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Last updated Aug 26, 2021.

1. David S. says:

Hey. I'm a Christian and I'm very interested in apologetics. When I saw the Craig-Carroll debate, I was very concerned because Alan Guth, one of the authors of the BGV theorem, said that the universe is "very likely eternal". This would be a serious problem for the second premise of the kalam cosmological argument. It caught me off guard since Alexander Vilenkin, another author of the BGV theorem, said that Craig properly represented the implications of the theorem (that the universe had a beginning) http://www.reasonablefaith.org/honesty-transparency-full-disclosure-and-bgv-theorem. Is the BGV theorem a reliable way of showing the universe had a beginning? Please help

2. Aron Wall says:

David S,
Are you putting your trust in theorems about Nature, or the one who made Nature? If the latter, I don't see why you should be "very concerned" if the BGV theorem turns out to say less than you hoped. Of course, when we construct arguments for the Christian faith it is easy to become emotionally invested in the premises we are drawing upon, but remember that most of the saints through history found a way to believe in Christ without the aid of the BGV theorem! Apparently there are other ways of coming to know God.

The BGV theorem very roughly tells us that inflation can't have gone on forever to the past, but it does not automatically imply that there was an absolute Beginning, as I discuss here. This was part of a longer series about the question of whether there was a beginning, according to the our current scientific knowledge.

The fact that Vilenkin and Guth have different views from each other is a normal difference in scientific opinion, coming from the fact that our best current theories of Nature break down in the very early universe. Personally I think Vilenkin's view is better supported by the evidence, but I can't say it's been scientifically proven.

3. Duc Phan says:

Hey Aron,

I tried finding your email to send a personal gratitude for the work that you have done on this blog but I wasn't able to. So I'm just going to comment it here.

Your blog is a blessing to me. I feel that your honesty and transparency on scientific as well as theological issues really give a clear and concise explanation. And it is also a blessing to see that there are Christian who pursue the sciences and invest time to put it in layman terms for us to understand.

Because of your blog, I now have one more venue where my faith can be strengthen. I can be assured that faith does not depends solely on personal, subjective encounter with God (and I'm not denying that this isn't an important aspect, I think it is a crucial aspect), but that there are evident that affirm these subjective experiences.

And your blog really opens my eyes to what ministry really is. You are one of the few people that really make an impact for Christ even though you are not in a professional ministry position. That's really encouraging because your life really shows that whatever profession you find yourself in, God can use you greatly if you would allow Him to.

Anyways, I just want to say a big thank you. Your work is greatly value (more so than I'll ever know in this life time). Much appreciation and gratitude from me and from deep down, God bless you!

4. Aron Wall says:

Thanks for the kind words, Duc. While I have no objection to being praised in public (vain fellow that I am) if you ever need to send me a private email the address is on my webpage, which can be found by clicking on the "webpage" tab at the bar on the top.

5. i7sharp says:

Dear Aron,

I hope and pray you are doing fine.

I will try to keep my comments short (perhaps more will come later, for what they are worth).

In 2 Chronicles 4:5 of the KJV (King James Version), one will see "received and held three thousand baths."

Can you comment on it - such as if you find anything significant in it?

Thank you.

i7sharp

6. Chris says:

Hello Dr. Wall,
Thanks,
Chris

7. Aron Wall says:

Chris,
I think most of what I have to say about this subject can be found in these two posts.

I don't think that Aspect's experiments on entangled particles imply simultaneous causation at all! At least, the result you get is the same regardless of which order you measure the two particles in. So it seems arbitrary to say that one is the cause and the other is the effect. It is true that the Bell Inequality tells us that the two measurements are correlated in ways that no classical pair of systems could be, absent causation. But that just means that classical mechanics is wrong, and you need quantum mechanics to describe the way in which the two particles are related.

Hey there, this is Adam sanders. My mom (Donna Bayles now Sanders) and your dad are first cousins. You guys came to our house near mount Shasta a couple of times, and we saw each other at a couple of family reunions. I saw you like con law, which is great. I am in my last year of law school and plan to go into con law practice. Just surfing Internet and saw your pic. The last time I saw you you had just started your beard! Congrats on marrying Helen of Troy! God bless you cuz.

