Theology: Less Speculative than Quantum Gravity

A reader, Martin B, asked me a question in response to my review of Krauss' talk on “A Universe from Nothing”.  I had written:

"Atheists such as Krauss scorn theology as being completely non-empirical. They claim it is not based on evidence of any sort. I find it extremely ironic when this sort of atheist thinks that speculative quantum gravity ideas are just the right thing to further bolster their atheism. Suppose you think that Science is better than Religion because it is based on evidence, and suppose you also want to refute Religion by using Science. Here's a little hint: consistency would suggest using a branch of Science that actually has some experimental data!”

Martin asks:

But isn't there empirical data that suggests "speculative quantum gravity” is real? It's not taken out of the blue, is it?

Anyway, the problem I have with religion/faith is that it's so arbitrary. Depending on who you ask there are all kinds of idea of what's "true” when it comes to theology. May I ask what it is that makes you think Christianity stands out and is more believable than other religions and faiths on this planet?

I.

It is common for atheists to assert that religion is based entirely on speculation, and that therefore there is "no evidence" for it.  Now I don't agree that religion is based primarily on speculation, but I also don't agree that speculation counts as "no evidence".  Let me explain.

Speculation, in the particular sense we are considering, is defined by various dictionaries as follows:

  • "the forming of a theory or conjecture without firm evidence" (Google)
  • "ideas or guesses about something that is not known" (Miriam-Webster)
  • "reasoning based on inconclusive evidence; conjecture or supposition" (American Heritage)

In other words, speculation is essentially what you do when you don't know something for sure, so you sit around without guidance and try to figure out what makes the most sense.

Now sometimes when we sit around and think about things, we find a really good reason to think that something is in fact the case.  For example, we might find a rigorous mathematical argument.  In that case, we would talk about having a "proof" instead of mere speculation.

More controversially, many philosophers have also believed themselves to have deduced certain propositions by thinking about them carefully.  The track record for this is not very good, since philosophers can't agree on which things are in fact provable in this way, and some of them have claimed to prove things which later turned out to be false (e.g. Kant thought that Euclidean geometry and Newtonian mechanics were necessary truths!).  However, it is plausible that at least some philosophical arguments are strong enough to be considered "proofs".  (Even if you are a skeptic about the ability to deduce most truths about the world by philosophical reflection, you probably came to that conclusion by thinking about it philosophically, so there's no escape.)  Also, Logic and Probability Theory are sometimes considered branches of Philosophy, and these seem to be on fairly solid footing for most purposes (at least if we ignore the puzzles raised by quantum mechanics).

Be that as it may, normally our experience is that, at least about most subjects, "armchair reasoning" is not very likely to lead people to the truth, unless it is supplemented by some source of data which is based on empirical evidence.  Two particular fields of study which do involve large quantities of empirical data, are History and Science.  The former is based on testimonies, documents, and artifacts left behind by those who lived in the past, while the latter is based on repeatable observations carefully scrutinized by the scientific method.

I would judge that normally the strength of evidence we obtain from the fields I've mentioned is as follows:

\text{Math & Logic > Science > History > Most Philosophy}

However, this is just a general expectation based on averages; specific cases might turn out differently.  As I said before, some philosophical arguments are very strong (e.g. if you don't believe the philosophical arguments that we can learn things about the external world based on observation, you can't have any grounds for believing in Science either.)  Math proofs are supposed to be completely certain, but if they are thousands of lines long it is easy for errors to sneak in.

And, in cases where historians or scientists don't have enough strong enough evidence to prove the truth about something they care about, they too will resort to weaker evidence, including (educated) speculation.  Just because an argument is made by people who work in a History or Science Department, doesn't necessarily make it non-speculative.  You have to look at what (if any) actually supports the statement!

Now, it is clear that educated speculation is right more often than chance would predict.  It has often happened that scientists have brilliantly guessed in advance correct theories of Nature, based on partial or incomplete evidence.  This is the sort of thing theorists get Nobel prizes for.  (If they were guessing based on chance, you'd expect they'd never get it right, since the space of logically possible ideas is huge.)  On the other hand, it also often happens that the brilliant conjectures turn out to be completely false.  So reasonable forms of speculation do involve a kind of evidence.  It's just not a very strong kind of evidence.  How strong it is, depends on just how many leaps of conjecture one takes, beyond what is already known.

Therefore, we should not conflate "speculative" with "no evidence".

II.

So when you say:

But isn't there empirical data that suggests "speculative quantum gravity” is real? It's not taken out of the blue, is it?

I entirely agree with you.  Quantum gravity isn't an idea which just comes out of the blue with no evidence whatsoever.  If I thought that were true, I wouldn't work on it professionally!

We know that Quantum Mechanics is a good description of the world of atoms and other small stuff.  We know that General Relativity is a good description of situations in which gravitational fields and/or the speed of light are important.  It stands to reason that there must be some mathematical model which embraces both sets of ideas into one, mathematically consistent description.  Since the physical world exists, there must be some description of it in situations where both quantum and gravitational effects are important.  (I suppose conceivably the description might not involve math and equations, but if not that would be a total surprise in light of previous experience with new models of physics.  Normally math is the best language for describing Nature in a precise way.)

So the mere fact that there is such a thing as quantum gravity is not particularly speculative.  But most of our specific ideas about quantum gravity are highly speculative.  Some reasons for this:

  • Dimensional analysis suggests that in order to see actual effects from quantum gravity, we'd have to look at distance scales equal to the planck length, which is about 10^{-35} meters (details here if you want the math.).  For comparison the Bohr radius (the approximate size of atoms) is about 5 \times 10^{-11}, and the smallest distance scale we've ever been able to probe with the Large Hadron Collider is about (\hbar c) / (14\,TeV) = 8.8 \times 10^{-20}\,\text{m}.  So quantum gravity is smaller compared to the tiniest thing we can measure, then atoms are to us!  So in the absence of some really clever and dramatic experiment, it will be a really long time (if ever), before we have any direct experimental evidence of quantum gravity effects.
    .
  • One could also try to look at what happened in the very, very early universe, but once again this puts quantum gravity earlier than anything we have good evidence for, with the possible exception of inflation (there is decent evidence for inflation, although it is not confirmed for sure; also we don't know whether it happened at the same time scale as quantum gravity or not.)
    .
  • The attempt to combine quantum mechanics with gravity leads to severe conceptual difficulties, making it difficult to say what we even mean by a quantum spacetime.  In addition there are seeming paradoxes which nobody knows how to resolve.
    .
  • Our current best candidate for a theory of quantum gravity, string theory, is understood well only when the strings are weakly interacting (or when it is dual to certain other theories which don't involve gravity.)  In truly quantum gravitational situations, even if we assume string theory is right, we're still in the dark about how to formulate it precisely, let alone calculating what it says.  Also string theory, although it has certain very beautiful aspects, is a very complicated construction which includes many elements (supersymmetry, extra dimensions, GUTs, etc.) that have not been confirmed experimentally as separate ideas, let alone as a combined package.
    .
  • The next most popular candidate, loop quantum gravity, space at the Planck scale is described by a network labelled by numbers, but there is no agreement on how to describe time evolution, nor is is clear whether a continuous-seeming spacetime emerges as we zoom out to larger distance scales.

