Encounter Heading: Skeptic's Guide

10.4



Ross/Stenger Debate
A Critique by Dennis Jensen


On the third and fourth of October of 2008, the Skeptics Society held a conference at the California Institute of Technology entitled "Origins and The Big Questions." A highlight of the conference was a debate between Drs.Victor Stenger and Hugh Ross moderated by Phillip Clayton and entitled "Great God Debate: Does Science Support Belief in a Deity?" Stenger took the negative position, Ross the affirmative. (Purchase information at close of this critique.)

The debate consisted of presentations by both speakers, a discussion time between the speakers, and Q&A from the audience. Several other speakers who had presented talks earlier that day then joined the two speakers for a final panel fielding questions from the audience.

We will discuss the more notable questions, responses, and arguments presented in this debate and the following panel discussion.

Stenger was Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at the time of this debate. He died 25 August 2014.

Ross has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Toronto and did research at Caltech in the 1970s in radio astronomy. He is the founder of
Reasons to Believe, a science-faith think tank. Both he and Dr. Stenger have published numerous technical scientific papers as well as popular books relating to science and religion.

The other participants were as follows:

Nancy Murphy is Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Kenneth Miller is Professor of Biology at Brown University. Dr. Miller is a noted theistic evolutionist.

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in Physics at the California Institute of Technology.

Michael Shermer is founder of the Skeptics Society.

 
God of the Gaps vs Naturalism of the Gaps Explanations

Early on Ross makes a point which Stenger never answers.

Ross says: "Gaps exist on both sides of the debate." And he asks if it isn't a "naturalism-of-the-gaps" when we allow only the possibility of naturalistic explanations for any possible phenomenon. He says we have to ask if the "naturalistic explanatory gaps get bigger or smaller, more or less problematic as scientists learn more?" In other words, don't we need to compare the naturalistic against the supernatural explanations?

In their later dialogue Stenger said, "The ID [Intelligent Design] people do understand my claim that to refute the God-of-the-gaps you do not need to prove a naturalistic explanation, you just need to give a plausible one." The dialogue continued as follows:

Ross: “I'd argue that that's a bad way to use gaps to test different models. There are always gaps in every explanation because we don't know everything. The real test is, are the gaps getting bigger or smaller within the context of your model. If the gaps are getting progressively smaller and smaller, that means your model is probably on target.”

Stenger: “The whole history of science is the gaps are getting smaller.”

Ross: “That's not true. The origin of life is a prime example of the gaps . . . getting dramatically bigger from a naturalistic perspective.”

This looks like a white-wash on Stenger's part. Origin of life researchers admit enormous problems. The problems have gotten larger as we have come to better understand life processes and chemistry. Some important advances have come out since even the time of this dialogue but the dead ends do still essentially remain. Stenger was completely unjustified in saying (especially at this time) that everything is just getting better and better.

Ken Miller also seems almost oblivious to Ross' claim that respective explanations that come from each side need to be compared and evaluated. He says,

"I'm not going to pretend for a second that there's an easy step by step pathway by which you go from these building blocks to a self-replicating process or a living cell, but I certainly would advise any Christian not to stake their faith on the idea that this is a problem that science won't ever solve. We have a way of solving these problems."

To say that we should never assume that the origin of life is "a problem that science won't ever solve," and that "we have a way of solving these problems," Miller is begging the question with the old naturalistic assumption. What he means by "solving these problems" is that there are naturalistic explanations for them. Well, how would giving a theistic explanation for the problem be any less of an solution? Both kinds of explanations would give a lot of explanatory information and both would inevitably leave much unexplained. The theistic explanation would (given sufficient examination) show much about the processes that led up to the intelligent intervention and the results. The theistic explanation would in principle leave a little more unexplained, but that's the same thing that happens every day with human intelligent intervention or choice. When a person makes a free choice, we can never trace back causal factors that made a person choose to act in exactly the way they happened to act. This is because they are only influences, not causes, prior to a free choice. The agent is an uncaused cause.

Also, just because science has in the past tended to arrive at naturalistic explanations for phenomena that it has investigated gives us no reason to think that it will do so for all phenomena. Most of what it has found naturalistic explanations for have been phenomena for which we, both theists and non-theists, should expect there to be naturalistic explanations. Many of those phenomena for which theists would not expect a naturalistic explanation have either not been examined sufficiently to reach a definite conclusion or the evidence is stronger for a theistic explanation. Some phenomena theists would (or should) not claim to know in advance have supernaturalistic explanations have been found most likely to have, indeed, naturalistic explanations.

It is sheer question begging to say that because our past explanations have arrived at naturalistic explanations, all phenomena will have naturalistic explanations.

We should accept a presumption for naturalism when we should not expect God or an intelligent designer to act. We do not find it feasible to think of God controlling each causal event. If I drop a stone to the ground, we do not think it likely God watches such events to make the stone fall at just the right speed, direction, acceleration, etc.

For the origin of life, we should not presupposes either a completely naturalistic or a theistic explanation to be more likely. To do so either assumes that naturalism is true or, on the other hand, it assumes theism and that God intervened to make life possible. Rather, we need to let the evidence persuade us. We might even conclude that life did originate by naturalistic processes without excluding a divine origin of the processes. That is, God may have intervened long before the origin of life to set up the natural processes and then the proper setting to allow life to develop naturally from non-life. We must compare the various theistic and naturalistic explanations for their plausibility. If both are equally plausible, then we should conclude with agnosticism. If one is more plausible than the other, then we should conclude with either atheism or theism.

A second problem with Miller's statement is that it seems to express almost a kind of paranoia I have sensed in the words of some other theistic evolutionists. This fear of presenting any hypothesis that does not fit the current scientific view strikes me as a very unscientific attitude. One is not "staking one's faith," as it were, on any such claim. One is merely presenting an hypothesis to be considered and tested. If it fails, then as an objective scientist, one should be happy. If it is verified, again one should be happy. In either case, scientific progress is made. One should not be afraid of presenting hypotheses because of philosophical or theological implications. If science finds a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life, we have advanced in our knowledge and know better how God has caused life to be here (though we have also lost what we may have once thought to be a particularly strong piece of evidence for God's existence). If more direct intelligent intervention appears more likely, then again we have advanced in our knowledge, and scientific knowledge at that.

Stenger's greatest error is assuming that whenever a theistic explanation is given, it's a God-of-the-gaps explanation. He says, "It doesn't mean the universe actually began this way [as a particular naturalistic explanation claims]. As long as you can find one plausible natural explanation, you've closed that gap in the God-of-the-gaps argument." This claim is simply not justified. The naturalistic explanation must be more plausible than the theistic explanation.

 
The Laws of Nature Had to be What They Are, Thus No Fine-tuning

The Universe Came from Nothing

Stenger: "The laws of physics are what they are because they have to be that way if the universe came from nothing. If it came from a situation of absolute symmetry, then those are the laws that should exist and there is absolutely no need for a creator to produce those laws."

Stenger also says that the physical comes from an "unphysical region which is unmeasurable and has no structure, has maximal entropy. However you want to put it, that's about as good a definition of nothing as you could come up with."

First of all, a state of absolute symmetry is not nothing. If there is nothing, it does not have symmetry or non-symmetry. Something cannot come out of nothing. Stenger can only claim that it can because he's beginning with something and calling it nothing. Using even well accepted theorems to show that there is a 2/3 chance of something coming from nothing won't work because it isn't really nothing that he is beginning with. Energy fields, false vacuums, true vacuums, etc. are not nothing. Nothing does not have maximal or minimal entropy, it is not stable or unstable. To say that being unphysical, unmeasurable or having maximal entropy is hardly a good definition of nothing. To call it nothing is to seek to win the argument by equivocation. Clearly, there is no scientific evidence that something can come from nothing. The theist surely wins the argument at this point (or at least for this point) if the question is whether it is more reasonable to accept that the universe can come from absolutely nothing or from a preexisting albeit timeless being. Here it would be better to recognize that Stenger is guilty of the very thing atheists often accuse theists of: he is slipping in magic when he cannot explain something and he is attempting to make it appear a natural phenomenon. For something to truly come into being out of nothing is just magic.

Secondly, if we do begin with a state of absolute symmetry and if as a result the laws of physics have to be exactly what they are, then we still have very persuasive evidence for intelligent intervention. We only know of one kind of chemical life and it is very complex. We cannot imagine any other form of complex life. People talk about it as though there could be such but we cannot imagine what it would be like. Indeed, we cannot imagine what the chemical life we are now aware of would be like without actually seeing it and coming to understand something about how it works.

If many of the laws and constants of nature were only very slightly different than what they are now, it is very unlikely this kind of life (the only kind of life we can imagine) would ever exist. So following Stenger's claim that the universe and its laws had to be exactly what they are now, this means that it just happened to be that the way the primordial state of existence had to be was such that it could allow for life. If it had been only slightly different, we would never be here. But it just happened to be that it had to be this way?