9. Aron Wall says:

Nice to hear from you again! Yes, I remember who you are...

Actually I don't have the beard anymore, so I should really update the picture on my website, even though it's a pretty good picture otherwise...

Cool thing about Constitutional Law. I hope you find it stimulating! If you want to know some of my own views, you can find them here.

10. Billy says:

Hello professor wall,
I have a question for you. I recently read your paper about the "GSL"pointing to a beginning of the universe. My question is since you said that the theorem would only work if the universe was infinite in size. But what would happen to the GSL if the universe was finite in size? Thank you Billy

11. Aron Wall says:

Billy,

The GSL states that the area of any causal horizon, plus the entropy of matter outside, increases with time. A causal horizon is defined as the boundary of what some worldline can see, and you can think of it as being made of imaginary rays travelling at the speed of light.

If the universe is finite in size, all this would still be true.

However, in a finite sized universe, it is possible that, if we look backwards in time, the lightlike rays that make up the horizon might travel all the way around the universe and intersect themselves on the other side. If this happens, then there exists a moment of time t* before which the causal horizon no longer exists (in other words, an observer at late enough times can "see" the entire universe before time t*, using signals that go at lightspeed or slower. If this happens, then the GSL doesn't tell us anything about what happens before time t*. And therefore, you cannot use it to prove the existence of an initial singularity.
(If you want to imagine a finite sized universe, it may be helpful to think about e.g. the spherical surface of the Earth, and pretend that the radial (up-down) dimension doesn't really exist. Only the 2 dimensions on the surface exist, and if you go far enough in these directions, you get back to where you started. However, the circumference of the sphere can get bigger or smaller with time, if the universe expands or contracts. Of course, the universe has 3 dimensions of space, not 2, so you'd really have to imagine a hypersphere BUT for everything I am telling you, visualizing a sphere is good enough!)

One famous example of a finite sized universe in which there is no first moment of time is called "de Sitter spacetime". This looks like a sphere which contracts in size down to a minimum size, and then starts expanding forever. This example is consistent with my theorem, as well as with the classical Penrose singularity theorem, which my work is based on.

12. Billy says:

Hello professor, thank you for your response I have another question about quantum physics. If you have time. I heard victor stenger make an objection against the causal principle. His objection is that in physics there are certain things that don't have a cause. His examples are When an atom in an excited energy level drops to a lower level and emits a photon, a particle of light, we find no cause of that event.
Similarly, no cause is evident in the decay of a radioactive nucleus. Is this true that these things are uncaused? And refute causality? Also I heard a claim that bells theorem refutes causality. Here is the link to the bells Theorem objection. If you have time. Thanks you for your time Billy http://blog.rongarret.info/2017/03/causality-and-quantum-mechanics.html?m=1 http://blog.rongarret.info/2017/03/causality-and-quantum-mechanics_20.html?m=1

13. Aron Wall says:

Dear Billy,

My take on this issue is in the 2nd post of my series on Fundamental Reality. Note that in the link you give, Bell's theorem is important only to establish that QM really is probabilistic. Since I agree that QM is probabilistic and still think things ought to have (probabilistic) explanations anyway, that isn't relevant to my viewpoint.

I also discussed cosmological arguments here and here and here.

If you have any further questions, please leave them on a post whose topic is relevant to your question. Thanks!

14. Billy says:

Thank you very much for your responses. You are very intelligent

15. James says:

Hi Aron! I love the blog. Yours is a very rare mind.

I wondered if you could give me some direction. There seems to be a lot more talk these days about how the block universe does away with any kind of Aristotelian causation, presentism, and all theological arguments that rely on metaphysics of that kind. A particularly loud proponent of this line of argumentation runs http://www.atheismandthecity.com.

I'm not even close to being a physicist and have to confess that I'm completely out of my league in answering claims like this. What would you say in response to something like this? Do you have any articles on the subject, or further reading you would recommend.

16. Aron Wall says:

Thanks James!