So the situation is desperate, but for that reason also exciting!

Now the particular idea which Krauss was using, the Hartle-Hawking "no boundary wavefunction of the universe", has in some ways even less evidential support than string theory itself (it certainly doesn't seem to logically follow from string theory, though it might or might not be combined with it).  It's just a particularly beautiful proposal for the state of the universe.  The best that can be said for it is that it is specific, simple, and elegantly relates the laws of physics to the initial conditions.  The worst that can be said about it, is that it may be mathematically ill-defined, and probably contradicts observational data (such as the fact that the universe contains any stuff at all).

So I think I was justified in saying that:

The crucial physics here is totally speculative!  It was entirely based on speculative ideas about quantum gravity which anyone working in the field would admit are not proven.

But when I say totally speculative, I don't mean there's no support at all!  I just mean really really weak evidence.  I'm not trying to bash Hartle or Hawking here, who I'm sure would agree with my assessment.  Quantum gravity is hard!  We're doing the best we can.

(Commenter St. Scott Church said something similar here.)

But I think it's crazy, if an atheist thinks religion is based entirely on silly speculations, to turn to this as their paradigmatic example of something which is supported by strong evidence.  I've also criticized Quentin Smith (a better philosopher than Krauss) for the same offense.

III.

Now let's talk about religion.

On this blog, I've discussed before certain philosophical arguments for Theism, which I think are pretty good, so far as armchair reasoning goes.  But I don't think that the strongest evidence for religion comes from this source, and indeed I had a huge long disclaimer at the beginning of that series in which I said so.

What these philosophical arguments point to, in my opinion, is something like Ethical Monotheism, which is sort of the lowest common denominator shared by traditions as diverse as Judaism, Platonism/Stoicism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Baha'i, certain sects of Hinduism, and Deism.  (So believing in Christianity does not require that you think everything about other religions is false and misguided.)

But it's clearly impossible to prove something like Christianity from purely abstract philosophical arguments, since it involves a lot of particular doctrines about Jesus (particularly the Trinity and Incarnation etc.) which are much too specific and weird to derive by philosophical plausibility arguments.  (Is this similar to what you mean by saying religion / faith is "arbitrary"?)

Instead, I would say that the primary reason for believing in Christianity comes from History—although some elements of philosophical reasoning and personal religious experience come into it as well.  I said above that History was based on collecting testimonies and documents from past eras.  And this is what the New Testament is.

The primary event on which the Christian faith is based on is the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus.  (Followed by his Ascension into heaven, and the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in order to start the Church.)  These events were observed by normal human beings like us, using their ordinary sense data.  Those people are no longer alive, but they left behind documents, collected in the New Testament, which describe the teachings and miracles of Jesus Christ and his Apostles (those who were the eyewitnesses to his Resurrection, listed by St. Paul about 20-25 years after the event here, although he omits the women who first went to the empty tomb and were the first to see Jesus, as described in the Four Gospels.)

Now whatever the New Testament is, it is not philosophical speculation.  (I will get to other religions in just a moment.)  Various of its documents clearly claim to be the records of people who literally saw supernatural events with their own eyes.  It could be lies, or some sort of mistake, or perhaps legends which grew up later (although I find all of these theories implausible for various reasons, in part because of the large number of claimed eyewitnesses and in part because the claims arose so early and clearly in the development of the religion).  What it certainly is not is a bunch of philosophers, theologians, and mystics sitting around meditating on the nature of the universe and trying to figure out what makes sense to them.

As I have argued before, type of evidence in question (muliple written claimed testimonies) is considered by historians to be strong evidence whenever it supports non-supernatural events, for example the Assassination of Julius Caesar.  (Indeed, ancient history would be basically impossible without it.)  The quality of the historical documentation compares quite favorably to that supporting similar events at around that time and place.  So unless we have a strong prejudice against the supernatural—or have some other specific reason to disbelieve it—we should believe it.

(And, incidentally, you should not have a strong prejudice against the Supernatural, among other reasons because of the abundant documentation of miracles which have occurred in more modern times.)

I argued above that History is, in general, more reliable than Philosophy.  For this reason, I would argue that the accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus are more evidentially important than things like e.g. philosophical arguments for Materialism / Naturalism, arguments about how a good God could allow evil in the world, and so on.  Those things are speculation, this is data.

Of course, once you accept the Christian data-points, recorded in the New Testament, you still have to do some philosophical/theological analysis to figure out exactly how to explain the extraordinary event.  I'm not claiming that e.g. the doctrine of the Trinity was directly observed by human beings.  Instead people had to work through the facts (e.g. Jesus claims to be divine in some way and this is backed up by his ability to do miracles; but he also prays to God as the Father, and accepts the Jewish teaching that there is only one God; then he promises to send the Holy Spirit to live in the hearts of those who follow him, who also seems to carry the authority and power of God) and when they worked everything out they had the doctrine of the Trinity.  Using the language of Science, this is a theory rather than a fact, but it is a good theory because it is the simplest explanation of the facts in question.  (Of course atheists and members of other religions will generally deny that the facts were as the New Testament claims, but that is a completely different question than whether the reported facts support the theory.  Just as, if there is controversy over whether a scientist falsified his data, this is a separate question from whether the data, if true, supports the theory.)

I don't want to give the impression that Christianity is only about stuff that's happened in the past: Christians also believe that the Holy Spirit is present in believers, in order to guide us into the truth and to form in us the kind of loving character that Jesus had.  Some Christians have also had few dramatic communications from God or other mystical experiences, but this is quite secondary compared to learning to live life together as a holy community of people.  Once you come to believe it is true, then faith is indeed necessary to continue along the path even when nothing much seems to be happening.

Religion is about the encounter of the soul with God.  It seems clear that most people don't come to faith by robotically analyzing the evidence (or to disbelief, for that matter).  But I still think people should carefully consider the evidence when deciding whether to believe.  It is important to check that one is not being deceived by something false.

IV.

May I ask what it is that makes you think Christianity stands out and is more believable than other religions and faiths on this planet?

Gladly.  When analyzing a religion for truth, I would ask questions such as these (none of these criteria are necessarily intended to be definitive when taken in isolation):

  1. Has the religion persuaded a significant fraction of the world population, outside a single ethnic group, to believe in it?
  2. How does the religion relate to previous and subsequent religions?
  3. Did the religious founder claim his message came from supernatural revelation, or is it only the reflections of some wise philosopher who didn't claim to have divine sanction for their teaching?
  4. Are the primary texts describing some sort of mythological pre-history, or are they set in historical times?
  5. Related, does it sound like fiction, or does it sound like history?
  6. How long was it between the time when the supposed supernatural events took place, and when they were first written down (in a document that has had copies of it preserved).  Is it early enough to suggest the text is based on testimony rather than later legends?
  7. What are the odds that the purported supernatural events could have occurred for non-supernatural reasons?
  8. Did the main witnesses benefit materially from their testimony, or did they suffer for it?
  9. Is there significant evidence of fraud among the originators of the religion?
  10. What is the general moral character of the religious teaching?
  11. Do people who are serious about this religion generally feel that they are put into an actual relationship with the divine?