How could the universe have to be such that it just happened to fit these very exact constraints? To suggest that this points to anything but intelligent design stretches credulity to the point of absurdity.


Kalam

Some events without causes: beginning or no beginning? The Kalam Cosmological Argument that William Lane Craig has so greatly popularized is not explicitly argued by Ross, but some of the premises are important to his arguments. Stenger thus critiques the premises:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

Stenger responds that quantum transitions have no cause and thus there are some things that begin to exist that have no cause.

Stenger is simply wrong. They have to have causes. To claim that something, some event, just happens to occur without a cause is not really any different than saying that something can come into being out of nothing. There needs to be a reason this event occurred just as there needs to be a reason something exists. Something, including events, cannot just come into being out of nothing. They can't just pop into being from nowhere. Otherwise the universe would be a very chaotic place.

If there are some scientists who think quantum events can occur without any cause, they're simply not thinking clearly. If the dominant theories hold to such beliefs, we need to understand that there are other views of quantum mechanics that do not claim that events can occur uncaused.

Atheist Daniel Dennett makes this same point: "Relatively small causes are made to yield relatively large effects. . . . [This leads] eventually to an action whose pedigree of efficient . . . causation is so hopelessly inscrutable as to be invisible. We see the dramatic effects leaving; we don't see the causes entering; we are tempted by the hypothesis that there are no causes." (
Elbow Room [Cambridge, Ma: MIT Press,1984], 76-7.)

2. The universe had a beginning.

Stenger says, "Singularity theory was tossed out long ago by both Penrose and Hawking." He goes on to say that Hawking, in his work from 1988 says it was tossed out because of quantum mechanics which works at the earliest moments. Relativity works for the earlier Hawking-Penrose theorem but it is not applicable for first moments.

In conversation with Ross, Stenger stated that Bill Craig and Hugh Ross refuse to look at Hawking's own refutation of his claim to a singularity. Ross replied that Stenger's claim needed imaginary time but asked where there was any evidence for imaginary time for this universe. Stenger said imaginary time isn't really needed because it applies to a specific model. More generally it can be shown that there is no need for a singularity by seeing that quantum mechanics applies to the first moments of time and general relativity does not. General relativity says time is continuous while quantum mechanics says it is made up of discrete units of plank time, each of which is 10
-44 seconds in length. Singularity only occurs at time t=0. You never reach t=0 because we only reach plank time at t=10-44 seconds after t=0. Here Stenger's response seems to trail off into the void. How this avoids a singularity, Stenger does not say, and Ross is not given the opportunity to ask.

Craig had elsewhere noted that just because a beginning point cannot be identified, it does not follow that there is no beginning. If the universe is not past eternal, then it had to come into being and it had a beginning. It had to come into being from something that was past eternal or timeless. The theistic explanation of the universe coming from an eternally, timelessly existing intelligent being is by far the more plausible explanation.


God Who Plays Dice

Stenger claims that ". . . the only possible creator is . . . the God who plays dice." He is obviously referring to Einstein's statement that God does not play dice. Einstein was claiming that there are no truly chance processes. He was deeply engaged in arguing against the leading views of quantum mechanics of his time which said that there are truly ontological chance processes. I suspect Stenger means that if God does create, then God only uses purely chance processes with no intentional activity. Likely he means that this is little different than atheism. God isn't really needed; natural processes do it all without God but God is added into the hypothesis anyway for really no good reason. The best reading of Stenger is that God may be needed to make the chance processes work. The worst reading is that the chance processes can go on without God.

But here it needs to be demonstrated that God is not needed or that God does not intervene in the universe. Stenger needs to give an argument, not merely state vague generalizations and think these will persuade. If God does not intervene at some points and generally leaves nature to work on its own, this does not demonstrate that God never intervenes. And if God does not intervene in the universe, it must still be demonstrated that God is not needed for the universe to be here in the first place.

I find it interesting that Stenger may be admitting to the possibility of deism. Richard Dawkins has admitted to this possibility in a debate just a few weeks after this conference. Now Dawkins said he didn't accept these arguments, but he said a good case could be made for deism. Steven Hawking has admitted to following in Einstein's footsteps and claimed to believe in a deistic God for some years. And of course others like the famous contemporary philosopher Antony Flew left atheism for deism. To me this sounds like people even as militantly atheistic as Stenger and Dawkins are admitting that there are some very strong arguments that are very difficult to get around. This is especially interesting to hear from Stenger who is noted as going further than most leading atheists will go by claiming not only that there is no good evidence from science for God but also that there is strong evidence against God.

Now when we give arguments from the sciences for God, they usually provide evidence that will support either deism or theism. It's just that Reasons to Believe (Ross' organization) and others who like to use such science based arguments use them as a first step to arguing for Christianity. Demonstrate God's existence and in some ways it's easier to then go on to demonstrate the resurrection or fulfilled prophecy or religious experience arguments. So even though the scientific arguments may not be necessary, they are valuable first steps for a lot of people in the context of a full case for Christianity. I think the evidence for the resurrection and prophecy is enough to persuade any unbiased person of the truth of theism as well as Christianity. But I like to use the scientific evidence more or at least first because it is so powerful.

What Stenger and Dawkins fail to see is that it is a much shorter step from deism to theism than it is from atheism to deism. Once deism is admitted, theists' arguments are much easier.


Bidirectional Time

Stenger suggests a view that has the big bang starting not only our universe but another universe proceeding in the opposite direction of time. Evidently, if we could go backward in time before the big bang, we would be going forward in the time sequence of this other universe.

Still the question remains where the starting material for a bidirectional universe came from, be it the singularity or something else. Stenger calls it nothing, but again, something cannot come from nothing.


Fine-tuning Arguments for God

The fine-tuning argument says that only an intelligent designer could produce our universe because the laws and constants of nature as well as other arbitrary quantities had to have very precisely the values they have or we would not have the physical life we now have. Stenger responds with five objections.

1. Other life forms. It is possible that there could have been other forms of life given different constants, law, and other conditions.
2. Multiple universes. If there are multiple universes we would not have this probability problem. Enough universes each with different values for their law and constants would produce at least one (or more) that has just the right values to produce physical life.
3. How should we estimate probabilities? The fine-tuning argument miscalculates probability.
4. Not all "constants" are constant. Some we have found to be variable with time.
5. Not all that fine-tuned. We can have a large quantity of variability for the values of many of the constants and laws.

The issue of multiple universes has only been alluded to in this debate and it has not been clearly argued. Robin Collins points out that the leading and most feasible multiverse model, the inflationary-superstring model, requires "the right combination of laws and fields for the production of life-permitting universes. . . ." (W.L. Craig and J.P. Moreland,
The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology [Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009], 265; see 256-72 for further arguments that other multiverse models do not remove the need for fine-tuning.)

The claim that not all constants are constant does not substantially affect the fine-tuning argument. Those that are not variable clearly do provide strong probabilistic evidence for fine-tuning. And those that have been found to vary and which have been used to demonstrate fine-tuning have often been found not to vary enough to affect the argument.

As for the fifth objection, it doesn't matter that there are some constants that have values that can have very great variability without affecting the probability of life occurring; what matters is that there are some that cannot vary by anything more than a very small quantity. We will look at the other arguments as we go through the debate.


Stenger said, "Ken Miller believes in God because there is so much order. But he's a biologist, he sees order. If you're a cosmologist you look out there and you see nothing but disorder. Most of the universe is nothing but entropy; we just see very little pockets of order."

Still, even if there is not the kind of specified complexity in space that we find in physical life, it is not chaos out there; the laws of nature are still followed. That the universe follows certain laws that have certain precise values allows for the possibility of chemical life somewhere in that universe if other precise conditions are found in that precise location. If certain pockets of this universe contain conditions that allow for life (such as earth with it's particular sun and solar system) that would less likely occur elsewhere, this only shows the fine-tuning all the more. It shows greater probability of intelligent intervention to allow for pockets (or possibly only one pocket) of life in an otherwise inhospitable universe. Given so few pockets of order, it is much more likely that there would be none without intelligent intervention.

Stenger asks, "Why would God have to fine-tune the universe to make it come out just right?" (Does Stenger mean God could make it so that there could be life no matter how the universe is made?) "He could make it right the first time, he's God after all." Well, God did do it right the first time. So it sounds like what Stenger means is that God shouldn't have had to do anything special to make there be life.

But if God were to do this, that is, make the universe so that it didn't need fine-tuned characteristics, would we then have a universe with some good evidence for God's existence but not so much that everyone would have no choice but to believe in God? Because that is the kind of universe we need. We need a universe with good evidence for God, enough that no one will have an excuse when they stand before God, but the evidence must not be so great that most people would feel virtually forced to believe in and obey God.

