also contends that, although the universe is a collection of things, it has a unifying principle, and therefore is more like your body than the collection of random items. All of the things that make up the universe are causally connected. For example, I exist because of my parents, who exist because of theirs. The leaf travels down the street because the wind blows it. The tide rises and falls because of the gravitational pulls of the earth, sun, and moon. We might describe the unifying principle of the universe as “the origin of all its members in some prior existing thing or things”[v]. For these reasons, Davis concludes that the universe is an existing thing.

I’m not certain that my boyhood-self would have understood this argument or its implications, but today, thankfully, I can, and I consider it a sound argument for God’s existence. If what Davis argues is true, then our common-sense intuition that the universe is something that exists is correct. Premise 3, then, is true. What remains is to determine whether the other premises are true, and that’s a task I’ll undertake in future posts.



[i] Pruss, A. R. (2006). The principle of sufficient reason: a reassessment. NY: Cambridge University Press, p. 4.

[ii] Craig, W. L. (2010). On guard: defending your faith with reason and precision. US: David C Cook, p. 54.

[iii] Davis, S. T. (2006). Christian philosophical theology. NY: Oxford University Press, p. 4

[iv] ibid

[v] ibid

The Gospel According to Dawkins

The ‘new atheists’ have frequently ignored their best qualified critics, particularly in recent years. As Richard Dawkins tours NZ this month, will he continue with this trend? If his many confident claims about the core historical aspects of the Christian faith (an area well outside his field of expertise) were subjected to rational scrutiny and public debate, would they survive? Dr Graeme Finlay’s recent book ‘The Gospel According to Dawkins’ suggests not. It moves rapidly through a wealth of detail including a lot of quite recent work in the field, but in a very accessible way. The conclusion is clear – Dawkins and friends are well out of their depth in this area. 

Professor Dawkins needs little introduction, as a populariser of evolutionary theory who in the early 21st century used that platform to help develop the movement that came to be known as the ‘new atheism’, a movement widely believed to now be in decline, subject to as many attacks from fellow atheists as from believers.

Dr Graeme Finlay is a senior lecturer in the medical school at the University of Auckland, and an experienced participant in science-faith discussions, author of many helpful books (e.g. on evolutionary genetics), booklets and articles in the field, also having training in theology. For more background, here’s a transcript of an interview with him on this book. Dr Finlay is also a project director of the recently established NZ Christians in Science

The book starts with discussing the relation between faith and evidence, and the ways in which our culture, in particular our scientific worldview, is so inextricably embedded within the Christian tradition – many of the conclusions of which, ironically, many atheists take on faith. Not all faith must be blind in this way, however – “Dawkins asserts that faith ‘requires no justification’. But I gladly acknowledge Christian faith precisely because it is rooted in the empirical world of human history.” Indeed, Christianity is perhaps uniquely among the religions focused on historical claims rather than ecstatic experiences, rituals, or prosperity.

As background, in the first two chapters, Finlay briefly traces the history of science, and the pre-Christian foundation for science to the New Testament. He also shows the relevance of theology, particularly the biblical descriptions of God’s nature (e.g. good, acts freely, has supreme authority), in understanding Christian views of the world (respectively: matter is not evil; nature is contingent – must be observed; and nature is secure and not at risk of being overwhelmed by chaos).

Next, it is asked – did Jesus exist? Leading new atheists and many of their followers have flirted with the claim that he didn’t – keeping it as a live option, while (for most of them) never quite fully committing to it. The historicity of some parts of the Hebrew scriptures are briefly touched on to follow up on a comparison Dawkins made with king David. Then Finlay gives the various early non-Christian references to Jesus substantive treatment. These references are widely discussed in introductory writings on the topic, but ‘the Gospel according to Dawkins’ provides a lot of helpful context which I wasn’t aware of – particularly fascinating is the discussion around Tacitus’ treatment. Then, we have the writings of Paul, and early Christians from the end of the first century, with many fascinating insights along the way.