In a future blog post, I will try to provide my own personal answers for how well various religions satisfy these criteria, and why I think Christianity is the most convincing case of divine revelation that has occurred.  However, I've included these questions separately from my answers, in order to encourage you to think about them on your own.

Sometimes I meet people with a sort of learned epistemic helplessness, just in the area of religion.  The attitude is: well, group A claims this miracle, and group B claims this divine revelation, and I am completely at a loss and unable to even begin to say which claim is more plausible!  Therefore I won't accept any of them.

Yet when it comes to less important matters in their everyday life, they are perfectly able to use their brain to decide what is credible and what is not.  If you really want to know what is true, I'm convinced you are able.

Look, and maybe you'll find.  Ask, and you might just get it.  Keep on knocking at that door, without giving up, and—if there's anyone on the other side—surely it will be opened to you.

About Aron Wall

In 2019, I will be studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics as a Lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford.
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32 Responses to Theology: Less Speculative than Quantum Gravity

  1. Bob Kurland says:

    This is a fine post, Aron. I'll give you my highest compliment: "I wish I had written that". Most people who think science trumps religious faith know very little about the philosophy of science, and very many are not practicing scientists who understand the philosophical grounding of what they do.
    Keep up the good work!

  2. TY says:

    Aron, in the past and even to this day I've avoided the statement "Christianity is the only true religion (how in all its specificity humanity relates to God)" in order not to offend other faiths. I might have been too timid. So I thank you (and it can only come from you) for the sheer audacity to say:

    "In a future blog post, I will try to provide my own personal answers for how well various religions satisfy these criteria, and why I think Christianity is the most convincing case of divine revelation that has occurred. However, I've included these questions separately from my answers, in order to encourage you to think about them on your own."

    We've heard it said that ones religion is hugely the result of the environment: the home and the country. If my parents were Muslims and I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, most likely I'd be a Muslim and I would believe just as steadfastly as the Christian that Islam, my religion,"is the most convincing case of divine revelation."

    This is evangelism at its best.

  3. Philip Wainwright says:

    So would I be correct if I summed up the scientific situation by saying something like this?

    Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity are both good descriptions certain aspects of the universe, but where those aspects overlap, there is no mathematically consistent way of expressing the fact that they are both true at the same time. Quantum Gravity is the science that attempts to do so, and the closest it has yet come to reconciling them is string theory, which is still unable to be formulated precisely, and includes many elements (supersymmetry, extra dimensions, GUTs, etc.) that have not been confirmed experimentally. Therefore scientists continue to speculate.

  4. Aron Wall says:

    Philip,
    Yes, that's basically correct. I would say, no "known mathematically consistent way" to emphasize that there must be such a model even if we don't know what it is. And of course, the question of which aspects of QM and GR to keep, and which aspects to modify, is itself a controversial question to be answered...

    Also, I am glossing over the fact that there do exist some ways of calculating quantum effects of gravitation in some limited regimes, so long as the effects don't become too nonlinear. For example, we do understand basically how to study Quantum Field Theory on (fixed) curved spacetimes. And if we treat gravity "perturbatively" (i.e. calculating terms in a Taylor series in Newton's constant), we can write down Feynman diagrams, and compute some answers for the amplitudes to e.g. emit and absorb gravitons, then everything is well defined as long as we stay away from Planck scale energies. (Although it turns out that gravitons couple so weakly to matter, that it is basically impossible to measure them, it would be very surprising if gravitons did not exist, regardless of the correct formulation of quantum gravity at the Planck scale.)

    So part of what I do is check things in limits of quantum gravity where we do think we understand how to calculate things, in order to get clues about the full theory.

  5. howie says:

    Aron. An interesting post but I think there is a clear error, Krauss wasn’t just relying on Hawking Hartle. In fact I would say he’s much more reliant on Vilenkin’s tunnelling form nothing proposal than Hakwing-Hartle. But it certainly isn’t from HH alone.
    Of course the Vilenkin model is also very speculative.
    However my own take of the scientific field and the religious is that there is a big big difference between speculations in the two. That is for the most part ( of course there will be exceptions) in science speculations are welcomed but the community as a whole does not teach them as fact until they are confirmed by rigorous experiments. I have met many people who work in string and loops and none of them have ever advocated writing their subjects up in undergraduate or high school text books as if they are facts. Even Brian Green has said he doesn’t believe in string theory even though he thinks it’s the best bet for a TOE. They recognise their theories are not tested and desperately want to find a way to test them so they can be confirmed or denied. They work hard on trying to find a way to test their theories. Roveli’s recent work on Planck stars springs to mind as one of many examples.
    However in religion my experience is that the existence of God and his accompanying OMNI properties which I consider a speculation is taught as a fact by the religious and in religious institutions. Even if the resurrection happened it does not provide sufficient evidence the being responsible for these developments has the properties of omnipotence, omnibenevelence etc. Furthermore in science any speculative scientific theory must play by the rules i.e if your speculative theory conflicts with well verified data then we throw it out or at least modify it in someway. Even within scientific speculations data is still king. But this is now what often happens in religious circles. The fact that 40-50% of Americans believe in a young Earth is surely evidence of this behaviour. My interaction with my of my Muslim friends is that very few of them believe in evolution. This is driven by their belief in the inerrancy of the Qur’an. Scientists carrying out speculations do not throw clearly observed facts when it conflicts with their speculations. So there are tight constraints on what is allowed and not allowed in scientific speculations. But with an omnipotent being, well he can do anything and so one is entitled to speculate in a much less constrained way. Perhaps God willed the holocaust for some greater good that we are unaware of, theologians can make such speculation, but if a historian were to say Hitler had some good reason for the holocaust but we don’t know what it is, well that wouldn’t be taken seriously. The reason is there is no assumption of omnipotence for actors in history, but when you introduce such an assumption from theology, it seems that anything goes. So no theological speculation are not like scientific speculation or even historical speculations.

  6. Robert says:

    Howie,
    "But with an omnipotent being, well he can do anything and so one is entitled to speculate in a much less constrained way. Perhaps God willed the holocaust for some greater good that we are unaware of, theologians can make such speculation..."

    Addressing the first sentence I would point out that this is a very voluntarist conception of God, and not all religions envisage God as such. For example, following Aquinas, Catholics hold that God as a perfectly good moral agent who is omniscient cannot do evil or do things that are contradictory. If a being knows everything and is perfectly good (in an objective sense), then he cannot make mistakes or do something objectively evil. If such an entity did make mistakes or do evil, he would lack those properties, and not be the God such philosophically-informed Christians are looking for (and speculating about). The point of my bringing this up is not to demonstrate that God has these properties, but simply to show that much religious speculation is constrained in ways that are "tight" in the sense that it must conform to deductively-derived concepts in a similar way to speculation about physics conforming to deductively-derived mathematical systems.