I have written a number of blog posts on this issue, maybe you can start with Models and Metaphysics and the next two dozen or so posts in chronological order after that one. (In the bar just above the title to any given post, you can access the posts immediately before and after it chronologically.)

17. Jim says:

Hi Aron, thank you for your excellent blog.

Are you a classical theist, as defined as someone who thinks God has the attributes of timelessness, immutability, impassibility, and simplicity? If not, how would you define yourself ?

Side note, I want to call your attention to another physicist/theist: Nigel Cundy, who blogs at http://www.quantum-thomist.co.uk/index.html. As you can tell from the link, he is a Thomist, and I take it you are not. But he would be an interesting person to have a discussion with.

Best,
Jim

18. Aron Wall says:

Jim,
Yes, I am a classical theist. See this series.

As for whether or not I am a Thomist, I am confused by your attempt to cast this as a boolean question. If a Thomist is somebody who agrees with everything St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, then I am not a Thomist. If a Thomist means somebody whose theological ideas have been significantly influenced by reading St. Thomas Aquinas, then I am a Thomist. In fact just yesterday I was summarizing Aquinas' theory of essence versus existence to one of my physics PhD students...

19. Jim says:

You're right that it's not really a yes or no question and there is no precise definition of Thomism, although one could maybe say that a Thomist is someone who holds most of the 24 thomistic theses.

Anyway thanks for the response, and I'll be sure to check out that series.

20. Diana Clara says:

Hello, Aron!

I want to thank you in the first place for your blog. I'm a devoted Christian and this place has been the best place to go to in my spare time.

However, I'm finding myself in a hard time concerning my faith. The following article sums up all my fears and doubts and I would really like to know your thoughts on it: https://ffrf.org/outreach/awards/emperor-has-no-clothes-award/item/20327-steven-pinker

Thank you again!

Best wishes,

Diana Clara

21. JamesH says:

I skim -read the article, but would like to make a few points. I don’t think there is anything much in it which should trouble the believer. Firstly, *if* there is such a thing as a “God gene” that doesn’t tell against the existence of God, since His is existence is consistent with their being such a gene. Otherwise put, the probability of there being such a gene given that there is no God arguably does not differ greatly from the probability of there being such a gene given that God exists. Evidentially then, it is unimportant.

Secondly, Pinker states “As a scientist, I like to interpret claims as testable hypotheses, and this certainly is one. It predicts, for example, that miracles should be observable.” This is pseudoscientific nonsense. Since God is said to be omnipotent, He could certainly thwart the best scientific efforts of atheists like Pinker. Hence, Pinker cannot specify any experiment which could reliably detect such a deity: an omnipotent deity (since it is omnipotent) could always undermine the efforts of the scientist. And there is some reason to suppose that He would do so since it is stated that “thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test.” Note that this rebuttal no way presupposes that God exists- it flows straight out of the very definition of God as being omnipotent.

Third, Pinker states “So the bible, contrary to what a majority of Americans apparently believe, is far from a source of higher moral values. Religions have given us stonings, witch-burnings, crusades, inquisitions, jihads, fatwas, suicide bombers, gay-bashers, abortion-clinic gunmen, and mothers who drown their sons so they can happily be united in heaven.”
Pinker is being disingenuous here. First of all, he makes the mistake of confusing what is done in the name of religion with religion itself. The crusades, for example, were undertaken partly for economic reasons- rulers sought to justify their actions on religious grounds. Second, someone who is bombing clinics or suchlike is plainly not following the tenets of Christianity although they may think they are doing so- this (and the example of a parent drowning their children - something which is explicitly contrary to Christian doctrine) seem to be related to mental illness rather than religion. Finally, it could be argued that Pinker, as an atheist, has no basis for declaring that these things are morally wrong in the first place- that’s to say on atheism moral values are subjective and provisional.

22. Diana Clara says:

Dear JamesH,

Thank you for your response, it really helped me.

What really troubles me is the following question: could religion be just a by-product of many parts of the mind that evolved for other purposes?

23. Mr. C says:

Dear Diana,

Religion may or may not be a by-product of parts of the mind that evolved for other purposes. In fact, it doesn't matter. The existence or non-existence of God is independent from God genes, evolution tricks, and the rest of possible naturalistic explanations why people do practice religion.