The young earth creationist view, for example, says that within six 24 hour days the universe was completed to the point that humans existed on a habitable planet and that it has only been about six thousand years since that creation. If we had a universe like that and good scientific evidence that that is how we came to be, then we would have no fine-tuning but I doubt that anyone could doubt that God exists and created us. Just imagine, if we had good reason to think that everything, humans included, came into being in just 144 hours, how could anyone doubt that some superpowerful, intelligent being brought this about? No natural processes could have produced this, not with the laws of nature and the make up of the universe being what they are. But if no one could doubt that God is there, then our choice for God would be virtually forced. Everyone would admit, "Of course there is a God." And who would ever feel free to choose against that God?


Stenger says that the three constants come together at some high energy. "So the fine-tuning of those constants is just a matter of waiting in time for the universe to cool enough so they could differ from one another by a sufficient amount."

But this is no argument. Just because the four forces can be reduced to one at very high temperatures does not tell us why they all happen to have the values they have when they separate. And they have to have just about exactly the values they have for us to be here.


Prayer Studies

Stenger said that prayer studies show God does not heal. Ross responded that these studies did not follow biblical guidelines for effective prayer.

Here Stenger is talking about studies that record the results of people praying for the healing of individuals diagnosed with given illnesses or injuries. Specifically, the latest study,
the STEP study, looked at how cardiac patients recovered after a common type of heart surgery. Only a specifically scripted prayer was used in this the largest study and it showed no effect for intercessory prayer. In fact, some of the results suggested a possible negative result for one group of those being prayed for. This contradicts some previous smaller studies. As for those who did the praying, in this later study two Catholic groups participated as well as a third group which is not an orthodox Christian group. (The third group was a member of the Unity School of Christianity. Some years ago Walter Martin described this group as Gnostic and, in fact, only vaguely theistic.)

Ross' response is surely correct. There are several stipulations in the Bible telling us how to pray effectively. In my own study I came up with more than nine conditions that bear on the effectiveness of prayer and most apply to studies like this one. Important conditions for effective prayer were not followed. Some of the conditions may be impossible to factor into an accurate scientific study. On the possibility that biblical Christianity is true, we should not have expected positive results from this particular prayer study. I have enumerated these conditions for effective prayer as an appendix to this article. (The reader might be interested in looking at this appendix if only because it addresses a particular popular accusation found on the internet and formed as a question, namely, Why doesn't God heal amputees?)

Another important factor is that a very large number of people from all of the groups involved, those who were specially prayed for and those who were not, reported that friends, relatives, church members, and others were praying for them independently of this study. I think that this factor alone may negate the legitimacy of this study in its entirety. Also, many patients prayed for themselves. We just don't know how much such factors affected the outcome of this study and they were in no way factored int the study.


Bible Incompatible with Science: Chronological Accuracy of Creation Accounts

Stenger says that the Bible is inaccurate scientifically because it has two creation stories (Genesis 1 and 2), the second starting with life.

Ross responds that Genesis 1 focuses on physical creation with an accurate chronology of events plus a quick summary of spiritual creation. Genesis 2 focuses on spiritual events, selects only a few of the physical creation events, and gives it non-chronologically.

Now Stenger didn't go on to question this explanation; he probably didn't know enough about the Bible to do so. (Indeed, he said as much about this time in the debated.) But might Stenger say, "Oh, you're just trying to make the Bible say what you want it to say. One part of the account is not accurate chronologically so you say that part, but not the other, wasn't meant to be taken chronologically"?

Ross might respond that he is merely letting the text itself and related historical information suggest why we should interpret the text one way rather than the other. It would be interesting to hear his justification for such a claim, had he made it. Whatever his response, there are features of these first two chapters that suggest that neither are to be taken as accurate chronologically. The first chapter's extreme symmetry and proportionate correspondence of one set of days to another suggest that the text is more of a description of categories of existence than a chronology (see Henri Blocher,
In the Beginning [Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1984]).

Gleason Archer, looking at the work of Kenneth Kitchen, points out that Genesis 2 is not an independent creation account at all but, as Ross also points out, a description of the special events within the creation of the universe, namely, the creation of humans. No other creation account in the Near East omits the creation of the sun, moon, stars, or oceans.

Also there are parallel ancient Near Eastern inscriptions that follow this same pattern of a general description of events followed by a more detailed description of a particular portion of the previous general account. So there is definitely no grounds for the now outdated notion of different authors writing different portions of Genesis; especially the idea of one writing one creation account in chapter 1 and another producing chapter 2 as a distinct creation account (Archer,
Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties [Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan, 1982], 68-9).

What Stenger does go on to say is that these accounts at least have the earth created before the sun and stars, which we know is not true.

Ross responds that the text does not say that the sun and stars were created after the earth but that the word indicating creation, "let there be," when used for the sun and stars (1:14) could refer to an event at a previous time. Also, 1:1 indicates that the entire universe was created at first. The "heavens and the earth" refer to the entirety of the universe including stars, sun, and earth.


Evidence in the Bible of Information the Writers Wouldn't Have on Their Own

Expansion of universe in the Bible and reading into the Bible what one wants to see.
Stenger asks about the expansion of the heavens in the Bible and comments that the universe is rather called a "firmament." He then goes on to accuse Ross of picking and choosing whatever he wants to believe out of the Bible.

Ross responds that “the heavens” has three literal definitions just as the word for day has four literal definitions. So we have to look at the word used for say, firmament. He says there are 25 creation accounts in Bible and we need to look at these accounts together.

Stenger then responds that it wouldn't convince him even if the Bible were very accurate unless it made a prediction about the future the original writer couldn't know about.

Ross says that the Bible does so repeatedly. Daniel's prophesied of the Persian, Greek, and Roman empires. Since portions of Daniel are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, this shows Daniel predates the events described.

One questioner from the audience asked if there are any equations, say pi calculated out sufficiently to a large number of decimal points, or E=MC
2 that would show a clear superhuman intelligence in the Bible: "to prove that he did really do all this stuff."

Ross responds that the heavens show the handiwork of God. If we are willing to look we will find them, we will see that the earth declares the glory of God. He perhaps should have referred to his earlier claim that the Bible speaks of the expansion of the universe or its claim that the universe had a definite origin point and did not exist eternally in the past. Both are substantiated by the best current scientific evidence.

Here Stenger replies that scientific explanations (meaning naturalistic explanations) are at least plausible and as such trump any theistic explanation (since they are god-of-the-gap explanations).

Notice Stenger does not attempt to justify his belief that naturalistic explanations are the only scientific explanations. He simply slips it in and assumes everyone will accept his statement.

Another questioner mentions what he calls "the logical fallacy of after-the-fact reasoning" and brings up "such things about the expansion of the universe." Here he asked his question of Michael Shermer, not Ross, evidently not wanting anyone to contradict him or question his claim. The questioner says, ". . . This is one of the things that goes into the 'baloney detection kit' about analyzing some of the claims Dr. Ross presented, for example after the fact. . . ." And as expected, Shermer enjoys the joke and very willingly obliges by saying everything this questioner wants him to say. "That's right, . . ." Shermer says with a laugh, "people read back into [a holy book] what they already believe."

Ken Miller also has some comments on Ross' claim that the Bible teaches that the universe is expanding:

Miller: "I wanted to look something up. I grabbed one of the Bible verses off the slide that Dr. Ross showed because I wanted to find a Bible verse that said that the universe is expanding. And one of them was the 104th Psalm. . . ."

1 Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, thou art very great;
thou art clothed with honor and majesty.
2 Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment:
who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain.

"I see in that a description of what the heavens look like stretched from horizon to horizon. I don't see cosmic expansion."


I bring up these various statements and questions because it looks as though people are looking for something in the Bible that would show an intelligence that would not be expected of the original writers. Pi calculated to several hundred decimal points would certainly be such, but so would a depiction of the expansion of the universe. So if the passages Ross brings up do most likely indicate that God is expanding the universe, that should be taken as good evidence. Merely to say that people read into their scripture something that is not there is not a good argument unless the passages that are considered can be shown to more likely have another meaning. Now just looking at the passages for the stretching of the heaven, they do appear on the surface to give the feeling Miller expresses. But are we sure that is the best interpretation? Taken at it's simplest meaning, God stretches or expands the heavens, he doesn't just make it look like it's stretched from horizon to horizon. Elsewhere Ross has brought up the point that for about a thousand years Jewish theologians have also claimed that the scripture teaches that the universe is expanding. So it is hardly a matter of someone reading back into the scripture something we have only recently discovered from science. Or consider another one of the passages Ross cites, Jeremiah 51:15, which sounds very clearly like part of the creation process.