    As to the second sentence, it would again depend on the conception of God and the philosophical framework that such religious speculation takes place in. Taking Catholicism for example again, the holocaust (like all human acts) would not strictly speaking be the direct action of God's willing, but instead the action of human beings exercising free will. Obviously, some religions believe God's will to be more or less involved in determining human agent's actions than others. But again, the point is to show that there are constraints placed on such religious speculation. While some of them are certainly ad hoc responses intended to rationalize away specific problems of history many others are principles that are deductively required of the whole project for its internal coherence.

    I can imagine that you might say that very few religious speculators follow rigid rules of deductive reasoning in formulating their conjecture, but then I could point out that very few "believers" in the usefulness of physics, and science more generally, follow, or even understand the mathematical and methodological rules which constrain scientific speculation. I must disagree that these people, just like uncritical believers of religious speculation, do often hold scientific speculation as fact. This sort of speculation is even used to justify all manner of public policy. Consider the "fact" that dietary fat, especially saturated fat, is bad for you. For decades millions of Americans were misled and made radical changes to the way they lived because of an argument from authority they accepted based on their faith in the scientific method. The community as a whole clearly taught this as fact. So in the way you claim in your comment, scientific speculation is often just like religious speculation.

  7. Don Flood says:

    Aron,

    Who created god? What are his/her/its origins? And, if god exists, what can't geocentricism be true, albeit, in an ongoing "miraculous" way? Or, for that matter, Last Thursdayism? Given the a prior conclusion that "God did it," to what proposition would such *not* apply?

    Thank you,

    Don

  8. Aron Wall says:

    Don,
    I take it you are not very familiar with Christian theology. We believe that God has no origin, nor did anyone create him. He exists eternally.

    (If the universe is finite in time, then there has to be something which has no origin, which is responsible for everything else. In Christian theology, that something is God. And actually, even if time goes back infinitely, you could still argue that time taken as a whole either has no orign, or else what created by some eternal thing outside of time. So I think any reasonable viewpoint has something existing without an origin.)

    We also believe that God created an orderly creation in order to reflect his glory. For the most part things happen in a regular way according to general principles. Theists don't just say "God did it" and chuck their brains out the window, we can look around and try to figure out what are the patterns in which he does things.

    I could just as well ask you, how you know the laws of physics always have to stay the same, if there is no God to hold them in place? Both theists and atheists have to start with an a priori belief that the universe makes sense, and has certain regularities.

    Howie,
    Are you basing your statements about Krauss' ideas on having read his book? Because I haven't read it; I was basing my comments on his talk. Although, since (as you rightly point out) the Vilenkin proposal is also speculative, it doesn't really make much difference.

    But, the entire point of my post was to argue that Christian theology is not based on speculation! That's why I quoted the dictionary definitions of speculation, in order to show how Christianity doesn't fit that description. So I don't think what theologians do when they conclude that God is e.g. omnipotent, counts as speculation. Even if you ignore all the impressive miracles in the Bible (Occam's razor---the simplest explanation of which would be omnipotence, since any theory which places limits on God's power would be more complicated to specify), the mere fact that God says he is omnipotent is a nonspeculative reason to believe it. That is admittedly, an Argument from Authority. (God's authority, to be precise.) This of course requires making a credibility judgement about whether God would lie to us. But that's not the same as speculation, any more than it counts as "speculation" when I decide that the people who put out LHC data are probably not lying to me, or that my wife is not lying to me. Believing testimony is epistemically different from speculating. There is such a thing as theological speculation, but not when it comes to matters where God has revealed the answers.

    I agree with you that Young Earth Creationists are being irrational. Since they are being irrational, it follows that there are some ground rules about how to connect theology to science in a reasonable way, and they are perversely breaking those rules. If I thought I had to be a YEC to be a Christian, I would consider that a definitive falsification of Christianity. So for me, at any rate, there are constraints.

    Regarding the Holocaust, since (in my view) we have nonspeculative reasons from e.g. the New Testament to believe in God's existence and benevolence, it follows that we also have nonspeculative reasons to believe that he had some good reason to permit it, just as he had good reasons to permit his Son to suffer on the Cross. However, we would have to resort to speculation in order to say what his specific reasons were in the case of the Holocaust, since (as far as I know) he has never told us. On the other hand, Hitler did tell us his reasons for getting rid of the Jews (I believe he wrote a book) so in this case there is no reason to suppose he had any hidden motives, besides the evil and crazy ones which he mentioned.

    And of course, since we are human ourselves, we are in a better position to guess about Hitler's hidden motives, than about God's hidden motives.

  9. Don Flood says:

    Aron,

    I am an agnostic atheist; I do not assert any positive statements and/or hold any positive beliefs with respect to existential questions. Rather, I admit uncertainty in the face of scant evidence of the existence of god, gods, etc. Perhaps the ultimate origin of the Cosmos is, at present, unknown (which means that one of the existing physical models is, in fact, correct but has not been yet vetted scientifically), or, perhaps, its ultimate origins are unknowable. Or, perhaps, "God did it." But, god is silent. You have stated that you believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose corporeally from the dead, but other naturalistic explanations exist to explain that data, as can be found in the writings of Professor Bart Ehrman. As with alien abductions, the burden of proof is on those who assert and not on those of us who suspend judgment. I don't think that such burdens (the Resurrection or aliens) have been met, and the consensus among scholars is in an agreement with my claim.

    Thank you,

    Don

  10. Aron Wall says:

    Don,
    New Testament scholars can only have a "consensus" on this point if you discount equally qualified scholars like N.T. Wright who do believe in the Resurrection (and are therefore, not suprisingly, Christians).

    And you might be surprised by how much even most skeptical scholars concede, regarding the basic facts which go into the New Testament claims. For example, according to Gary Habermas, there is a near consensus among biblical scholars of all stripes that:

    (1) Jesus died due to the process of crucifixion. (2) Very soon afterwards, Jesus’ disciples had experiences that they believed were appearances of the resurrected Jesus. (3) Just a few years later, Saul of Tarsus also experienced what he thought was a post-resurrection appearance of the risen Jesus (pp. 302-3).

    with lesser numbers (but still a majority of those who comment on the issue) accepting that Jesus' tomb was empty, and various other relevant facts, such as the conversion of Jesus' formerly skeptical brother James. How can that possibly add up to a consensus against the Resurrection being historical?

    In any case, none of the supposed "naturalistic explanations" are remotely convincing. And, in my experience, the most prestigious skeptical scholars don't really provide alternative explanations for things like the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances. Actually saying Jesus had an identical twin, or swooned, or (much more reasonably) that the apostles lied or any other specific theory seems to be a fairly low-status move in the scholarly community. The high-status move is just to mumble philosophically about how miracles are a priori implausible and in the domain of faith rather than history, and it is the duty of a historian to only use "methodological naturalism" in their research. My wife and best freind both went to a Divinity School packed with unbelievers, so I know these things.

    For example, the actual stated reason why most scholars date the Gospels post 70 AD is that Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple and we all know that prophesy is impossible. (Then they put Mark at near 70 exactly since apparently the other indications tend to point towards it being earlier than that.)

    Then they write pop books which give people the impression that this has been proven by modern methods when in fact it was an assumption they brought into the subject...