Pinker that you refer to loves to attack religion on the basis of morality. Which, again, doesn't matter much since it doesn't tell us anything about God's existence. I'd call his arguments psychological, as they are based on emotions and common (mis)conceptions, rather than rational reasoning. Were people burnt on fire or not, did people construct churches or not, fought people or not in bloody crusades, - all of it doesn't matter in the light of the question of God's existence.

Type of reasoning that provides naturalistic explanation why people worship God and eliminates thus His existence basically annihilates science on the very same basis and, thus, itself.

24. Diana Clara says:

Dear Mr. C,

Thank you so much for your response, I highly appreciate it.

I agree with you on every level, except for one thing. You said: "Religion may or may not be a by-product of parts of the mind that evolved for other purposes. In fact, it doesn't matter. The existence or non-existence of God is independent from God genes..." As I understand it, if religion is just a by-product of parts of the mind that evolved for other purposes, that automatically excludes the existence of God, religion being in this case just an "accident". Now, doesn't that mean that the two (religion as by-product and the existence of God) can not coexist?

Again, thank you for your response!

Hi Diana

Is our sense of God a byproduct of brain mechanisms that evolved for other purposes? Consider another question: Is our understanding of quantum physics a byproduct of brain mechanisms that evolved for other purposes? Presumably, the brain did not evolve specifically to understand quantum physics, so it must be a byproduct. Does that mean that quantum physics is an illusion? No, it doesn't. It may be an accident that we have ended up with the capacity to understand quantum physics but the understanding is real nevertheless.

So in principle evolution may produce creatures who are capable of sensing God even though that could not have been the "purpose" of evolution. However, we don't have to think of this as an "accident". We may reasonably assume that God had set up the whole process so that evolution would eventually produce creatures who would know Him.

26. JamesH says:

“As I understand it, if religion is just a by-product of parts of the mind that evolved for other purposes, that automatically excludes the existence of God, religion being in this case just an "accident". Now, doesn't that mean that the two (religion as by-product and the existence of God) can not coexist?”

The by-product theory (or conjecture) of religion. isn’t even accepted across the board by evolutionary biologists. Gould, to take one example, provides examples of evolutionary non-adaptive change, but provides no methodology for determining whether a trait is a by-product. He just asserts that a by-product is a trait that fails to fit any adaptationist explanation. In other words, the proponents of religion as by-product have failed to overcome objections from adaptionists.

More importantly-and to address your last point more directly-the by-product conjecture is merely assumed by proponents to lead to naturalism. However, the available evidence is consistent with a theological framework-a deity could in principle operate through the mechanism proposed by the advocates of religion as by-product. In other words, Pr(RABP|G) does not differ greatly from Pr(RABP|~G)
RABP=religion as by-product.

Furthermore, the conjecture, as it is often presented-in fact as you present it above-involves circular argument: it assumes naturalism is true , then argues that as God and religion as evolutionary by-product are incompatible, naturalism is true.

27. Mr. C says:

Dear Diana,

I believe your argument is entirely psychological, i.e. it appeals to emotions, interpretation, and connotation of words used. Pay attention to how you say it: “ if religion is just a by-product of parts of the mind that evolved for other purposes, that automatically excludes the existence of God, religion being in this case just an "accident".” Remove your “just”s, and notice that your argument loses its persuasiveness. Without “just”, by-product does not mean something meaningless, and “an accident” does not exclude truth.

All such arguments, as far as I considered, use this magical word “just”, or its equivalents like “simply” and the others, that serves to cancel the meaning. Omit the word, - and the argument sounds compelling no more.

In a word, I tend to agree that if you dismiss knowledge by a mere fact that it was developed through revolution, then you should dismiss science too. Which you don’t do, - deductive arguments are true no matter how you were developed, and inductive arguments rely on repeated experiments. In either case, I see no problem with evolution.