The rest of the book explores the authorship of the gospels (we can know more than often thought), the history of gospel scholarship, the transmission of the gospel texts (reliable), other writings that got called gospels (late and uninformative), the historical value of the gospels (high), the problem of sin, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and much more. A recurring theme is that the new atheists engage in something similar to science denialism when they disregard the findings of New Testament studies. This book is written by a scientist and touches on science-related issues in a few places, so is particularly suitable for those who have or think they have a scientific mindset. It also works well though as a general introduction to reasons to take basic Christian ideas seriously. 

One of these central ideas is the idea of sin, which Dr Finlay helpfully explores towards the end of the book. Dawkins castigates Christians for obsessing over this topic, but the chapter on sin helps to show why it is as crucial for our modern lives as to people in any other era. In particular, it is illustrated with careful discussion of the environmental crisis our society faces and which all of us living in the modern world contribute to. This is no unthinking fundamentalist tract, but instead the product of decades of scientifically informed Christian thought. 

I highly recommend this book, it is much more interesting than I can adequately communicate in this short review. There is material here for old Christians, new atheists, and everyone in between, including many helpful references to the wider literature. I hope that Professor Dawkins and many members of the movement he has given birth to will also read it – they may find here a path to the intellectually fruitful and personally fulfilling enlightenment which they seek.

Why not pick it up on kindle now?  And if you have comments after reading, feel free to get in touch with me to discuss them. 

Richard Dawkins is Coming to New Zealand, and That’s Good News!

(From Canterbury Evangelism Network and Thinking Matters)

Who is Richard Dawkins?

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and science populariser. He is the former University of Oxford’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science. He has written many books including The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable and The God Delusion. He is a passionate rationalist who vigorously promotes science-based education, values and understanding. He is a staunch defender of atheism and a controversial critic of religious belief. He is well regarded by media and many academics as a top scientific thinker and a compelling public speaker.

Why is Richard Dawkins coming to New Zealand?

Dawkins is promoting his new book Science in the Soul in Auckland on May 10, 2018, and Christchurch on May 11, 2018. The book is a collection of 42 of his essays spanning three decades that proclaim the power and glory of science, the wonder of discovery, and the necessity of scientific thinking in diverse areas of society. He defends Darwinian evolution and natural selection, and the role of scientist as prophet. He responds to questions about whether science is itself a religion, the probability of alien life and the beauty and cruelty of life on Earth.

Why should the church be interested?

Dawkins has been identified as one of the New Atheists, a group that speaks critically against religion in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon. He is well known for his criticism of creationism and intelligent design and non-rational approaches to social policy. In The God Delusion, he argues that there is almost certainly no God and that religion is a delusion. He equates religious indoctrination of children with child abuse and offers the following description of God:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

How is this “Good News”?

Dawkins has brought the discussion of religious belief back into the public arena and we can be grateful for that. No longer simply a “private faith”, Christians are being asked to think carefully about what they believe and why they believe it in light of his strong attacks on Christianity. St. Peter encourages Christians to “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” (1 Peter 3:15 NIV). The faith and witness of followers of Jesus Christ will grow and the Church will be strengthened when we seek answers and present them with humility and respect.

How should I think about the conflict of science vs. faith?

Is it always science or faith? Is it possible to be both? We enjoy many benefits that science has brought to our lives; modern medicine, electricity, automobiles and smartphones. We can find areas where we agree with Dawkins if we’re willing to listen carefully. We can learn to discern claims of verifiable facts from claims about the implications of those facts. Scientists, like all people, are just as susceptible to affirm or ignore evidence based on our view of the world. Remember that there are faithful, obedient Christians who believe in a young earth, an old earth and theistic evolution. Be gracious.

How can I engage my non-Christian friends and colleagues?

Pray to God with thankfulness. Dawkins’ visit is a gift that can open up conversations about Jesus. Listen carefully and genuinely seek to understand what others believe and why. Affirm areas of agreement with the Christian worldview. Resist a combative response, even if you feel defensive. If you don’t have solid answers to their questions, say so with humility. Offer to journey together to discover what is really true and whether it matters to our lives. Consider Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17. He quoted pagan philosophers and poets to build bridges that moved people towards Jesus. He ignored those who sneered at his faith and instead went with those who were genuinely interested in learning more. Get out there and do likewise. In addition, explore some of the articles on this website, you might find something that speaks to the subjects that either you or those you know struggle with.