    According to this summary of a talk by Bart Ehrman:

    "Ehrman concludes with what he describes as the real problem, which is the ‘problem’ of miracles. Historians try to establish what probably happened, yet he claims that miracles ‘by definition’ are the least probable. This creates a dilemma, that the least probable occurrence cannot be the most probable. He suggests that ‘Even if it happened, it defies imagination and cannot be accepted as an historically proven event.’ He proposes that the resurrection is only a theological claim, not an historical one – it’s an assertion about what God did to Jesus, nothing about history."

    Does that sound to you like somebody who is fairly assessing the historical claims, without any philosophical bias? (I hate watching internet videos, but the original Ehrman talk is included in the link so you can judge for yourself whether it's an accurate summary of his views or not.)

  11. Seth says:

    St Wall,

    As always you are a pleasure to read. I've very much enjoyed reading yours and St. Kurland's blogs that embraces both physics and Christ. And from actual PhD's! (I hope I will have a PhD in physics before I die but alas as of yet I don't even have a bachelors).

    I only wished to add a couple of thoughts. You mention in the above comment how most scholars date the Gospels after 70AD because they can't have Jesus actually prophecy. This is disgustingly true! What's worse is that one doesn't even have to concede Jesus supernatural knowledge to believe the Gospels predate the destruction and that this is a legitimate quote of His! The book of Daniel (another book that scholars are too scared to date early even though it meets criteria that other manuscripts have that they felt comfortable doing so) in chapter 9 predicts the destruction and Enoch I chapter 90 does as well. (Note that I am not advocating Enoch as special Scripture but simply as a widely read text that predates the birth of Christ). This is known in the scholarly community but they are so afraid of "letting a divine foot in the door" that they still give the tired response you mention.

    On a separate topic I would add that I believe there is plenty of evidence for the Trinity or at the very least Binity of God in the Old Testament. I would recommend (not that you don't have a life with your own things to read) Two Powers in Heaven by Alan Segal (a Rabbinic Jew interestingly enough) who showed that two complementary Powers both of Whom were Yahweh but somehow not each other was already part of ancient Judaism and arguments against it didn't rise until a century or two after Christ when Christianity and Gnosticism were getting 'out of hand.' Other possible things to read would be The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John by Daniel Boyarin, and St. Michael Heiser (a doctor of Biblical studies) has a lecture on the Jewish Trinity on YouTube. (No, I don't expect you to do any homework but if the fancy ever suited you I thought I'd give resources.)

    Always look forward to your posts and responses,
    Seth

  12. Scott Church says:

    Don,

    "Who created god? What are his/her/its origins...?"

    Who created God is a meaningless question. Abrahamic religions like Christianity are based on classical theism, according to which God is defined as the "ground of all being". As such, He is beyond time which is from the standpoint of physics is a fundamental property of the physical universe. To ask who created God is like asking what happened "before" the big bang... it's nonsensical. A number of things follow from this, including (but not restricted to) that God is omnipotent, omniscient, simple (as a substance), and possessing both intellect and will (and thus personhood). The arguments involved are far too extensive for a blog comment but suffice to say that; 1) These conclusions boil down to considerations of causality (material, formal, efficient, and final), and the nature of act and potency (actuality vs. potentiality); 2) All of the terms involved are formally defined; and 3) It can be shown that the physical universe cannot fulfill these requirements because (among other things) it is in time, contingent (it need not be as it is), and manifests potentiality evolving toward actuality, and as such, does not fit the requirements of pure actuality and potency. A thorough explication of these points can be found in Feser (2009), Swineburne (2004), and many other philosophy of religion works, and Ed Feser's blog has some excellent overviews here and here.

    Two other things... First, none of this is recent, nor was it invented as an apology to modern science or secular thought. All of it was argued at length by Aquinas, Augustine, Duns Scotus, and most other Christian theologians and has been the baseline position of Christianity for the last two millennia. And second, classical theism renders the question of "gods" (plural) equally meaningless... there cannot be more than one ground of all being. What you are calling "gods"--like the Greek Pantheon or the "Flying Spaghetti Monster" for instance--would actually be demigods. Comparing them to the God of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam is a category error.

    "I am an agnostic atheist; I do not assert any positive statements and/or hold any positive beliefs with respect to existential questions. Rather, I admit uncertainty in the face of scant evidence of the existence of god, gods, etc... the burden of proof is on those who assert and not on those of us who suspend judgment. I don't think that such burdens (the Resurrection or aliens) have been met..."

    I'm not sure what you mean by "agnostic atheist"... your description of yourself is one of agnosticism. But either way a few things need to be pointed out. First, your claim to "not assert any positive statements and/or hold any positive beliefs with respect to existential questions" is ridiculous. Presumably you believe in your own existence...that the universe objectively exists apart from you... that it can be understood in terms of rational laws making science a meaningful endeavor... that your memories of yesterday reflect a reality that genuinely existed then rather than a figment of your imagination... etc. etc. These and many more are clear examples of existential/metaphysical beliefs of the sort everyone has unless they're solipsists or in a coma. The real question here, is to what extent your existential/metaphysical beliefs are relevant to your views regarding the existence of God.

    Second, you cannot claim neutrality for yourself credibly without two things; 1)Clear and relevant standards of proof (what would it take to convince you, one way or the other?); and 2) Lack of exposure to any evidence. So far, you haven't given any indication of 1), and your own comments falsify 2). Stating that you consider the evidence for God's existence to be "scant" and that the burdens of proof "have [not] been met..." is an ipso facto admission that you have seen evidence, and plenty of it. If you find that evidence unconvincing you have a burden of proof to show how and in what manner. As it stands, claiming blanket neutrality is a cop-out... you're already on the field and the ball has been punted to you. No one is gonna buy you declaring victory simply by disqualifying yourself--especially if you have yet to do the research necessary to discriminate classical theism from a grenade explosion of straw men, or provided proof standards per 1). For further thoughts on this, see Myth 5 at this essay of mine.

    "...the consensus among scholars is in an agreement with my claim."

    It is not. Your "consensus" exists only among the most liberal schools of thought in history and hermeneutics where it's utterly commonplace for atheist and agnostic scholars to cherry-pick their data and reason in circles. The general research is anything but a consensus, and the historical evidence for both Jesus and His resurrection is well documented. The scholarship on both is too extensive to list here, but you could start with Wikipedia (2014), Durant (1994), McGrew and McGrew (2012), Habermas (2009), Habermas and Flew (2009), and Craig (1998).

    Best.

    REFERENCES

    Craig, W.L. (1998). Rediscovering the Rediscovering the Historical Jesus: The Evidence for Jesus. Faith & Mission, 15. Pgs. 16-26. Available online at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/rediscovering-the-historical-jesus-the-evidence-for-jesus. Accessed Aug. 15, 2014.

    Durant, W. (1994). Caesar and Christ. The Story of Civilization – Book 3. Fine Communications, ISBN-10: 1567310141; ISBN-13: 978-1567310146. Available online http://www.amazon.com/Caesar-Christ-Civilization-Christianity-D/dp/1567310141/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1408124767&sr=1-1&keywords=will+durant+christ. Accessed Aug. 15, 2014.