I think you may do something like this. Imagine two worlds like ours: one that was developed through Big Bang and evolution, and one that was miraculously set one instant ago (a form of Omphalos hypothesis). See that no experiment or thought can distinguish these two worlds. Yet the first one is claimed by Pinker and the rest to be meaningless, while the second one is obviously meaningful. Of course, it makes no sense. Thus, you cannot judge on meaning from the mere fact there is or there is no evolution and Big Bang.

28. Aron Wall says:

There are some really good comments here in response to Diana's question. Thanks everyone!

I would add that there only seems to be a single paragraph of this essay that has actual arguments against religion (as opposed to speculative discussion of how religion might have originated even if it is not true), namely this paragraph:

There is one way in which religious belief could be an adaptation. Many of our faculties are adaptations to enduring properties of the real world. We have depth perception, because the world really is three-dimensional. We apparently have an innate fear of snakes, because the world has snakes and they are venomous. Perhaps there really is a personal, attentive, invisible, miracle-producing, reward-giving, retributive deity, and we have a God module in order to commune with him. As a scientist, I like to interpret claims as testable hypotheses, and this certainly is one. It predicts, for example, that miracles should be observable, that success in life should be proportional to virtue, and that suffering should be proportional to sin. I don't know anyone who has done the necessary studies, but I would say there is good reason to believe that these hypotheses have not been confirmed. There's a Yiddish expression: "If God lived on earth, people would break his windows."

It's pretty amazing to me how superficial this is, coming from as smart of a person like Pinker. Apparently the only possible God he can imagine is one that imposes rewards and punishment strictly proportional to our merits. Never mind that this would preclude any concepts of mercy, intercession, atonement, or God loving his own enemies. And he presumes that God must care about "success in life" as much as we do. Nor does he indicate why he thinks miracles have never occurred (apparently this doesn't even require a study). It's like he imagines for 10 seconds how he would design a world if he were a six years old, and he doesn't think past that point.

Anyway God did live on Earth, and people did break his windows (so to speak).

29. Aron,

I agree that most of the linked essay is not even trying to refute religion, but rather is trying to explain assuming naturalism how people come to believe in religion. That said, I think you are misinterpreting the passage you quote. Steven Pinker is not saying that this is the only way that religion could be true. Rather, he is saying that something like this is the only way that religious belief could be an evolutionary adaption, or at least the only way worth responding to. The point is that if God rewarded virtue and punished sin in our earthly lives, then evolution would over time give the human population genes to recognize the will of God. For this to work these virtues and sins may include mental attributes like atonement and pride rather than just virtuous and sinful actions, and God's intervention need not be perfectly correlated to a person's virtue/sin but may include some mercy or challenges. Pinker is not saying that the only imaginable God is one that rewards and punishes us in our earthly life, but that if God is of another sort, as the evidence seems to rule out the former kind of God, then our inclination to believe in God is not a direct truth-tracking evolutionary adaption, but must be explained in some other way.

30. Aron Wall says:

Itai,
I went back and re-read the paragraph, and I still don't agree with your interpretation of it. I think it takes a pretty hefty dose of hermeneutic charity, to turn what Pinker wrote, into what you said. (For example, Pinker didn't write anything about tempering justice with mercy, or providing challenges to faith.)

[As other commenters above have correctly pointed out, an evolutionarily evolved ability to detect X can still be "truth-tracking" for indirect reasons, even in the absence of a specific selection pressure related to X, but in this comment I wanted to take the idea of a direct effect seriously and see what is actually implied.]

It is of course correct that, if the cause of human religiosity is directly the result an evolutionary selection gradient due to some set of divine interventions, then these interventions need to be of a specific sort. In particular, they need to have contributed to either the survival, or the reproduction, of some individuals with a genetic propensity towards piety. (They would not necessarily need to involve any overt miracles, although several miracles with these kinds of effects are recorded in the Bible.)

So I agree that this scenario requires a God who takes an active providential role in history, more like the God of the Bible than like the hands-off God of Deism. But this doesn't come anywhere close to requiring that "success in life should be proportional to virtue, and that suffering should be proportional to sin". It suffices if God sometimes rewards the pious, and sometimes punishes the wicked. So long as this happens often enough to create a nonzero selection gradient, and over enough generations, it would have the required effect.

