Live and Learn

A recent post by our friend Bill Vallicella exposes the philosophical ineptitude of militant atheists such as, in this case, Richard Dawkins. Here his target is the hidden axiom scientists (and I use the term in the sense of “those who practice scientism”) must rely on in order to deny the possible role of a Creator in the existence and evolution of the world. That axiom is, to paraphrase Bill’s words, “the rule that everything can and must be accounted for naturalistically, i.e., in terms of the space-time system and the laws that govern it.”

As a non-theist myself, I am intuitively disposed to accept that axiom. But I am no longer the pugnacious atheist I used to be, and I understand that this premise is an axiom, not a theorem, and is therefore unprovable, and that its negation — the proposition that there stands outside the space-time system a Creator responsible for the existence and evolution of the space-time system and its laws — is not, at least so far as I am aware, refutable.

This was, as you might imagine, a difficult pill for me to swallow — but this was because, having been marinated in scientism all my life, I had never bothered to engage with any serious philosophical opposition. That changed about ten years ago, when my online life began to bring me into contact with people like Dr. Vallicella, and through him, other theist philosophers, such as Edward Feser.

I am still an unbeliever, and a Darwinist, but the big difference is that I now understand that my framework for understanding the world rests on a doxastic choice, rather than on some bedrock truth that should be apparent as such to anyone of sufficient intelligence. (This unreflective assumption was in my case especially lazy and foolish, as I have all my life known religious men of exceptional intelligence — for example my own grandfather Ralph Calder, who was a Congregationalist minister in Scotland, and two very close family friends, namely the Rev. Robert Montgomery, chaplain of Princeton University, and the eminent scholar of Christian history, Dr. Horton Davies. That I never explored these questions with them during the decades of my youth when I knew them well, and saw them often, now grieves me more than I can say.)

Bill and I have our differences — in particular regarding his belief that consciousness is necessary for intentionality (see here for an old question of mine that he has never answered) — but on this he has persuaded me. I thank him for that. Let it not be said that nobody ever changes another’s mind by argument.


  1. Malcolm,

    I am currently reading Lee Smolin‘s “The Life of the Cosmos“. If you haven’t read it, I think Smolin could possibly persuade you to change your mind about your “change of mind”. Bill Vallicella is a very smart and persuasive guy. Lee Smolin is no slouch in those departments either (He is one of the physicists who has been dubbed the “New Einstein” by the media).

    I think it would be fascinating to have them debate “the possible role of a Creator in the existence and evolution of the world.” But I am not sure I could follow the details of their arguments sufficiently to be persuaded away from Smolin’s views about how the cosmos emerged to be the world we live in.

    Posted March 4, 2016 at 8:09 pm | Permalink
  2. I don’t think it has to be an axiom. I think you could argue for it on epistemological grounds: you could say no other account will provide us with more insight into the phenomena we are trying to explain. I’m not sure how well that can be supported by argument — intentional explanations seem to give some sort of insight, on the one hand, and on the other, Humean considerations lead me to believe that natural causes are at base no less mysterious than mental causes. I suppose you could take it that such an explanation could never be part of a coherent system that takes account of all the phenomena — but then there is the Bible.

    Perhaps you can fall back on another premise: we can never have the kind of certainty in assigning supernatural causes that we have when assigning natural causes. The evidence will always be less conclusive. Perhaps this is just an accident arising from the fact that we are physically connected to the explanandum in the one case, and so can always indicate it, but not in the other.

    I guess science sometimes has to fall back on inference to the best explanation in some cases, but supernatural explanations have nothing else to go on.

    Posted March 4, 2016 at 8:31 pm | Permalink
  3. Hi Alex,

    Glad you are back. I was worried I wouldn’t get a chance to ask you for a response to my question, which ended (abruptly) our most recent conversation on February 26th.

    But you did answer (now) a question I had not asked previously out of respect for your privacy (which has to do with whether “Alex” is short for “Alexander” or “Alexandra”).

    I am glad you have returned.

    Posted March 4, 2016 at 9:39 pm | Permalink
  4. Henry,

    I thought my responses would be increasingly rambling and off topic, so I quit. I have a tendency to disappear and reappear, chalk it up to rudeness or cowardice as you like.

    Posted March 4, 2016 at 10:11 pm | Permalink
  5. By the by, I prefer “Alex” — “Alexander” sounds so stiff. I only use it when I’m legally obliged, though being obliged so often for the sake of paperwork, I suppose I lapsed.

    “The Great” is also acceptable.