How can I pray?

We urge you to pray for Richard Dawkins. This is an important opportunity. Instead of being prideful, defensive or argumentative, we can choose to bless him as one created in the image of God and to pray for his salvation and a destiny that he has yet to embrace. We would love to welcome him into God’s Kingdom here in New Zealand. We choose to pray for revelation of the living God. We choose to pray for dreams and visions of Christ to flow into his life. It has been prophesied that this city is a place where people will come and meet God and then take the good news back to the nations. It is in this spirit that we believe good things for Richard and want him to have the blessing of knowing Christ.

What a privilege to pray for a man God loves and wants to rescue and restore. God used Saul to become one of Christianity’s greatest evangelists. He can use Richard Dawkins the same way.

If you would like to share this information with your church, download the Richard Dawkins Brief in PDF, print copies to A4 and then cut them into A5 sized handouts.

Is Karma consistent with reality?


We often hear people talking about Karma and many of them loosely use it to refer to someone getting payback for what they did in this lifetime. This puts us in an awkward spot if we want to talk about sin and how Jesus paid for our sins on the cross. To share the gospel, we would have to argue how the teaching of Karma is inconsistent with the real world that we live in.

But what is the actual meaning of Karma? The word literally means ‘action’ and the original teaching of Karma, or the proper meaning of Karma, is the idea that whatever you are in this life is just the consequence of your previous life choices.

The principle of Karma is that your good deeds loosen the grip of the sense-world and your bad deeds tighten its grip, throwing your soul deeper into corruption. Karma tries its best to explain the differences that we see in human beings, it implies that humans are what they are because of what they did in their past lives, as the majority of Hindus believe today. If some are blessed more than others, it would mean that God is partial, but this teaching lets him off the hook as God would not be responsible for any of the events happening today. It is simply the outworking of the Karma.

Eternal World?

As we go deeper into understanding Karma, the eternal nature of this doctrine becomes apparent. In the book The Crown of Hinduism, J.N. Farquhar explains,

“As every occurrence in the world is the effect of foregoing action, and as every action is followed by its retributive expression, it is clear that the process can have had no beginning and will have no end.” [1]

This leads to the conclusion that, if Karma is eternal and an absolute feature of the world, the world must be eternal as well. However, we have philosophical and scientific reasons to believe that the universe is not eternal. The following argument demonstrates how one cannot affirm both: that the doctrine of Karma is true; and that the universe had a beginning.

  • If Karma is true, then every action is the result of the foregoing action.
  • If so, then the world has no beginning and no end, in other words the universe is infinitely old.
  • We have scientific and philosophical reasons to believe that the universe had a beginning, that it is not infinitely old.
  • Therefore, one is not justified in holding both that (1) Karma is true and (2) that the Universe had a beginning.

If it is the case that one finds them self in agreement with the best of current philosophy and of current science, it follows necessarily that one cannot hold the teaching of Karma to be true.

Philosophical argument

Let’s try to wrap our minds around the concept of the ‘universe having a beginning’. The best philosophical argument presented to refute the claim of an infinitely old universe is the impossibility of an infinite regression of causal events. If there were an actual infinite number of past events, then “today” would’ve never come to be. J.P. Moreland in his book LOVE YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR MIND explains,

“It is impossible to cross an actual infinite. For example, if a person started counting 1, 2, 3… then he or she could count forever and never reach a time when an actual infinite amount of numbers had been counted. This is due to the nature of infinity – it is infinitely larger than any finite number. The series of numbers counted could increase forever without limit but it would always be finite. Trying to count to infinity is like attempting to jump out of a pit with infinitely tall walls – walls that literally go forever without top edges to them. No matter how far one counted, no meaningful progress would be made because there would always be an infinite number of items left to count.” [2]

He further adds,

“If the universe had no beginning, then the number of events crossed to reach the present moment would be actually infinite. But since one cannot cross an actual infinite, then the present moment could never have arrived if the universe had no beginning. This means that since the present is real, it was only preceded by a finite past and there was a beginning or first event!” [3]

This establishes the fact that actual infinites do not exist in reality. Thus if this is applied to the teaching of Karma, its absurdity is exposed from a philosophical point of view.