To give an analogy, Pinker starts out by saying that "We apparently have an innate fear of snakes, because the world has snakes and they are venomous." But in reality, even in the savanna, fear of snakes has a relatively weak correlation with survival. Most people die of other causes, and even those with a severe phobia of snakes can still sometimes get killed by them. So the selection gradient for snakes is actually quite weak, and it's probably only because this hazard has been in existence for such a long time (even before our primate ancestors evolved into homo sapiens) that an innate fear developed. In the same way it would probably only require a fairly small amount of recurring divine intervention for "God-fearing" traits to develop in a population.

So I don't think the 2nd half of Pinker's paragraph makes much sense, unless we assume that he is considering only the most extreme strawman version of "God rewards the righteous with earthly blessings and punishes the wicked". The fact that he thinks this hypothesis is not only false but obviously false, shows I think that he's accidentally slipped away from the question of how much divine intervention is needed to produce religiosity, into making a philosophical Argument from Evil, which is quite different. The comment about "breaking windows" is quite telling; since it relates more to questions of perceived justice/fairness than to evolutionary psychology. There is just such a huge gap between what God would need to do to spread hereditary religious traits throughout a population, and what he would need to do to avoid anyone feeling like they were treated unfairly!

(It is not even clear that the religous would need to have, in the worldly sense, happier lives than the nonreligious, in order for them to have more descendants on average. Although of course knowing and loving God does come with its own intrinsic rewards.)

I doubt that Pinker would have treated any other possible evolutionary influence in such an unsophisticated manner, by assuming that it must either be 100% determinative or 0% determinative, with no room for nuance in between.

Incidentally, what actually matters here is how often God intervened in prehistoric and ancient times, since anything happening at the individual level in modern times would be too recent to have significant demographic consequences. Indeed, in the Old Testament, heredity selection seems to be a major aspect of God's project. It is actually quite interesting to read the Torah from this point of view: e.g. when God selected Jacob over Esau or tested the Israelites in the wilderness, this can be read as trying to produce a "chosen people" having a certain set of traits.

And yes, in those early days, it was hard for people to relate to God in a more sophisticated way than "reward and punishment". But as religion and human culture mature, and as the evolution of ideas becomes more and more "memetic" and cross-cultural, eventually things get to a point where God can spread his message through primarily memetic means. Thus enabling religious ideas to be propagated even by martyrs and celibates, who are hardly paragons of Darwinian adaptiveness. (But none of this would have been possible without the pre-existing foundation of widespread religious impulses, which on any possible view must have been produced in pre-historic times, since humanity was already religious before writing was invented.)

Note also that, to the extent that religiosity is inherited (and thus, genetically encoded), it is actually outside of our own control. Thus, God favoring those with a hereditary disposition towards religiosity is really only marginally connected with ordinary human concepts of fairness anyway. Perhaps this provides a somewhat more humane perspective on the religious concept of "predestination":

Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:10-13).

Esau was "hated" (i.e. rejected) because he had the wrong set of traits for becoming Israel, something which was indeed exhibited by his careless actions, but was ultimately---at least in part---attributable to a personality profile which was already latent even before his birth. (Given Esau's distinctive physical appearence (Gen 25:25), it is clear that the twins were fraternal, rather than identical.)

Ultimately, it was better, for the sake of humanity as a whole, that God selected Jacob (conniving, anxious, spiritual) over Esau (crass, happy-go-lucky, worldly) to be the ancestor of the Jews and of Christ, since Esau just wouldn't do. But God needn't be thinking about merit when he makes these decisions. (Also, I don't consider this passage to imply anything about Esau's fate in the afterlife. It's about him not being chosen.)

In this case, Esau was neither killed nor made infertile; he was merely passed by as unworthy for a greater purpose. From an evolutionary point of view, Esau was also fairly successful: in fact he become the ancestor of Edomites, and later the Herodian dynasty which ruled over Judea during the time period of the Gospels and Acts.

Anyways, it is difficult for me to take seriously any abstract objection to "religion" which is invalid if one assumes that God behaves the way he often does in the Bible. Since the evolutionary, selecting God of the Bible is the one I believe in.