“It is He who made the earth by his power,
who established the world by his wisdom,
and by his understanding stretched out the heavens.”

Notice that a simple addition or clarification in any of these passages would have so easily falsified Ross' interpretation. Had just one of these writers added, "from one end of the earth to the other" or maybe "from the east to the west," we would know Ross was wrong. Now these passages were written by several different people and some writers used this expression of God stretching out the heavens more than once. If all of these writers meant that the sky is stretched from horizon to horizon, then wouldn't one of them have at least accidentally slipped that in? Or wouldn't those who repeated this statement in more than one passage have added that clarifying statement in even just one of the passages? Wouldn't someone have said, maybe, "He spreads the sky out from horizon to horizon"? I think this consideration does have some force because with even these eleven passages, one would think we should expect someone to at least inadvertently add such a clarifying phrase if they were really intending to say simply that the sky looks like something God has stretched out over the earth?

At the very least, to merely reject Ross' claim without even considering the passages, like the one questioner appears to have done (because it does sound as though neither the questioner nor Shermer even looked at the passages Ross presented), would not be an honest consideration of the evidence.

The one questioner who thought E=MC
2 or pi calculated out would be a good proof should see that the stretching of the heavens should also be good evidence of such unanticipated scientific knowledge as an expanding universe. This particular questioner almost seemed to be saying, "I want this kind of evidence and anything else is not good enough." Whether or not Ross is right about the Bible teaching an expansion of the universe, the fact remains that it may be that God wants to give one kind of evidence but not another. If one kind of evidence works, should someone refuse to believe it simply because they happen to want a different kind of evidence?

Ross' response to this questioner, that the heavens show the glory of God and that any honest seeker will discover this to be true is certainly one of the most important responses Christians can make. But in the context of the given question, it is disappointing. The questioner wanted some kind of definite evidence. Ross would have done better to answer the question with some of the actual evidence we have for the Bible's truthfulness, evidence like that of the resurrection or fulfilled prophecy or religious experience. For example, the first shows Jesus is the Messiah and demonstrates his authority; as such, his statements about the truth of the Hebrew scripture and the forthcoming teachings of his immediate followers would be established. This isn't as strong as pi calculated to a thousand decimal points but it should be enough to persuade any intellectually honest person.

A problem with the kind of evidence this questioner wanted is that it would not establish the truth of the Bible but of only one part of the Bible. The Bible was written by many different people. Only the particular writer who gave pi calculated out would be able to thus demonstrate the truth of his or her writing, not of other biblical writers. Thus it is important to establish the kind of evidence suggested in the previous paragraph: if Jesus' authority is first evidenced, the truth of his statements about the veracity of the rest of the Bible follow.


Disproof of Christianity

The third questioner (Q3) asks what would be a definite disproof of Christianity. A prominent evolutionary biologist once said that Precambrian rabbit fossils would disprove evolution, what would do it for Christianity? Ross said a proof that humans are mere animals with no spiritual nature.

This seems to me to be one of Ross' weaker answers. What does it really matter how we are different from other animals? We know that we believe we relate to God and that God offers us eternal life. We have a moral awareness animals do not seem to have. We don't know God's relation to the animals; that's between God and the animals. I think the questioner was probably disappointed. He probably wanted to know what a Christian would admit as truly producible evidence against Christianity; where he could look for arguments that Christians would admit refute their views. But what kind of evidence could be produced to show that we don't have a spiritual or soulish nature?

I think the closest we could come to a conclusive disproof of Christian theism would be proof that there is no origin to the universe. It is difficult to imagine a biblical view of God and the universe that allows for an eternally existing universe. Any absolute disproof of a general theism must of necessity await the next life. A conclusive disproof of Christianity specifically, not theism, would be a disproof of the resurrection of Jesus.


Fine-tuning Again

Q6 (the sixth question, directed to Dr. Ross): “You said you have a testable and falsifiable set of evidence. Yet all that you have given us has been is a huge number of reasons that the universe is not conducive for human life. Since we do have human life against such odds you say your claim was not falsified but reinforced. That seems to me a very weak argument, that it's very unlikely that we are here. Is there something I'm missing?”

To Ross' credit he went on to explain more about the testable creation model RTB is developing. But I find it difficult to understand how someone can say that presenting the fine-tuning evidence seems weak. The probability is that we should not be here given naturalistic assumptions alone. Since we are here, doesn't that show that it is more likely that there has been intelligent intervention to allow this? There is nothing intrinsically improbable that we can see about this intelligent agent being here in the first place, so the probability seems to be on the side of the theist. And we should make our decisions on the basis of the probability.

Addressing the final panel of Ross, Stenger and the other speakers of the day, the next questioner (Q1') said that the numbers Ross gave are "frankly incredible" and asked if any of the other speakers had any more credible numbers. Ross defended the numbers he presented by noting that other scientists have looked at the probabilities and came up with some different numbers but none that would be sufficient to negate the probability argument for an intelligent designer.

It might be interesting to juxtapose these last two questions, Q6 and Q1'. The first questioner thinks the fine-tuning argument has no force whatsoever and asks, What is he missing? The next questioner thinks it is so strong as to be outrageously incredible and asks the other panelist for some more believable numbers.

Stenger had a couple of comments. First he said that these probability arguments don't work because a lot of things happen naturally in this world that have low probabilities. The probability that Dr Ross exists is enormously low. What are the chances of his parents meeting, and their parents meeting and marrying, etc. This can go all the way back to the first bacteria. The probability of Ross being here is much lower than anything he could come up with for his fine-tuning argument. Yet because he is here we know that low probability events do occur.

Stenger is here confusing low probability events that must occur with those that need not occur. For example, suppose we had a lottery for a million people. Say we have a million numbered ping pong balls in an urn. Someone picks a number from the urn, writes it down, puts it back in the urn, and mixes it up. All one million people are blindfolded and each person picks a number from the urn. Well, someone has to win that lottery. It is that someone wins that is certain; that a particular pre-named individual wins is what is very improbable. This is what Stenger confuses. Suppose we have our lottery and Joe Schmoe wins. We aren't surprised when he steps up to claim his prize because we know someone has to win.

Likewise, if we assume there have to be people here on earth, it is very unlikely that the person who was at this conference who was named Hugh Ross would actually exist. Somebody has to be here just as someone has to win the lottery. It is as if Stenger were to say, "Look, Joe Schmoe won the lottery. That shows that probability arguments don't give us any reason think that one thing is more likely to happen than something else."

The kind of probability Ross is talking about need not have ended up with life at all. With this kind of probability we can again use as an example a lottery with a million choices. Only this time let's have only one blindfolded female participants draw one number from the urn and 999,999 blindfolded male participants draw a number. It is very improbable that there would be any female who will win the lottery and pick the winning number. Likewise, it is very unlikely there would ever be life on earth (as corresponding to the female participant) given the fine-tuning argument. It is much more likely that one of the many possible lifeless universes (as corresponding to the male participants) would occur.

Suppose we had another lottery of a million numbers and a million people drawing numbers including Dr. Stenger. Only the winner would get to live while everyone else would be killed. Would Stenger honestly be willing to draw a ball from the urn knowing he has one chance in a million of drawing the winning number? Would he say that the fact that another 999,999 people would draw the rest of the numbers and one of the participants would win (and live) shows that the probability argument does not work? Someone will win, someone will live, but is Stenger so sure that the probability argument does not work that he would be willing to draw a number under these conditions? I can't imagine he would be that much of a fool. I hope it is clear how Stenger has misunderstood the probability argument.


The second thing Stenger had to say was that "the only way you can talk about probabilities is by comparing them. If it is very improbable that life occurred by natural processes, that has to be compared to the probability of supernatural processes. How do you compare that? The probability of God's existence could be minus ten to the billion. Without comparing probabilities, they're meaningless." But we can talk about the intrinsic probability of God existing and compare that to the intrinsic probability of the universe existing on its own. We are comparing simply the bare possibility of a self-existing conscious, intelligent being to the existence of a mindless material universe. Once we have some idea of that comparative probability, we can look at the fine-tuning evidence and see how much that diminishes the likelihood of any naturalistic explanation for our universe. If the bare possibility of a theistic universe as opposed to a naturalistic universe are even close, then the enormously low probability of chemical life given the fine-tuning argument would make theism the clear winner.

I'd like to suggest some ways in which it is much more intrinsically probable that God exists than that the material universe could exist on its own.

Traditional Christian theology says God is absolutely simple. God is timeless and changeless in his primodial nature. Some theologians say God is like that now, while others argue that this has been God's nature before the creation. In any case this makes God very much more simple than a changing, complex universe, no matter at what stage we look at it. And it makes God even more simple and intrinsically probable prior to creation.