Scientific Support

We just learned a good philosophical argument for the fact that the universe had a beginning. However, what about the scientific evidence of a finite past? The big bang theory, as well as the second law of thermodynamics, points us towards the fact that the physical universe had a beginning. The Big bang theory is currently the only established theory that is consistent with the observed physical universe in all scientific literature.[4] We also know that the universe is expanding and if we were to go backwards in finite time intervals, we would reach a point where time, space and matter cease to exist.

Then we have the second law of thermodynamics. It states that the universe is running out of useful energy. The second law is also known as the law of entropy. Frank Turek in his book I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH FAITH TO BE AN ATHEIST explains this,

The second law is also known as the Law of Entropy, which is a fancy way of saying that nature tends to bring things to disorder. That is, with time, things naturally fall apart. Your car falls apart; your house falls apart; your body falls apart. But if the universe is becoming less ordered, then where did the original order come from? Astronomer Robert Jastrow likens the universe to a wound-up clock. If a wind-up clock is running down, then someone must have wound it up. This aspect of the Second law also tells us that the universe had a beginning.”[5]

At this point, some might consider a cyclical or oscillating model of universe, where it is argued that the universe is expanding and contracting from eternity past. However, these models have been routinely rejected in the scientific literature for suffering from the physical law of thermodynamics, causing each cycle to reduce the amount of useful energy. Entropy makes every cycle longer than the previous one, meaning if we were to go back in time, the cycles would become smaller and smaller until we come to an absolute beginning. This principle has even been proven in the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem, where any universe which expands on average into the future, cannot be infinitely old, but must have an absolute beginning. [6]

From the aforementioned evidences, it is clear that we have good scientific reasons to support the claim that the universe had a beginning.


We have reasonable evidence that the universe had a beginning and thus the truth of Karma faces a strong defeater, both philosophically and scientifically. This leads us to the conclusion that if one follows the evidence available to them, they must abandon the teaching of Karma to believe what is evident, rather than what is akin to a made up fairy-tale.


[1] Farquhar, J. N. 1913. The Crown of Hinduism. Miami, FL: HardPress., p. 139

[2] Moreland, J. P. 1997. LOVE YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR MIND. Colorado springs, CO: NAVPRESS., p. 162

[3] Ibid., p. 163

[4] Vilenkin, Alexander. 2012. “Did the Universe have a Beginning?” Accessed April 29, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXCQelhKJ7A

[5] Geisler, Norman L. & Turek, Frank. 2004. I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to be an ATHEIST. Wheaton, IL: CROSSWAY.,p.77

[6] Vilenkin, Alexander. 2012. “Did the Universe have a Beginning?” Accessed April 29, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXCQelhKJ7A

The Argument from Consciousness: Nonphysicality

This is my fourth post in a series on the Argument from Consciousness. The argument begins by presenting properties of consciousness which cannot in principle be explained on a naturalistic ontology. It then argues that the existence of conscious agents with mental properties that cannot in principle be reduced to the physical implicates the existence of a Nonphysical Conscious Agent as their originating cause. [1] My previous posts in this series discussed qualia, intentionality and privileged access. In this post I will be discussing the intractable nonphysicality of mental states; that is, I will be showing that, unlike our physical properties, our mental properties are in principle irreducible, unquantifiable and insusceptible of evolutionary explanation.