    Feser, E. (2009). Aquinas (A Beginner's Guide). Oneworld Publications, ISBN-10: 1851686908; ISBN-13: 978-1851686902. Available online at http://www.amazon.com/Aquinas-Beginners-Guide-Edward-Feser/dp/1851686908/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453923535&sr=1-2&keywords=feser. Accessed Jan. 27, 2016.

    Habermas, G.R. (2009). The Resurrection of Jesus Timeline. In Contending with Christianity's Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors, Eds. P. Copan and W.L. Craig. B&H Academics, ISBN-10: 0805449361; ISBN-13: 978-0805449365. Pg. 113. Available online at http://www.amazon.com/Contending-Christianitys-Critics-Answering-Objectors/dp/0805449361/ref=sr_1_1_title_1_pap?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1408125360&sr=1-1&keywords=william+lane+craig+contending. Accessed Aug. 15, 2014.

    Habermas, G.R. and A. Flew (2009). Did the Resurrection Happen?: A Conversation with Gary Habermas and Antony Flew. B&H Academics, ISBN-10: 0830837183; ISBN-13: 978-0830837182. Available online at http://www.amazon.com/Did-Resurrection-Happen-Conversation-Habermas/dp/0830837183/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=undefined&sr=8-2&keywords=Habermas+resurrection. Accessed Aug. 15, 2014.

    McGrew, T. and L. McGrew (2012). The Argument from Miracles: A cumulative case for the resurrection of Jesus. In The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, Eds. W.L. Craig and J.P. Moreland. Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN-10: 1444350854; ISBN-13: 978-1444350852. Pg. 593. Available online at http://www.amazon.com/The-Blackwell-Companion-Natural-Theology/dp/1444350854/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1408120780&sr=8-1&keywords=blackwell+companion+to+natural+theology. Accessed Aug. 15, 2014.

    Swineburne, R. (2004). The Existence of God. Clarendon Press; 2 edition,,ISBN-10: 0199271682; ISBN-13: 978-0199271689. Available online at http://www.amazon.com/Existence-God-Richard-Swinburne/dp/0199271682/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453923781&sr=1-4&keywords=swinburne. Accessed Jan. 27, 2016.

    Wikipedia (2014). Jesus. Available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus. Accessed Aug. 15, 2014.

  13. Aron Wall says:

    Seth,
    Thanks for your support. Are you talking about this 1 Enoch 90? Because I don't see any specific reference to the Temple there, although several things do seem to get destroyed.

    But it is ironic, that the destruction of the Temple probably wouldn't even have been all that hard for a wise person at the time to see coming...

    Regarding foreshadowings of the Trinity in the Old Testament, I do think they are there, but I would be very reluctant to embrace the conclusion that the typical Jew (as opposed to more marginal sects) thought there were two beings called Yahwah or anything else that definite. The degree of Monotheism taught in the OT seems much too strict for that. What we do see, is that there are various manifestations or representations of Yahweh which act on earth, who in some ways speak for Yahweh or are identified with him, which are sufficiently separate to be given specific names, but which aren't viewed as rival deities. These include the "Angel of the Lord", the Shekinah (glory cloud), "Wisdom" in Proverbs, and of course the ubiquitous Spirit of God.

    Scott,
    In general I support what you are saying. But I wouldn't want anyone to walk away with the impression that the Aristotelian type of arguments are the only good reason to believe in Classical Theism! I myself have some objections to e.g. the theory of act and potency, and other aspects of the Aristotelian system, and I argued for Classical Theism here.

    In practice, I think an "agnostic atheist" is usually somebody who is an agnostic for purposes of internet arguments, and an atheist for purposes of living their life! (I'm not saying that's the dictionary definition, just my observation from the people I've known to use the term.)

  14. howie says:

    Hi Aron, thank you for your reply.
    Yes I am basing my statement on reading Krauss’s book. The point was a technical correction, but you seem to be someone that likes to get technical details correct. I think we both agree it doesn’t affect the substance of your argument. Both HH and Vilenkin’s model are speculative. However I repeat that my experience of reading about these models is that they presented as being speculative. I don’t think people are pretending they are facts about the world in the same way the religious instructors do claim that God and his OMNI porperties are facts about the world and that is where your comparison fails.
    I know you are not a YEC and my point about YEC is to contrast what those in the religious community do in the face of evidence compared to those in the quantum gravity community do in the face of evidence. I think its clear that if one compares the two fields ; quantum gravity and religion, those that preach/teach these for a living, one has a much higher tendency to throw out evidence that is well established than the other. So the quantum gravity should be judged much more favourable than the religious community. I am basing this on what actually happens in the world not about you and your views.

    You gave us a dictionary definition of speculation as "the forming of a theory or conjecture without firm evidence"
    So whether or not Christiainity is speculative or not depends upon how firm the evidence for it is. Obviously our assessments of how firm the evidence is differs, I doubt either of have the time to thoroughly debate here the quality of the evidence for the bible. Personally I don’t find it firm at all and clearly you do. But even if miracle claims are confirmed I don’t see how that gets you to the omni properties of God. You argue that it’s a simpler explanation that God can do anything rather simply being a much more powerful being that us here on Earth, why is that simpler? I take Ocams razor meaning of simplicity as using the minumum number of unproven assumptions. Prima facie ,one should not just assume that there is an omni being. . To assume there is a being way more powerful than us, is a much simpler assumption that there is a being that is omnipotent. Imagine an advanced alien race came to visit us two thousand years ago. Imagine they had cloaking technology, advanced propulsion. Such aliens would appear to be able to do miracles, but it’s a simpler assumption to assume they are not omnipotent. Why? If you list the abilities of things they can do which the observers of their actions cant replicate or explain it will be a long list, but assuming they are omnipotent is always a longer list. That makes it worse in terms of parsimony not better. Your argument reminds me of the popel who argued the speed of light was infinite. After all is amazingly faster than anything we can propel ourselves at, so isnt is simpler to say its infinite? No it isnt, its simpler to say its just very fast. Similarly it simpler to say such a being is very powerful but not infintley powerfu. Such being will have amazing knowledge. But again to assume they know everything is more of an assumption than to assume they know a lot more than us but not everything.
    To say that God says hes omnipotence and hence this is not speculative is a statement that does not look justified. What you mean is a book you have read says that. Even if God says that , how can you check its true? If you accept that God has hidden reason to allow the holocaust and to of course to cause and command holocausts then why cant he have a hidden reason to lie? It seems you are being inconsistent here. My moral instinct is that lying is a lot less of crime than say commanding genocide (Amalekites) killing Egyptian babies (the 10th plague) asking a parent to carry out a mock execution ( Abraham) and wiping out almost all living things in the flood . So if my moral instincts came from God then God is telling me that that the God of the bible cannot be omnibenevelent. Why shouldn't I trust that?
    As far as I can see it’s a lot easier for you to judge whether your wife or people at the lHC are lying to you because you have ways to check whether they are lying. You have no way to check whether God is lying to you . So the comparison is not justified. As you yourself say God is hidden from you “since we are human ourselves, we are in a better position to guess about Hitler's hidden motives, than about God's hidden motives.” Or is God only hidden from you when it suits you? like explaining why he allowed the holocaust but not when it doesn’t, perhaps you just know god wouldn’t lie to you. Of course if the bible is not authored or inspired from God then you are on even shakier ground but that is an argument for another day.
    The fact is , in religions where God has Omni properties any evil can be explained away, any action you observe in the world ( someone escapes a Tsunami, someone gets a terrible disease, I win the lottery, I lose my job) can be the action of God or it might not be. There is nothing constraining God but theories of quantum gravity are constrained by what we already know. Moreover I repeat the status given to the two by their proponents are vastly different. Most people I have seen who give talks about quantum gravity accept their theories are not facts , that’s not what I see in religious communities so the comparison is not a helpful one.