Richard Dawkins says that God's knowledge makes God more complex than the universe since God must know every intricate detail of the universe. Thus God's mind must be at least as complex. But this complexity of knowledge may have only come into being in God's mind after God had chosen to create. If God did enter time with the creation (if not of this universe, at least the origin of plurality however that may have taken place) then God could have chosen the different objects of creation, say this universe, other spiritual universes, etc., and chosen to know how to create as he chose to create. So God did not need to have this diversity of knowledge originally. God originally only knew that which existed, namely himself, and his choice to cause there to be diversity, to be more than this absolute monism which was God himself. Since he was originally a simple timeless being, his knowledge was simple. God's very choice to create was itself something that followed from his simple nature. Since God was absolutely good, God desired that there would be others who would know the highest good as well, the good which is absolute and complete joy, the good of knowing and relating to and loving God.

We would expect God to be absolutely good. If God was once the only existent entity and God had absolute worth, then God would have valued all and only that which had value, which was himself. If by creating us, we have value, then God would value us. God would only do what is good just as God wants us to only do what is good, to value that which has the value he has and which he has given us.

Sometimes we think of the various attributes of God as so diverse and numerous. But I wonder, if we really think about it, if many of those attributes might not reduce to a very small number, perhaps even the number one. God is just, and good, and loving, and holy, and merciful, and has absolute worth. I think these are all merely manifestations of one attribute, God's absolute worth or value. I've pointed out how God's goodness follows from his worth. God's holiness is primarily a picture of God being set apart from anything that is evil. So it follows from God's goodness. Justice requires that that which is right be done, thus it also follows from God's goodness. God loves because God is good. God is merciful because God loves. God's mercy is not opposed to God's justice as we often think. God is merciful to us because Jesus, our substitute, bore in his body the justice we deserve. As the old medieval theologians have said, justice and mercy have kissed.

Or consider the traditional Christian view that God is pure spirit and has no material or even physical characteristics. An immaterial being is far simpler than any material entity, not to mention an entire material universe.

Sometimes I hear people say that God's omnipotence shows God's complexity. This is something I just don't see. We know that stars are more complex than we used to think they were, but they still possess not that complex of a structure, and we know they possess an enormous amount of energy or power. But if we look at a very tiny eukaryotic cell or even a prokaryotic cell we find it to be extremely complicated and yet possessing very little power. So I do not see that power requires complexity.

Imagine that you are God and nothing else exists at all. You create something. Wouldn't you expect that whatever you create, you would be stronger than it? If it all came from you, how could it have more power than you? Maybe that is essentially what omnipotence is.

Now some of these thoughts are just hints as to how God could have absolute power and other attributes; how it seems to be so intuitively likely that if there is a God, he would have these attributes, and simple attributes at that. And if some of my arguments are only hints, then it appears that there may be better answers that we just do not see yet. But it looks as though there need be nothing gratuitous or complex about God being the original first cause of all other existence and God having all of these characteristics or attributes.

I have argued that it is much more intrinsically probable that there is a simple, conscious, intelligent, timeless being who caused the universe to be here than that this complex universe existed on its own. If I'm wrong and the intrinsic probability for theism and naturalism is even equal, then the fine-tuning argument makes theism overwhelmingly more probable. And as David Hume said, The wise should apportion their belief according to probability.


Multiverse, Singularity, and Multiple Time Dimensions in our Universe

Q2': “How do the multiverse views relate to there being a singular beginning?”

Sean Carroll: “We don't know if there is any relation between the multiverse views and a singular beginning. We need a quantum theory of gravity to describe what happened in the early universe. That would possibly help us understand how the universe came to be either from nothing or a preexisting universe.”

But given the Borde-Vilenkin-Guth (BVG) theorems, we do know enough to see that the universe or multiverse did have an absolute beginning whether it originated with a singularity or not [W.L. Craig and J.P. Moreland, ed.,
The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 139ff.]. The universe could not come from nothing, so it had to come from something other than the universe, something ultramundane. This something thus shows characteristics common to theism and not to naturalism. So here we have good probabilistic evidence for theism.

About a year after this debate, commenting on the conference, Ross noted that Sean Carroll in his talk earlier that day "tried to attribute to the universe properties of time, features distinct from what we would call cosmic time, the single time dimension that cannot be stopped or reversed. . . . By attributing multiple dimensions of time or imaginary time or whatever, they [Carroll and other speakers at the conference] figured they could get around what the space-time theorems declare: that if you have a universe that expands on average, it must have a beginning [according to the BVG theorems] and it must have a causal agent beyond space and time that brings it into existence. However, if you attribute to the universe extra dimensions of time or their equivalent, you can get around the strictures of the space-time theorems. But as many physicists have pointed out, all the evidence tells us the universe indeed is confined by a single dimension of time that cannot be stopped or reversed and therefore really is subject to these space-time theorems. (
Reasons to Believe, "I Didn't Know That Podcast" 10/20/09,10:16-11:08)

Carroll's comment above does not seem to appeal to multiple time dimensions or reversible time or time that can be stopped. But because he had earlier done so to respond to the BVG theorems, we should note that Ross' response has considerable force. Unless Carroll or Stenger can show evidence for multiple time dimensions, the best evidence is that time is one dimensional and directional. Thus theism is the better or more feasible explanation for the universe given our current scientific understanding.


Why 14 Billion Years?

Q3': “Why does God who is omnipotent, omniscient, etc, need us, and why did it take 14 billion years to create this earth our home?”

Ross: “The age of the universe is a critical factor as to whether you get humans or not [or any intelligent, conscious chemical life, I think Ross would probably add]. There is just no way you can bring advanced life onto the scene in less than about 14 billion years because of the way physics is structured.”

Does this really answer the question about why 14 billion years? Couldn't the questioner just say, well, why does God have to have a certain physics with a certain structure? Or if he does, why does this omnipotent being have to be constrained by such physics?

Ken Miller's response was probably the best that any theist could give. He said the 14 billion years just does not matter to God. For an eternal being, time just does not matter. The choice is up to God.

But I think something more could be said. As I pointed out earlier, if God kept the same physics that we now have and created us in just a few days, like the young earth creationist thinks, then I think it would have been very obvious to even the crudest scientific investigation, that God did create us. With the physics that we have now, we just could not have come into being in 144 hours without some very obvious intelligent intervention. If it looks like the universe is 13.7 billion years old, then God would have had to take definite steps to cover up the quick creation; God would have had to have deceived us.

If it were too obvious that God created us, everyone would know that God exists and everyone would accept and be willing to do God's will and seek God, but not out of their free choice but simply because they would feel forced to do so. If God is obviously there and God's will is known, people would know that to disobey would deserve God's judgment and that they would inevitably receive God's judgment. The knowledge of God must be given to all people, as Paul says in Romans one, but it must not be so obvious that they would not feel free to reject God.


Does God Need Us and Why Did God Create Us?

Ross: “Why does God need us? The Bible hints that God has a higher purpose for creating this universe than just to give us a home. The ultimate purpose is to bring about the end of all evil. When that occurs a new universe will be created with different dimensionality and different laws of physics.”

Nancy Murphy: “I wouldn't see that as God's purpose because I don't think there was evil before we came along. God does not need us but God wants us because God is described as first and ultimately as a God of love. (1:39:6) We alone among all of life have the capacity to know that we are loved by God and to love God in return.”

Now in most Christian theologies it is accepted that Satan fell before Adam fell; otherwise, how could the first humans be tempted to sin unless Satan took on the guise of the serpent? But is Ross trying to say that our creation had something to do with the conquest of the evil that came from Satan's fall? If so, how are we to understand how this might be? This is something I've never been able to understand in Ross' claims.

Also, I doubt that Ross intended to say that God does need us. In most orthodox Christian views, God does not need us but freely chose to create us; God desires that we exist to fulfill his purposes. So I suspect Ross would say that God could have conquered evil by some other means.

Nancy Murphy's view that we are created because God is Love and God desires that we know the joy and the highest good of knowing and loving God is in my thinking likely the best Christian explanation as to why we were created. Being Love, God desires that there be more who will experience this the greatest of all joys, which as such is also the greatest of all goods.


Status of Naturalistic Explanation for Origin of Life

Q4': “Concerning the origin of life, Ross said the gap is getting larger. One speaker this morning gave some possible and plausible explanations. Shapiro said we still aren't any closer. So where are we with origin of life theories? Stanley Miller said we aren't really any closer.”

Here Ross says the gaps in naturalistic explanations are getting much larger and that the Miller-Urey explanation is irrelevant to origin of life research. Ken Miller responds that Stanley Miller's experiments accomplished a lot. And he is certainly correct that we have learned a lot from that experiment. But it seems that Ross is also correct that since we do know that we did not have the proper (reducing) atmosphere, that in some sense his experiment is irrelevant to origin of life. So a lot of rhetoric can be packed into statements that are partially true.