A crucial problem for naturalism is that mental states differ greatly in every important respect to physical objects. This is something that is obvious on even superficial analysis. A desire for roast beef has no length; nostalgia lacks spatial extension; the mental picture of a tiger is without weight. Beliefs, moreover, are true or false and right or wrong—properties that have no meaningful application to physical objects. The flux of brain signals associated with the impulse to commit murder is not immoral; the axons and dendrites associated with the false belief that Shelley wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are not themselves “false.” Nor can the physical structure of the brain (its electrochemical impulses, say, or its neurones) be lucid or confused or naive or cynical in the way that thoughts and beliefs undeniably can be. “How,” asks John Searle, “can we square the self-conception of ourselves as mindful, meaning-creating, free, rational agents with a universe that consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, nonrational, brute physical particles?” The answer, Moreland suggests, is, “Not very well.” [2] In the following paragraphs, I will detail three reasons for thinking that consciousness is impervious to a naturalistic explanation in principle.

Mental States Are Irreducible In Principle
Reduction in the physical sciences is achieved by distinguishing mental phenomena from more fundamental physical phenomena and giving primacy to the physical phenomena. Warmth, for instance, is reduced to molecular energy in thermodynamics. Thereafter, molecular energy is understood to be what warmth, “really is.” Sensory perception is subjective and can show variation between individuals and species. We therefore move toward a more objective knowledge of the world when we understand it in this way; when we understand warmth as the way in which molecular energy is perceived in consciousness; or understand colour as the way in which electromagnetic wavelengths are perceived in consciousness—and so on. “What the evidence of the history of science shows,” notes Swinburne, “is that the way to achieve integration of sciences is to ignore the mental.” But, as Nagel has shown, an intractable circularity problem arises when we come to the mental itself: We do not move towards a more objective understanding of consciousness along analogous lines when we attempt to understand consciousness as the way in which brain activity is perceived in consciousness: It is incoherent to reduce consciousness to some more fundamental physical phenomenon and ignore the former because the former, consciousness, is the very thing we are attempting to explain.

Mental States Are Unquantifiable in Principle
Physical objects differ from each other in measurable ways. As a result, we can have general laws that relate quantities in all bodies by a mathematical formula. Rather than an exhaustive index of laws (an object of mass n and velocity p colliding with one of mass q and velocity r results in t—and so on for innumerable different cases) it is possible to formulate a single law that, “For every pair of objects in collision the mass of the first multiplied by its velocity plus the mass of the second multiplied by its velocity is always conserved.” The problem for any psychophysical theory of mind is that thoughts do not differ from each other in measurable ways. One thought does not have exactly twice as much meaning as another one; nor could one put a figure on the strength of a remembered odour or weigh the poignancy of a memory. An infinitely long list of psychophysical laws matching every possible brain state to a mental state is impossible in practice and useless in theory. An elegant and simple general law describing the correlation of brain states and mental states, on the other hand, is unachievable in principle. “Above all,” adds Swinburne, “there could not be a formula that had the consequence that this brain would give rise to my mind and that one to yours rather than vice versa. We could discover at most that there were these connections, not why there were these connections.”

Mental States Defy Evolutionary Explanation In Principle
Natural selection is a theory of elimination. It explains why variants thrown up by evolution are eliminated. But it does not explain why they were thrown up in the first place. In the case of physical variants (the countershading of a moth, say) there can be an adequate explanation in terms of a mutation that causes the variant to appear in accordance with the basic laws of chemistry. But our problem is to explain why a particular physical state produces a particular mental state. Natural selection can perhaps explain how, having appeared in evolutionary history, conscious animals survived; and it may explain how they developed a preponderance of true beliefs. [3] But it cannot explain the origination of the most novel feature of human beings: Their conscious life. Moreover, so long as an organism generates the correct behavioural outputs in response to stimuli, it will survive: Functions that organisms can and do execute unconsciously. For this reason conscious states are, strictly speaking, superfluous to evolution and so lie beyond its explanatory limits. [4]


[1] Further argumentation will need to be given to justify the claim that the nonphysicality of the mind makes theism more probable than naturalism. This will be the objective of the last post in this series.
[2] For Moreland’s argument see his Consciousness and the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument.
[3] Note, however, that Plantinga denies this. See his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, which I discuss here.
[4] The foregoing is a paraphrase of the detailed discussion of these points in The Existence of God by Richard Swinburne (Chapter 9: Arguments from Consciousness and Morality) as well as Mind and Cosmos: Why The Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel and Moreland’s book cited in [2].