  15. Seth says:

    St Wall,

    No I mean this I Enoch 90: http://wesley.nnu.edu/index.php?id=2126 which is the end of the section called the Apocalypse of the Animals. (most browsers have a "find on page" feature. Just look for 90).

    Your opinion on the Old Testament view of the God head is common but I really do think that the idea of a Principle Agent Who was and was not Yahweh is well attested in the Old Testament and more or less assumed in much of Second Temple literature. A couple of minor examples that are often lost in translations is that Yahweh rains down fire from Yahweh (which even for ancient Hebrew is grammatically awkward) on Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham saw the Word of Yahweh, in Exodus 18:20 the Israelites saw the Voice. And in Boyarin's paper I mentioned above he notes that the complaints against Jesus are never that He claims a Godhead but that He claims to be a Member.

    But now we have the New Testament and the hind-Light of Jesus and His Holy Spirit regardless of the thoughts of the Jews at the time one way or the other.

    Peace be with you, brother,
    Seth

  16. Scott Church says:

    Aron, I agree... there's a lot more to classical theism than the Scholastic approach (which is somewhat different than the pure Aristotelian one, though not much)! And as you said, there are different ways to deal with the various aspects of it as well, including the question of act vs. potency. Act and potency are particularly important topics though because they're directly relevant to God's personhood and whether the universe is a credible alternative to Him for bedrock reality. However we choose to address these questions, when we speak of God in terms other than as the ground of all being and potential--as though He has properties, potentialities that may or may not be realized, as experiencing change, etc.--we open the door to treating Him as just another instantiation of something; a being or a person. Once that bridge is crossed one may question why His particular instantiation is the stopping point rather than some other "god" or the universe itself. Classical theism shows why that doesn't work. A detailed treatment is way beyond one or two comments here (hence the bibliography). I just wanted to highlight the real issues theism raises. There's a big difference between the God of the Bible--the great I AM--and "a god or gods" ("he/she/it"). These days atheists will go to almost any lengths to divert attention to the latter because it's the only target they can hit, even at close range.

    PS - My apologies... I intended to link your excellent series on Fundamental Reality too, but it missed my final edit somehow. :-)

  17. Don Flood says:

    Scott,

    My final post; I realize that Aron's blog is not a place to debate atheism/theism. The term "agnostic atheist" is in Wikipedia; a short article there describes my perspective pretty well. As the late Carl Sagan wrote in his book Contact when on of his characters asked, "Do you believe in God," his reply was, "The question has a peculiar structure. If I say no, do I mean I'm convinced God doesn't exist, or do I mean I'm not convinced he does exist? Those are two very different statements." The majority to most atheists are in the latter camp, as I am.

    The existence of god or gods is not at all obvious to me as is the existence of Canada. Even though I live in the US, I can visit Canada, and even speak with Canadians. In my past, I have prayed/talked to god; he/she/it has never, ever once spoken back to me. It's always been a one-way conversation. As Sagan put it, "the philosopher has no laboratory"; the so-called evidence from philosophy is, for me at least, nowhere sufficient. We can and should expect any Deity in our Universe to do better.

    You've given no reason to believe in Jesus' resurrection than can be given to believe in alien abductions, or the myriad of other miracle claims, both present and past. The criterion of "extraordinary claims requires..." comes to mind.

    Cheers,

    Don

  18. Scott Church says:

    Don,

    I checked the Wikipedia page you mentioned and I now see what you mean by agnostic atheist... hadn't come across that term before. :-) Here are a few parting thoughts that I hope you'll find helpful...

    First, I can see (all too easily in fact!) how you could pray to God and be left with the feeling that you haven't even been heard, much less answered. It may surprise you to know that most people of faith have that experience pretty often too, including me. But that said, whether we hear God or not has little to do with whether He has spoken. In a few places the Bible refers to Him as the "still small voice", easily drowned out by the noise of our own demands and expectations. Ingrid Goff-Maidoff captured this beautifully when she said,

    "God spoke today in flowers, and I, who was waiting on words, almost missed the conversation."

    Those of us who believe in Him will almost universally tell you that's our experience as well. God seldom speaks in ways we expect Him to, or to gives the answers we think we have coming. If we don't hear Him, perhaps that's because we're looking in the wrong places or not truly listening to begin with... at least, I've found that to be true in my own life. Yes, I realize this ain't science by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it "evidence" in the sense that we usually understand the term. It is nevertheless a fundamental, and inescapable part of walking through this veil of tears we call life; a search for knowledge that unfolds in parallel to reason and science, not as a mutually exclusive alternative to them.

    Second, I couldn't agree more with Sagan's words... nicely said! But bear in mind that philosophy isn't about laboratories--it's about reason, understanding, and the general pursuit of knowledge. There is no "evidence from philosophy"... only questions, arguments, and conclusions. Science itself is built on underlying philosophical and metaphysical assumptions, apart from which it cannot even be meaningfully practiced. Not the least of these is the very importance of evidence itself. Ultimately, there's no such thing as people who don't practice philosophy and metaphysics--only those who do so knowingly, and those who don't... and thus do it badly. Merely referring to "evidence from philosophy" is evidence enough that one has yet to understand the underlying metaphysical issues well enough to properly judge whether they're sufficient or not.

    Third, to speak of a Deity in our universe is to fundamentally misunderstand the issue. The whole point of my previous comments was that God is not in the universe. He is beyond it--the ground of all being and potentiality. Hence my discussion of classical theism as developed by Christian thinkers over the last two millennia, and the bibliography I offered for further research. One cannot meaningfully address God's existence or non-existence without dispensing with the demigod straw men that so fascinate atheists these days, and examining classical theism in depth. Nor can one speak of God "doing better" without clarifying what "better" actually means; that is, without providing relevant standards of proof as I referred to previously. To attempt any of this is to sail deep oceans blindfolded, and without a compass.

    Finally, the reasons for believing in Jesus' resurrection are a huge topic, and as you rightly pointed out, comments at this blog aren't the best forum to address them in depth. Which again, is why I provided a bibliography. The source material I cited there is pretty extensive and cannot be properly assessed (much less compared to "alien abductions") until it has been examined in depth. With all due respect, it's a little difficult to see how you could've managed all that in the last... 36 hours or so. ;-) Until you do, you haven't really addressed any of it. It is my hope, and prayer, that you will... and in so doing honor your own search for answers, not just scientifically, but in all areas of life. Your worldview is sacred Don, and it deserves the best you have to give it.