Now in the remainder of Ken Miller's statement I think he has gone beyond the point of even half-truths. A lot of us have a kind of love/hate relationship with Ken Miller. He says a lot of things that are very good, but how can we understand his present statement as anything other than outright prevarication? Here is what he said:

"Stanley Miller spent the rest of his life . . . redoing that experiment. Now why did he keep redoing it? The answer is, he wanted to be responsive to the best that atmospheric scientists were telling him about the composition of earth's early atmosphere. So every time there were different evidence for different ideas he would redo the experiment. And guess what. You keep producing the basic building blocks of life." [Italics mine.]

So every time the atmospheric sciences said the early earth had an oxidizing or neutral atmosphere of various conjectured compositions and quantities, the same experiment was altered to include that kind of atmosphere and it produced amino acids? That is simply false. How could Ken Miller say such a thing? (See H. Ross and F. Rana,
Origins of Life [Colorado Springs, Co: NavPress, 2004], 99-101.)

Miller went on to say that meteorites have been found to possess amino acids and thus they must have been easily produced in the early solar system. This is true, but it still does not show how they could be produced on the early earth with its oxidizing or neutral atmosphere. Also, only a few of the twenty necessary amino acids have been found on meteorites and then only in inadequately low abundance (
Origins, 95-6).

Having said all of this, we should note that origin of life researchers are not greatly concerned about the production of amino acids. It's the following steps that are considered the real problems.


Fine Tuning and Exotic Life in Unexplored Locations and under Different Laws/Constants

Sean Carroll made the following objection to the fine-tuning argument: "As a working cosmologist, I wanted to comment on all the fine-tuning arguments that we've heard. In my personal opinion they're all completely fantastical. We have no idea what laws of physics and what perimeters of nature are required to create and allow for the existence of intelligent life. We have no idea whether in our current universe whether life could exist on the surface of a neutron star, or in the dark matter, or several trillion, trillion years from now is some completely different form. And the proof for that is that if I handed anyone . . . the standard model of particle physics, the theory that we now believe explains the motion of atoms and molecules of which life is made, and said, tell me the values of the perimeters for which a complex life form is possible, without knowing the actual answer, no one would be able to figure it out. It is completely implausible. We know that our perimeters work. But we do not know and we should not go around saying, that other perimeters would not work just as well."

Here I should point out that Nancy Murphy and Ken Miller had shortly offered an interesting response defending a form of the fine-tuning argument.

Nancy Murphy: “And even if it's not the case that we could show that no other universe could support life, we know that our universe supports life. And we know what was necessary for us in order to be here. And the more we know about the constraints that are on the various constants that go on to our basic physics, the more we see that the planet we live on had to be pretty much the way it is. So for instance, one of the big questions about evil, is earthquakes, tsunamis. If we did not live on one of the very few planets with moving crusts, we simply would not have the rich elemental resources we need at this point for complex life. We wouldn't have the geography that makes our water [cycle] . . . work.”

Miller: “On the issue of fine-tuning, one of the things we often think about, . . . can the constants vary; could you still get life. As we look at life as we have it right now, . . . would you get significant amounts of carbon produced in solar furnaces? . . . When you vary the constants, you're not going to get that carbon produced. . . . I have to take issue with some of the things Sean just said. Because he's basically holding open the idea that we don't know about other possibilities, other possible life forms. [Carroll nodding in agreement.] And he's right about that. But on the other hand, the only example that we have of life is tightly dependent on those fundamental constants. And Martin Rees' book points this out very well. . . .”

Ross was not given the opportunity to respond to Carroll's statement at this time but he did at a later time on his weekly podcast (
Reasons to Believe, "I Didn't Know That” Podcast 10/20/09, 7:35-17:39). Part of his statement is as follows: "If we're talking about physical life that, indeed, is confined by the space-time dimensions of the universe, there's really a very narrowly fine-tuned set of perimeters that will allow that physical life to be possible. I was rather surprised that Sean Carroll made reference to, How can you rule out life on the surface of a neutron star? Well, he's right that we can't rule out angelic life on the surface of a neutron star, but certainly we can rule out the possibility of any kind of physical life that would be confined to the space-time dimensions of the universe. That is utterly impossible. . . . You've got tremendous gravitational forces and you've also got some very nasty radiation that would break up any kind of complex chemistry. I mean, any life form that is confined by the space-time dimensions of the universe requires stable, very complex molecules. And the gravity as well as the radiation on the surface of a neutron star utterly rules that out. . . . [13:47.]

"We do know this about the angels, they have the capacity to enter in to our time-space dimensional realm and to relate to us but they are in no way restricted by the space-time dimensions of the universe. So they're not subject to the laws of physics to the degree at least that we are, or the space-time dimensions at least to the degree that we are. . . . [15:18.]

". . . There's a chapter about that in [Hugh Ross' book]
Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men as to why physical life is impossible under the kind of extreme conditions that Sean Carroll suggests." [16:45.]

Following Murphy and Miller's statement, the first question I would have for Carroll is, Does it really matter if there are numerous other forms of life out there that we just are not aware of? The only one that we know of is what we find on this planet (unless of course we consider spiritual life like that of God, angels, etc.). But considering the kind of life that can be detected by normal empirical investigation, the life we have on this planet is the only kind we know of, at least as of now. The problem is that the probability of the fine-tuning of the laws and constants of nature that allow for this kind of life is so small that it is very unlikely that this kind of life would exist without intelligent intervention. What does it matter that there might be some unknown life forms we don't know of yet? The problem is that we have a particular entity, life as we know it, that cannot be accounted for by natural processes. Early in the debate Ross quoted Stenger as admitting "I do not dispute that life as we know it would not exist if any one of several of the constants of physics were slightly different. Additionally, I cannot prove that some other form of life is feasible with a different set of constants." (25:01 from "Is the Universe Fine-Tuned for Us?") It does not matter if there might be other constants or laws of nature (unless one wishes to conjecture multiple universes), what matters is that in our universe with its constants and laws, the existence of life as we know it is very improbable given naturalism.

But secondly, don't we have a good idea of what other forms of physical life might be possible? Given our current laws of physics, we need carbon as a base. We cannot use boron or silicon because they cannot make sufficiently complicated molecules or they are too rare. We need liquid water. Alternatives just don't work well enough. As Ross has pointed out (above), we do know enough about dark matter and neuron stars to know that complex physical life cannot exist on or in them.

Thirdly, this strikes me as very similar to a God-of-the-gaps argument some theists have given in the past. The old accusation is that theists plug God in as an explanation for any phenomena they don't understand. (This is an objection critics are quite justified in raising. Other forms of so-called God-of-the-gaps accusations are groundless, as we have seen in our previous discussion.) Here the naturalists plug in life for any state of the universe they don't know enough about to determine if life is there. If we don't know anything about it, maybe life is there?

Paul Davies' critique of the God-of-the-gaps argument as I've just presented it seems to me to be also a very fitting critique of the naturalist's unknown life of the gaps argument Carroll just gave. This is from the
Cosmic Jackpot (NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2007):

"The main objection is . . . the ever present risk that scientific advances would systematically close the gaps, squeezing God into smaller and smaller interstices, perhaps to be displaced altogether in due course. A God who lurks in the dark corners of human ignorance is a God who must make a slow and inexorable retreat as science progresses." (195)

Try replacing the word "God" in the above quotation with "exotic life." As science progresses, will the dark hiding places for exotic life not be increasingly illuminated as well?


Why Limited Resources?

Q5': “If there is this God who has fine-tuned the universe for life, why would he create the earth with such limited resources?”

Ross: “Who says the resources are limited?”

Miller: “I think you answer the question by going to the negative. Which is, 'What would a planet look like with unlimited resources?' Which would be, that it would be a violation of everything we know about physics and chemistry. And maybe it was to teach us a lesson about living within our means.”

Our resources would not be limited if we "lived within our means," as Miller says, and if our species were not meant to live here forever. Living within our means would mean that we would need to replace the more destructive technologies that we depend upon, which would include everything from nonrenewable fossil fuels to nuclear weapons, and we would need to have a stable, optimal, appropriately distributed world population. For example, we would need smaller populations in areas that cannot as easily support human life. Ultimately our resources are limited in the sense that the sun, our only true energy source, will not last forever and in fact it will eventually destroy all life on earth. (Even if we were to escape our solar system, we would still face extinction with the heat death of the universe.)

I think Ross' response must have struck many of the listeners as naive. "Of course our resources are limited!" the questioner and perhaps most of the audience would object. But Ross meant that they were unlimited only in the practical sense that everyone on the planet could live and live well for as long as our species was meant to survive, if we managed our resources well.