Religious Pluralism: Is There Really Only One Way to God?


One of the essential tenants of Christianity is that Jesus is the only way to God. As it says in John 14:6 (NIV) – “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” However, the idea of religious pluralism has become so pervasive in our culture that many now believe that there are ‘many roads to God.’ All religions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism – lead to the same God. They just take different roads to get there. This view is anchored in several misconceptions about logic, culture, and truth claims.

The Conundrum of Contradiction

Firstly, when it comes to pluralism, simple logic shows that this view is philosophically incoherent. Justification for this comes from the law of non-contradiction, which insists that contradictory truth claims cannot simultaneously be true. For instance, the religion of Islam teaches that God is a Unitarian being, while Christianity teaches that God is Trinitarian. Furthermore, Hinduism and Buddhism say we are reincarnated after death, while Islam and Christianity teach that heaven or hell is our final destination. Consequently, to state that all of these views are true at the same time is as inconsistent as saying that three plus three equals six and seven. The answers are mutually exclusive. It’s possible that they are both false, but it’s not possible that both are true.

The Barrier of Cultural Bias

A second line of reasoning some people like to assume is that the truth claims of all religions are equally false. Their objection goes like this: ‘All moral and spiritual claims are the product of our particular historical and cultural moment, and therefore no one should claim they can know the Truth, since no one can change whether one assertion about spiritual and moral reality is more true than another.’(1) This idea, centred in the theory of social constructionism, would have us believe that our understandings of God are merely social constructs influenced by history, geography, and the culture around us. For example, some may argue that ‘one is only a Christian because they have grown up in a context where Christianity is the prevailing worldview. However, if they were born in the Middle East they would have likely grown up believing the teachings of Islam.’ Sociologist Peter L. Berger notes that many have concluded from this fact that, because we are all locked into our historical and cultural locations, it is impossible to judge the rightness or wrongness of competing beliefs.(2) Yet, Berger goes on to say that if you infer that the social conditioning of a belief means ‘no belief can be universally true for everyone,’ that belief is itself a comprehensive claim about everyone and is also the product of social conditions meaning it also cannot be true, on its own terms. ‘Relativism relativises itself’(3) says Berger. Therefore, this argument is self-refuting.

The Paradox of Pluralism

The third logical failure, is the presumption within pluralism that undermines its own claims. The belief in one way to God – also known as exclusivism – affirms the possibility that one religion is objectively true and therefore, contradictory religious claims are false. “Pluralism says we must reject exclusivist truth claims about religion and instead embrace all religious views as equally true.”(4) The irony is, pluralism turns out to be exclusivist too – by excluding exclusivism. On that account, pluralism attempts to get others to abide by rules that it itself is not willing to submit to.


By examining the framework of pluralism under the lens of logic, considerations of culture, and the analysis of truth claims, it becomes clear that this way of thinking cannot stand up under scrutiny. First, the fact that all truth that is objective, is by its very essence exclusive, shows that Pluralism is simply incoherent. Second, if religion is defined to be a social construct and thus can be dismissed as false, then Pluralism must also be so classified and rejected as false. Finally, Pluralism excludes all those who have beliefs that are exclusivist, and as such fails its own test. This third point is in direct contrast to the message of the New Testament that claims the offer of salvation is available to all. Instead of being exclusive Christianity is actually very inclusive. Everyone is welcome to come to Jesus. It does not matter who they are, or what they have done. The Bible tells us, “…whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life” (John 3:16).” (5)

(1) Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Pg 9-12. Penguin, 2009.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Berger, Peter L. A Rumour of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural. Harmondsworth: Pg. 40. Penguin, 1969.

(4) Stonestreet, John, and Brett Kunkle. A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World, Pg. 323. David C Cook, 2017.

