February 21, 2011

Naturalistic Appeal to Ignorance

Dr. Craig,

To say that I appreciate your work would be an understatement. I'll spare you a paragraph or two elaborating on that subject but I do want to take the opportunity to express my sincere gratitude both to you and all the people who work behind the scenes in order to make your work available to people such as myself. May God truly bless your work and allow it to have an impact for Christ all over the world. For my part, I'm getting ready to teach a class using "On Guard" in a town called Hovd in western Mongolia. A place, I'm sure, you never would have imagined your books working their way to.

At any rate, due to the miracles of modern technology also working their way to our corner of the world, I just finished watching your debate with Christopher Hitchens and the City of Ideas debate and I think that it is fairly clear that these popular type "new atheists" are unable to, or unwilling to, interact in any kind of detail with your arguments. However, the kind of umbrella argument they do give to superficially cover your points seems to run along the lines of the following:

We are only beginning to understand the universe and all that is contained in it. Our current knowledge is very limited right now; we are only beginning to discover the questions let alone the answers. However, this is the job of science and someday, as science progresses, all of these unanswered questions will in fact be answered. In other words, yes, there are mysteries in the universe which may give the appearance of a transcendent being, but, as experience has shown us already with other things that were thought to be of divine origin, these mysteries will eventually be solved and there will be no place for any kind of a "God hypothesis". In short, God is not necessary and science will eventually explain everything in a naturalistic way given enough time.

I don't doubt that you did respond to this line of thinking which they throw out there, seemingly, to avoid having to interact with your premises in any kind of detail but I don't remember hearing a definitive response on your part--maybe I missed it. Would you mind responding to the above "argument" now?

Thank you once again,



Craig, your letter made my day! I was just reading the brand-new edition of Operation World and was struck by the following sentence:

Patrick Johnstone, when queried in 1979 about the most difficult places for gospel breakthrough, named Mongolia and Albania. Today, there are at least 40,000 Mongolian believers. Albania is open and churches are growing (p. 4).

I praise God and thank you for your pioneering work! Folks, if you don’t know where western Mongolia is, take a look at a globe or world map. It may not be the end of the world, but you can see it from there!

As for your question, I, too, hear the naturalistic appeal to ignorance all the time. I think the fallacy of this reasoning is that it assumes that I’m appealing to a sort of “God of the gaps” to plug up the gaps in our scientific knowledge of the world. But I’m not. In fact, I’m not even offering scientific evidence for God. Rather here is how I put it:

Scientific evidence can support a premiss in an argument leading to a conclusion having theological significance.

Reflect for a moment on that statement. The scientific evidence I offer is for premisses which are religiously neutral statements that can be found in any science textbook. Take, for example, the kalam cosmological argument. My claim is that we have good scientific evidence in support of the premiss

2. The universe began to exist.

There’s nothing about this statement that would make it incapable of being supported by the scientific evidence. Whether the universe began to exist is precisely one of those questions which science seeks to answer. Are we to think that science is incapable of returning an affirmative answer to this question? Why? That would be to impose some sort of philosophical constraint on what answers science is capable of giving to this question.

Similarly, the second premiss of the teleological argument from fine-tuning is a religiously neutral statement to which scientific evidence can in principle give an answer:

2. The fine-tuning is not due to physical necessity or chance.

Richard Dawkins, following Sir Martin Rees, rejects the hypothesis of physical necessity as a scientifically plausible explanation of the fine-tuning, and Roger Penrose similarly rejects chance as a reasonable explanation. Neither of these non-theists appeals to theological grounds for rejecting these options; their reasons are strictly scientific. So are we to say that they cannot be correct, that science cannot return a negative verdict on these hypotheses? Why? These are strictly scientific statements which must be open to support by the empirical evidence.

Now, of course, the naturalist may claim that the scientific evidence doesn’t in fact support either of these two premisses. But then you’ve got him right where you want him: namely, a discussion of how good the evidence for these two statements is! That’s just what we want to discuss.

Now it should go without saying that scientific evidence is by the very nature of the case always provisional and open to revision. But that’s no special liability of the scientific statements which constitute these two premisses. The question will always be, what does our best evidence indicate is true? For example, is the evidence of contemporary cosmology more probable given the beginning of the universe or more probable given that the universe is beginningless?

Notice, too, that it would be hypocritical to demand evidence for these two premisses which is in excess of that which is assumed to constitute adequate support for the acceptance of other scientific hypotheses. If one is rational to accept the neo-Darwinian theory of biological evolution by random mutation and natural selection, for example, then why is it not equally rational to accept that the universe began to exist?

Note, finally, that some of the theistic arguments are philosophical, for example, the moral argument and the ontological argument, or have premisses that are supportable not just scientifically but philosophically, and are therefore immune to the objection based on scientific ignorance.