    Posted March 4, 2016 at 10:30 pm | Permalink
  6. “The Great” is also acceptable.

    As for me, “The Big” is also acceptable.

    Incidentally, “Leib” means “lion” in Yiddish, and the suffix “-witz” is the German variation on the Slavic suffix “-vich,” “-vic,” “-wits,” “-witz,” or “-wicz” (-wicz being a Polish variation) meaning “son of”. Now, my father’s name was, I swear this to be true, Leo (as in “the lion”). So, I am, technically, TheBigHenry Son of Leo, which is damn near identical to TheGreatAlex Leibowitz!

    Amazing. We are virtually the same person!

    Posted March 4, 2016 at 11:14 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Henry, I read Smolin’s book around the time it came out. (I’ve mentioned it here a few times too; for example, in this post.)

    His idea, for those who haven’t heard of it, is that universes can replicate themselves through back holes. This means that in an infinite “multiverse” in which different settings of the laws and constants of nature are randomly distributed among universes, a kind of cosmic “selection” will favor those universes in which the laws permit the formation of black holes — and as we can see for ourselves, such universes are also hospitable to life.

    It’s a great fleshing-out of the “anthropic principle”, and a very intriguing idea, but as I understand it, it still says nothing with regard to ultimate origins, and the existence or nonexistence of God.

    Posted March 5, 2016 at 12:25 am | Permalink
  8. Henry,

    I’d originally flattered myself to think my name meant “lover of wit”. But I think the truth is more disappointing — probably just refers to some town in Romania somewhere, all people from that town having taken the same name.

    Posted March 5, 2016 at 1:17 am | Permalink
  9. Well, Malcolm, I am not at all surprised that you read it years ago. But since it is fresh in my mind (though I am not completely finished reading it) I will remind you that his discussion of his theory of the black-hole cycling mode of the evolution of universes was discussed by Smolin in the early chapters of his book. He also completely repudiates the anthropic principle.

    The later chapters, especially when he gets into the possibility of extending quantum mechanics (which to me, at least, has always been mind-boggling even in its elementary form) to encompass the entirety of the universe, focuses on the seeming impossibility of having a single-observer view of reality (such as by a deity, who observes the universe from outside of its boundaries).

    Posted March 5, 2016 at 1:25 am | Permalink
  10. “Leib” Name Meaning
    Jewish (Ashkenazic): from the Yiddish personal name Leyb, meaning ‘lion’, traditional Yiddish translation equivalent of the Hebrew name Yehuda (Judah), with reference to the Old Testament description of Judah as ‘a lion’s whelp’ (Genesis 49: 9).

    Suffix “-witz” Meaning
    “-witz” in this case is not the German word for wit/joke, but is a German variation on a Slavic suffix “-vich,” “-vic,” “-wits,” “-witz,” or “-wicz” (-wicz being a Polish variation) meaning “son of,” “child of,” “family of,” “clan of,” etc. Having the suffix “-witz” at the end of a surname usually signifies heritage from the Western-Slavic peoples of Pomerania, or elsewhere in Eastern Germany.

    I rather doubt that your surname has anything to do with some town in Romania since names that refer to a place of origin are usually of the form such as “Berliner” (one whose ancestors came from Berlin). Of course, an immigrant whose name was Berliner would Americanize his name to Berlin, or, in the extreme, Brown or even Smith.

    I am surprised that the Eisenhower family didn’t Americanize their name to Smith (since that is what Eisenhower means in German).

    But I digress …

    Posted March 5, 2016 at 2:12 am | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says


    As I recall it, (it’s been fifteen years or so since I read the book), Smolin said the anthropic principle wasn’t really falsifiable, so was scientifically unsatisfactory, and that his fecund-universe idea actually could be tested, by seeing if varying natural constants diminished the likelihood of black-hole formation. But it’s nevertheless true that we’d find ourselves only in universes where the laws of nature are conducive to life; in my recollection it seemed that he had argued that such universes could now be understood to be far more likely.

    In retrospect I can see how that would make the anthropic principle less relevant (though still, not entirely so). I suppose “fleshing-out” wasn’t really a good choice of words.

    As for the argument against a “single-observer view”, I don’t remember that at all. (It sounds, though, as if it attempts to bind an observing Creator to the laws of the spacetime system.)

    I should re-read the book.

    Posted March 5, 2016 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  12. Malcolm,

    I knew going in that this almost 20-year-old book was among Smolin’s earlier works. But having read some of his later efforts, I chose to read it because I believed there would be gems of insight that would make it worth reading. I haven’t been disappointed.

    Posted March 5, 2016 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

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