(5) Morrrison, Jon. Clear Minds & Dirty Feet: A Reason To Hope, A Message To Share. CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013.

The Argument from Consciousness: Privileged Access

This is my third of five posts in a series on the Argument from Consciousness. Again: The Argument from Consciousness begins by presenting properties of consciousness which cannot in principle be explained on a naturalistic ontology. It then argues that it is credibly probable that agents with these mental properties will exist if there is a God but incredibly improbable that they would exist if there is not. In other words, the existence of conscious agents with mental properties that cannot in principle be reduced to the physical implicates the existence of a Nonphysical Conscious Agent as their originating cause. My first post in this series discussed qualia and the second intentionality. In this post I will be discussing a property of mental states which philosophers of mind call, “privileged access.”

Privileged Access
The most essential property of mental states is also the most problematic for naturalism: their personal immediacy to the subject who experiences them. “A mental property,” as Oxford Professor of Philosophy Richard Swinburne puts it, “is one to whose instantiation the substance in which it is instantiated necessarily has privileged access.” To help us understand why this is a problem for naturalism, Swinburne invites us to consider the following thought experiment. It is a helpful though not essential preliminary to what follows to note that people can enjoy a relatively normal mental life with only half a brain—after a procedure known as a “hemispherectomy.”
Suppose, firstly, that Swinburne is involved in a car accident that destroys his body but leaves his brain intact; suppose, secondly, that this occurs at a future date when brain transplants are feasible; suppose, finally, that a whimsical surgeon is responsible for the treatment of Swinburne and decides to perform a bizarre experiment: He will transplant the left hemisphere of Swinburne’s brain in one donor body and the right hemisphere of his brain into another donor body. Let us refer to these two new bodies, each of which contains one half of Swinburne’s brain, as Person A and Person B. The operation is a success. Person A and Person B recover and both somewhat resemble Swinburne in terms of character and memory.
The question arises whether Swinburne has survived the operation. The claim that Swinburne is now both Person A and Person B is eliminable by a law of logic known as the identity of indiscernibles. [1] Very simply expressed: If Swinburne is mentally identical to Person A and Person B, then Person A and Person B are mentally identical to each other and are therefore the same person—which they are not. The remaining possibilities are that Swinburne is Person A or that he is Person B or that he is neither because the operation destroyed him.
Reflection on this thought experiment shows that, however much we know about what has happened to Swinburne’s brain (“and we may know,” Swinburne emphasises, “exactly what has happened to every atom in it”) we do not know what has happened to him. And this is important because whether or not Swinburne survived the bizarre experiment is an objective fact about the world—a fact that it will not be possible to know by either the most thorough cross examination of Person A and Person B or the most exhaustive naturalistic description of their respective hemispheres. And so an exhaustive naturalistic description of the universe leaves something essential out of account; namely, who experienced which brain states.
What arguments of this sort bring out is the “privileged access” of the subject to his own mental life—what Searle calls the, “first person ontology.” “Others,” Swinburne writes, “can learn about my pains and thoughts by studying my behaviour and perhaps also by studying my brain. Yet I, too, could study my behaviour (I could watch a film of myself; I could study my brain via a system of mirrors and microscopes) just as well as anyone else could. But I have a way of knowing about pains and thoughts other than those available to the best student of my behaviour or brain: I experience them.” And what makes a mental event a mental event is not the public knowledge captured by naturalism but precisely this private knowledge that naturalism cannot possibly capture.
This is the third property of consciousness that is insusceptible of reduction to the physical


[1] The Identity of Indiscernibles, also knows as “Leibniz’s Law” after its formulator Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz, is a principle of analytic ontology which states that no two separate entities can have all their properties in common. The fact that Person A and Person B are physically distinct should not mislead us. Swinburne is concerned not with the body and brain per se but with the continuity of the personal identity and mental life of preoperative Swinburne—whether this is transplanted into either or neither of the postoperative bodies. It is obvious that the continuity of identity essential to personhood could not survive division or (due to Leibniz’s law) be doubly instantiated.