What’s the connection between naturalism and the rationality of belief in God? A response to some of Rosenberg’s claims.

On February 1st, philosopher of biology Alex Rosenberg debated William Lane Craig on whether faith in God is reasonable. It was a very interesting debate and brought up some issues that will I think continue to be discussed in the philosophy of religion for some time. Rosenberg’s productive contribution to that discipline however, looks likely to be minimal. His attempts to engage with serious Christian thought in ethics, and New Testament scholarship were of low quality, so I will focus on some issues relating to science, in which we might expect him to do better.

Prof. Rosenberg, it seems, has a deep and unshakable faith in science. I don’t have a problem with this, and in fact I have appreciated some of his work in the philosophy of biology and hope to read more. His faith in metaphysical naturalism however, is misplaced, in particular if his own beliefs about the absurd consequences of naturalism (which place him on the ‘hardline’ end of the spectrum, in my experience) are true.

Yay, science! This image of various famous scientists is from Wikipedia.

(1) Is Craig confused about the link between atheism and the other purported consequences of science?

Rosenberg claims that Craig misrepresents him. Science (S), Rosenberg has previously said, has certain consequences, including X, Y, Z, (e.g. no intentional states, no moral facts, no ‘selves’) and atheism (A). He thinks Craig is deeply muddled in arguing ‘not X, Y, Z’ and concluding ‘not A’ while still accepting Science, S. He is not logically entitled to either conclusion. These are fair points, if Rosenberg has indeed understood Craig’s argument.

In his own rebuttal, Craig re-interprets Rosenberg’s scheme by replacing ‘Science’ with ‘Scientism’ (a.k.a. epistemological naturalism, EN). I have not read Rosenberg’s book, but this seems an unlikely reconstruction to me. Granting that Craig’s distinction between EN and MN holds, I don’t see how EN by itself could entail X,Y,Z. It is more plausible that Rosenberg holds to MN on the basis of his understanding of the implications of science, and draws various conclusions from that more substantive doctrine. Perhaps Rosenberg starts with EN and shifts into MN, I do not know.

Regardless, Craig’s overall strategy can be defended here. As I see it, he disagrees with Rosenberg’s use of the term ‘science’. Where Rosenberg uses ‘Science’, a better term is ‘Metaphysical Naturalism’ (MN). If the logical consequences of MN are false, then MN must also be false. The falsehood of MN still doesn’t though, on my interpretation of Rosenberg’s scheme, entail the falsehood of atheism. Craig is however, I think, offering a kind of contrastive explanation – he argues not that the falsehood of naturalism entails theism, but rather that naturalism is false and that the alternative for which there is evidence is theism. Remember, he has arguments for theism which are independent of his critiques of naturalism by way of its untenable consequences. In doing this, he is implicitly denying the connection between the truth of scientific claims and MN.

To rephrase, Craig seems to think that Rosenberg’s problem with theism is that he holds to EN, but Craig argues that EN should not be a problem as some of Craig’s arguments fit nicely within an EN framework. If this is the case, I think Craig is mistaken, for Rosenberg quite clearly holds to MN and that’s the problem.

Rosenberg seems to think that Craig is unable to show what he needs to merely by denying MN – he needs to attack atheism directly and should leave MN alone as a mere distraction. Craig is right to attack MN however, because if MN is true then theism is false. If MN is false, theism has lost a significant opponent and if the evidence for theism stands, then theism seems to be the most plausible option on the table.

(2) The applicability of maths to the physical universe.

I’ll work more on this later, but Rosenberg seems to construe this as a kind of design argument – something like ‘out of all of the mathematical objects out there, only particular ones (a limited subset) describe our universe, therefore design’. I say this as his response is to point to the vast number of mathematical objects and functions which are possible, and to suggest that we’re simply narrow-minded if we conclude design from the subset which is applicable to the physical universe.

This is not how I’ve thought about this argument before, but I will think more on it.

(3) Science has no use for God in its explanations. Therefore no God.

In his last speech (supposedly a ‘summary’), Rosenberg introduced a new argument. He says that “God makes no contribution to the predictive power of any part of any of the sciences”, and therefore, due to the absence of a role for Him, science provides “a considerable reason to deny the existence of God”.  Also, “If God could do as much for science as the number 2, then physicists would be much more receptive to His existence”.

There is much that could be said in response to this, but for starters, it seems fairly clear that Rosenberg has failed to see that God could have a ‘bigger picture’ role, in creating a context where science is possible – a physical world governed by particular laws of a mathematical nature. Just because God doesn’t feature as an immediate part of a scientific explanation doesn’t mean that God is of no use to science, as scientific explanations are by their nature generally ‘local’ and ‘immediate’ in their extent, while God’s explanatory role is primarily ‘global’ and either ‘prior’ or concerned with teleological ends. Modern science doesn’t deal in global explanations, considerations of the first cause, or teleological notions, so it’s little surprise that God doesn’t show up much.


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