So we could have fine-tuning that allows for life and this can provide good evidence for God and still God need not intend that we be here forever. With "in principle" limited resources, we can live here as long as God intends for us to do so. So there is no contradiction between the fine-tuning evidence for God and our having limited resources. We do need to be good stewards of the planet however. Otherwise we will only harm ourselves; possibly we could destroy at least large portions of our populations. We have done that in the past. We could even destroy ourselves entirely unless God intervenes.


Hell for Holocaust Victims?

One of the last questions was also the most emotionally forceful.

The questioner's mother survived the holocaust, was witnessed to by Christians but never accepted Christianity, and finished her life as what she called an "agnostic Jew." The questioner asked, "Will my mother be denied ultimate admission into heaven?"

Without even knowing how good this person was, Nancy Murphy said that this woman would absolutely not be denied access to heaven. She said, "People who are seeking the truth with all their hearts, who turn away from God because they cannot reconcile the God they've been taught to believe in with the kind of evil they see in the world, those people are a lot closer to God's heart than the folks who are just blithely playing golf on Sunday mornings and not thinking about it." And yet Murphy had no grounds for even thinking that this lady was seeking the truth or God with all of her heart.

Let's look at Miller's response. After Vatican 2, Catholics like Ken Miller have been open to the possibility that some non-Christians are not lost. But he weighed his words well enough to not say definitely that this person was or was not lost. He just said he would not put himself as a judge over anyone and that "the kingdom of heaven belongs to the pure of spirit and it certainly sounds as though that applies to your mother."

Ross said we don't know what happens to people in the last moments of their lives so she may have accepted Jesus at that time. When he was pressed however, he said that if in fact she never did accept Jesus before she died, "she would not go to the new creation," which of course drew a lot of heckles and boos.

Some people think that anyone who has endured the holocaust has to be allowed into heaven, no questions asked. And people like Nancy Murphy seem to swallow that assumption, likewise with no questions asked. But likewise, in contradiction to what Miller said, we don't know if this person really was pure in spirit in the sense that Jesus used the term when he said that the pure in spirit are given the Kingdom of Heaven. Ultimately we need to understand that according to the New Testament, to knowingly reject God's offer of salvation through Jesus is to reject eternal life. Again, we don't know that this was this lady's situation.

To adequately answer this issue we need to establish some background information first. One of the most basic doctrines of Christianity is that God is just. That doesn't just mean that God punishes the wicked as they deserve; it also means that God gives to each person who has endured undeserved suffering equal compensation for that suffering. C.S. Lewis said that those in heaven will say, I have never known pain, even though they may have suffered enormously on earth. Whether in heaven or hell, those who have suffered undeservedly on earth will feel as though (or perhaps almost as though) that suffering had never occurred, so great will be God's compensation for that suffering. So there is no place for assuming that if someone has endured the holocaust or any other great amount of suffering, they deserve to go to heaven. (Of course, those in hell will endure suffering for other evil they had done, suffering that they do deserve.)

The second point I would want to make is that one is not saved or lost, if I can use those terms, by what one knows. One is save or lost by what one chooses. Jesus said that anyone who wills to do the will of the Father, God, will know that his teachings are from God. And the obvious implication of that passage is that if you know God's will and will to do God's will, you will act in accordance to what you now know God's will to be. He taught that anyone who seeks God and seeks the truth from God will be given it. Now we don't know that this person's mother did seek God or seek the truth from God. So on that grounds alone we cannot say that she is lost or saved. But let's assume she did seek God.

I like to find stories of people who do seek God, because inevitably I find that they discover Christianity to be true. But I cannot say that in principle that must always be the case in this life. These passages do not say that one will necessarily find in this life. They just don't say. Thus there may be some who will discover in the next life. So if this lady was truly a seeker of God and never in her life accepted Jesus as her Lord, then I would leave open the possibility that she would discover the truth of Christianity and accept Jesus after death. If this is not true, then we only have two alternatives: 1) the people who on their death beds profess that they are seeking the the truth from God and will to do God's will if God did exist, and who profess that they do not believe in Jesus even with their last breath, these people are lying. 2) The second alternative is that Jesus was lying when he said that all who seek to do God's will shall discover that Christianity is true. Now I don't think Jesus lied, but I also think there may be some who are earnest seekers of God who die without professing faith in Jesus.

Now I know that there are some passages that seem to disagree with this view. Hebrews says it is appointed unto humans once to die and after that the judgment. But this does not say that there might not be a marginal point between life and death at which one does confront the reality of Jesus and his offer. This idea brings to mind maybe something like C.S. Lewis's idea of the Wood between the Worlds, if you remember in the
Narnia Chronicles. Again, recall that this idea of a chance for salvation after earth-life ends applies to those who have sought God in this life and possibly to those who have never made such a decision in this life (if there are any).

Again, Paul said those who do not believe will be condemned. But here we have nothing that says that one must believe in this life. Like Ken Miller said, time doesn't mean anything to God. It is we, not God, who put up a line of demarcation at death and say that all people must believe before they cross that line.

There certainly are people who will be lost if they do not believe when they reach death. I even agree with Hugh Ross that there are some people who have rejected God's offer of salvation so often that they have reached a point of reprobation, a point at which even while still in this life they cannot be saved. (He did not say this in this debated.) Still I would maintain that those who seek God, though they would usually find Christianity to be true in this life, may find it only in the next.

I also think that a thorough study of scripture will eliminate the orthodox idea of an eternal hell of unmitigated horror. Christian annihilationism, limited punishment according to the evil one has done followed by annihilation, is more likely even though I would consider it to be the worst possibility. This view is the same as the secular view of annihilation of consciousness at death but with the advantage that justice is done. My view is that a kind of semi-restitutionism is more likely the case. The unredeemably lost are not reconciled to God but after a limited period of punishment they cease to endure suffering. For further explanation, argument, and references, see my article,
Flirting with Universalism.With these possible views of the afterlife of the lost, I think the objection no longer has any substance.

Murphy made one other statement that needs further comment. I noted that she claimed that this lady was one of those who turned ". . . away from God because they cannot reconcile the God they've been taught to believe in with the kind of evil they see in the world." If this is so, it only shows that some people are not able to think very carefully about what they have been taught. (Indeed, we do not know if this lady was brought up as a believing Jew.) But at least for Jews and Christians who have been brought up to believe in God, one of the most basic teachings is that God has exhaustive knowledge. So wouldn't our knowledge be to God's like a snails knowledge is to a human's? But if so, shouldn't we expect that God would have a good reason for allowing the holocaust and that we should not expect to understand God's reason for allowing it?


The Last Word: on Magic, Cheap Shots, and Nothing

In the last sentences allowed to each speaker, I noticed that Nancy Murphy said that she was happy to see that none of the scientists on the panel accepted natural theology. I wonder if that was simply a cheap shot, a claim that Hugh Ross isn't really a scientist. I would think she would know that Ross does accept natural theology, at least to the extent that science provides good evidence for God's existence. If it was a cheap shot, it was not very honest. One should not be denied the title of a scientist who has earned the appropriate degrees, done serious research and published in one's field, simply because someone else disagrees with one's views. Whether Murphy can rightly be accused of this or not we do not know. It may have simply been a slip on her part or perhaps she has a very special definition of natural theology. But others have certainly stooped to what is essentially name calling. In
The God Delusion, I don't recall Dawkins ever calling Michael Behe a scientist. He has certainly called him some much less flattering names even though Behe has done considerable published scientific research.

Stenger's last sentence was, "We are all frozen nothings." Shermer followed on his heels with, of course, "Be skeptical!" And, of course, Stenger never noticed how appropriately Shermer's statement applied to his own statement. But then, Shermer did seem to think their statements humorous; so maybe he, at least, did notice. What is even more astonishing is that Stenger seems so very content with his nothingness. I find it so difficult to conceive how atheists can so hate themselves as to gladly give up their very lives so long as they can be rid of God. Of course, many will object that they are merely being honest with the evidence and courageously accepting the cold, hard reality of mortality. Perhaps some actually think they are being honest with themselves. But this does not tell us how some can be willing to give up their very souls if only they can banish God to nonexistence. Wouldn't a sane person, a reasonable person, at least hope there is such a God who can remove the blackness of nonexistence, of death? Wouldn't a mind not twisted by hatred of God, one not deranged because of offenses of a few "religious people" (those somehow associated with this God)—wouldn't a sane mind, as it were, at least be willing to honestly search out the evidence and seek to discover if this God really is? Wouldn't an honest mind, an unperverted mind, seek God and call upon God? The Christian view is that no matter how intellectually honest some atheists might perceive themselves to be, they may be deceiving themselves. They will be accepted by God and will discover that God is truly there if they do so call upon God.

I noticed Sean Carroll's last statement was that "The world is not magic." I think it would have been interesting to have followed Carroll and to have said, "Something coming from nothing is magic." Certainly, nothing could be closer to magic than something coming from nothing.


Appendix: Biblical Conditions for Effective Prayer for Healing

Faith
. James tells us, essentially, that if you pray for something without faith, don't expect anything to happen (1:6-7). In other words he's saying, "If you ask God without faith, why even bother?" Throughout the Gospels, Jesus constantly repeated the need to pray in faith.

God's will. In Jesus' teachings it sometimes sounds like the prayer of faith will accomplish anything you want. Yet if you look more closely, he qualifies his statements by saying that the prayer of faith is effective only if you ask according to God's will. (E.g., John 15:7 indicates the promise of answered prayer applies only to those who "abide" in Jesus and in whom his words abide. That is, they walk in a closeness to God such that they are aware of God's voice and will. The writer of John later explicates the need to ask according to God's will, 1 John 5:14-15). Often we pray for things that are not in God's will. For example, I know of one group of people who were praying for the healing of an elderly man and, they claimed, they felt that God was telling them not to pray for him any longer since it was now this person's time to die. As another example, Job had to endure a horrible disease that could not be healed until his testing was completed. It is not inconceivable that some people will in like manner be tested with such illnesses for their entire lives or at least for the close of their lives. God's testing always ends with equal or greater compensation for all that has been endured. This condition, praying according to God's will, will overlap or include some of the other conditions enumerated below. Wrong or selfish motives will diminish the effectiveness of one’s prayers generally, James says (4:3). This is a general indicator of God’s will.

Perseverance. And then there is sometimes a need for perseverance in prayer. Jesus gave parables about this, like the parable of the friend in need (Luke 11:5-8) or the unjust judge. He said that the unjust judge only gave in to the request of a widow who had been wronged because she kept bothering him (Luke 18:2-8). Jesus' point was that we sometimes need to ask God and keep asking and not to let up, to persevere and even travail in prayer.

Christians pray. Then there is the issue of who is praying. These rules, as it were, of how to pray, Jesus gave to his followers. In the Christian view, the only prayers from the non-Christian that we know for sure that God answers are the prayers of calling upon God and of repentance and faith. There may be some other prayers that God answers for nonbelievers, but we certainly cannot assume that God will answer them.

Concern and indifference in prayer. Most certainly, we cannot expect any positive results from a scripted prayer like, "God, heal patient number 138. You know who he or she is, I don't." If a Christian prays like that and doesn't care who the patient is, I doubt that God would answer such a prayer. I'm also tempted to think that God would be upset with people who would arbitrarily and deliberately exclude one group of people from God's concern when God would want us to be concerned with all people. Might God refuse to answer prayer simply because of the structure of such a study?

Not only would a lack of concern negatively affect the outcome of one's prayer, but the depth of concern one might possess would positively affect the outcome of prayer. James said that the fervent prayer of the righteous avails much (5:16).

Praying in Jesus' name. Though I think the Christian view would be that God does hear and answer some prayers that are not in Jesus' name, Jesus made it clear that his followers must pray in the name and authority of Jesus (John 14:13-14). So the Christian cannot expect their prayers to be effective without praying in Jesus' name. And we have already discussed the question of the effectiveness of a non-Christian's prayer.

Fasting. Sometimes even fasting is a factor. There is a possibility that Jesus said that for certain types of demon possession the demons cannot be exorcised without fasting as well as prayer. If some kinds of sickness, and especially mental illness, involve demonic activity, then fasting might be a very important factor for effective prayer (Matthew 17:21).

God's judgment. The New Testament teaches that some illnesses or even premature deaths have come to Christians because of sin in their lives. For example, Paul spoke of some who have taken the communion meal, or the Eucharist, who have eaten not discerning the Lord's body. He spoke of them as having illnesses and even dying prematurely (1 Corinthians 11:29-30). So for some people we should not expect our prayers to be effective because their illness is God's judgment upon them. I know of one person who claimed he was told not to pray for a certain dying non-Christian because he had passed the point of salvation. He had so long rejected God's calling and drawing that God would not allow his healing and no longer allow him the opportunity of reconciliation with God.

Tempting God. One atheist web site asks why God does not heal amputees, growing back the original limb. If there really is no limit to God's power, why should this be any different than the common healings Christians usually talk about? Why do we see so many of the latter and none of the former? Or as another example, I remember years ago hearing a debate in which one of the atheist participants challenged his Christian opponents to eat the contents of a can of Draino, a highly corrosive drain cleaner. Didn't Jesus say that his followers would handle poisonous snakes and drink poison and not be harmed? Didn't the Christians' refusal to swallow the Draino show they didn't really believe Jesus? There are Christian sects who handle poisonous snakes, evidently taking very seriously Jesus' words as a command. Are Christians being inconsistent when they refuse to likewise devour poison?

But Jesus didn't say to pursue deadly snakes and deliberately imbibe poisons, he said that if or when it happens, say when people force them to drink poison, they won't be harmed. In fact, the Gospels record another story that holds a more general key to this issue. Satan takes Jesus to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem and tells him, if you are the Son of God, you should be able to jump off the Temple and God will send his angels to protect you from hitting the ground. God even promised he would send his angels in such a situation. Interestingly, Jesus responds that this is tempting God and God commands us never to do this (Matthew 4:5-7). So snake handling and voluntary Draino eating would actually be prohibited for a Christian.

But likewise, asking God to heal an amputee would also be in at least a similar category. Christians are commanded to pray for the sick to be healed, to work miracles and even to raise the dead. But when a Christian prays for the sick, even though one may have faith for the growth of a new limb or a resuscitation, we should keep in mind that such may be, at the time, outside of a realm in which God is willing to work. By a resusitation I mean the reviving of an individual who, by normal medical standards, was determined to be dead, and sometimes even for a matter of days or more. Since Christians are told to pray for healings, it would not strictly be a matter of testing God to ask for such. However, since this kind of healing would involve such a radical creative miracle, like saving someone who jumps off a cliff, this might be beyond what God is willing to do. There are currently resuscitation claims and claims of say a thumb or even a foot or an eye regrown which have at least not currently been refuted. However, I do not know if any of these have been clearly verified either. But these are clearly less common than the healings of less severe conditions, illnesses, and injuries. My point is that there are clearly some things God has told us we should not ask for and some healings we should not feel God is obligated to perform.

Unrepentant sin. One person Jesus healed was told to leave his sin or a greater evil, possibly another illness or handicap, would come upon him (John 5:14, cf. 8:10-11). It is not inconceivable that some people have not been healed because of their refusal to leave such sins. Also, when some Christians have sin in their lives that they refuse to forsake, God will not hear their prayers until they do so (Psalm 66:18).

God's patience with rejecters. Another variable may make such a study indeterminate even if all of the above factors can somehow be taken into account. If individuals could be prayed for without an artificial, scripted prayer; if Christians would pray in faith in Jesus' name, sometimes even in long perseverance and travail; if these and all of the other proper conditions were also followed, God may still have special reasons for taking someone's life and sparing someone else's life. For example, Paul wrote that God's patience is meant to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4). That is, sometimes God gives people extra time to live on the chance that they will eventually respond to God's drawing and they will come to seek God and seek the truth from God. So even if we had one group of people who claimed to be strongly anti-religious, if we could be very sure that no one was praying for them and they were not praying for themselves, we still would not know if God might want to have them (or some of them) stay alive longer to see if they might respond to God's calling and reconsider the possibility of God's existence and come to call upon God.

Merciful deaths for the righteous. A parallel scenario might result in an otherwise premature death of a righteous person. One Hebrew prophet said that certain righteous people died in order that they would not have to see and endure a time of terrible suffering and judgment that would come upon the wicked nation of Judah (Isaiah 57:1-2). Or notice that in the account of the great Flood, Noah's father died only a few years before the flood, presumably for the same reason (Genesis 5:28-30; 7:6). So there may be special reasons God will not heal some despite intense prayer and he will heal others for whom no one has prayed.

These last two variables might more appropriately fit under one of the first ones mentioned above, "God's will." There I was assuming at least the possibility that these conditions can be taken into account for an accurate scientific study. Here I want to make the point that we cannot be sure to take all of the variables into account.

So because of these conditions and possibly a few others I didn't think of, I don't think it should be any wonder that for some of these prayer studies, prayer for the sick has not been shown to be effective.


Dennis Jensen, updated Oct 2014

Debate available from Reasons to Believe, www.reasons.org, "RTB Live! Vol. 1," SKU: D0901. Also available at the Skeptics Society's web site, www.skeptic.com. Note: it appears now that if purchasing from the Skeptics Society, one has to buy the entire set of conference lectures (av193) for about $80 to get the debate.


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