    On that note, best of luck! :-)

  19. Aron Wall says:

    Seth,
    It's the same Book of Enoch (which I read once upon a time, back when I was checking all sources quoted by the New Testament), but for some reason the chapter numbering seems to be off--it seems to be chapter 89 in the version I quoted.

    Howie,
    Yes, I do like getting the technical details right, so thanks for the correction.

    I'm not totally sure I agree that it would have been a simpler theory for light to travel really fast than infinitely fast. (Putting myself back in the time before people knew for sure, obviously given what we know now about theoretical physics, it going infinitely fast wouldn't make sense.) I mean, sometimes the more complicated theory does turn out to be right, and this might be one of those times. There is a sense in which c = \infty is a simpler value than c = 299 792 458\,m/s. (\infty is the reciprocal of 0, and 0 is a very simple number.) You might find it amusing to know that St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about the speed of light in his Summa (he thinks it is infinite).

    I agree it would be simpler to assume that aliens are not omnipotent, since whatever their technology, they would be (by definition) physical beings and therefore one would expect them to have limitations. It would be different however, if we are talking about the most fundamental reality in existence---which I argued here should be omnipotent (in a certain specific sense which I defined there). Later in the same series I discuss God's knowledge and goodness.

    Scott,
    I agree that God can be correctly described as being without potency. I am more concerned about whether there is an entirely clear and well-defined definition of potency in physics. I suppose you could say that the modern physics version of potency is the "phase space" (classically) or "Hilbert space" (in QM) ---that is for most physical objects you can consider not only the state it is actually in, but you could also think about the states it might have been in (but aren't at the moment).

    Don,
    You are welcome to debate atheism / theism with Scott in the comments section if you like; I appreciate your consideration for my hospitality but as it happens I'm fine with it.

    (But you should also feel free not to continue debating---I understand that time and emotional energy are limited resources, and there is no shame in laying down a firm line about which comment will be your last! Thanks for coming over to share your thoughts.)

  20. howie says:

    Hi Aron . Perhaps you misunderstood my point, I wasn’t actually saying c being infinite was simpler than it being finite (before Romer). I’m saying your argument about God is analogous to saying that. I.e even if it could be shown that there is a being that can do things we couldn’t even imagine doing, it doesn’t follow that they can do anything. Even if there is a being that knows way more than we could ever hope to know, it doesn’t follow they know everything. Just like if when there was a thing that went way faster than we could measure , it doesn’t follow that its speed is infinite.
    I’ll repeat we could write out a list of propositions that God knows, things that he can do places he can be etc the law of parsimony tells us that that list should not be longer than what we have reasonable evidence for. Even if he can ressurrect someone from the dead it doesn’t follow you can simply make that list arbitrarily large and it certainly isn’t parsimonious to do so.
    The article you linked didnt really provide any evidence that God has all omni properties. You only mentioned omnipotence and even that was just an empty claim that God should be necessary. Even if we agree with that claim the problem we actually have evidence that the God of the bible is not perfectly good as he commands genocide, the torture of animals, the destruction of almost all life on Earth and even gets his closest supporter to go through a mock execution of his own son. That is evidence against the goodness of your GOD. But because you can always appeal to mystery in Gods ways it seems you will never admit any evidence against God’s goodness that is why theology is way more speculative than quantum gravity, anything goes.

  21. Aron Wall says:

    howie,
    I know you weren't saying that c = \infty was simpler than it being finite. I was the one saying that. :-)

    If we make a list of all the things God can do, the list will definitely be shorter if it has one item, "everything", than if it is a long list of specific things... Or, to say it another way, if we do write everything out on a list, parsimony says its more important that the rule for what's on the list should be simple, than that the list itself should be short.

    I don't think you understood the argument I linked to (my fault for not explaining it well enough); that post was part of a series and you have to read the previous posts for it to make sense. The argument that God is omnipotent had nothing to do with the argument that he is necessary; those were two separate claims based on the argument that there has to exist a most fundamental being. The point is, that the rules for a fundamental being are different for non-fundamental beings, the latter by definition are limited by whatever factors brought them into existence and determined their powers, while the former are by definition not limited by any other beings outside of themselves. Hence there is an important distinction between God and aliens, they are completely different types of entities.

    But apart from these metaphysical arguments---which I am fine with you calling speculative if you want to---if we talk about the God of the Bible then it is not true at all that this is "anything goes". You may not like the Christian belief that, whenever God talks about his own attributes, we trust him to be telling the truth. But the rule is certainly the opposite of "anything goes"; in fact it is highly constraining. For example, believing that God is limited in power or evil is excluded---and if anything is excluded, then it's not true that "anything goes".

    We already debated whether God has the right to kill people on an earlier thread, and it probably wouldn't be so useful to rehash that now.

    But I will note, you skipped the bit where God arranged an actual execution of his Son... which seems like some rather important context for the command to Abraham! And note that, as pointed out by the author of Hebrews and also by Kierkegaard, the story in Genesis indicates that Abraham had faith that he was somehow going to get Isaac back.

    Do you know what it is like to have faith? Have you ever had any experiences of God? Have you ever experienced Numinous Awe? If you had, maybe the Bible would make more sense to you. I'm not trying to be annoyingly condescending here, I'm just trying to put things in context. Most of us Christians believe we have personal evidence from our own lives that God is good and that he loves us. At the very least, we have seen that the people who spend the most time in his presence become holy and good.

    The reason why we trust God to be doing the right thing in his treatment of people back in Old Testament times, is that we feel like we know him personally through Christ, and we know that he is good and holy from our experiences of him now. This is different from just going through the Bible, checking "approve" or "disapprove" on each particular thing God does, and then adding everything up to get a favorability rating. As though we mortals were in a position know better than the one who created hundreds of billions of galaxies, all the plants and animals, water and air and fire, sex and joy and fun! Can't you see how tiny you are, and how great God is? A 3-year old can know that his mother loves him even though he can't understand why many of her specific decisions are actually right. It's like that between us and God.

    God has in fact commanded you not to kill or torment people and animals, and that is enough to know that he cares about ethics and goodness. If we trust him to do the right thing with the things that are none of our responsibility, he will help us with the things that are. And then you will know that he is good and just.

  22. howie says:

    Hi Aron
    Suppose some alien intelligence came to visit us on Earth. As the spaceship sits on the White house lawn waiting for its inhabitants ( if it has any) to get out, we try and guess where else it has visited. We take a bet, I try and make some guess as to how many intelligently habitable worlds there are based on my estimates of the Drake equation and based on how far a probe might travel since intelligence life formed in our galaxy and come up with some finite number. You say its simpler to assume they have been everywhere in the entire universe. Your assumption might sound simpler, its certainly a simpler method to calculate than mine but in terms of parsimony it is not simpler because you have to make the utterly enormous unproven assumption they can actually go everywhere whilst I try and constrain mine via what we think is actually possible.

    Parsimony says we should be able to justify any rule we create for the list and they should be based upon what we have evidence for. An assumption that our alien spaceship has travelled everywhere can be based on one simple rule, they use magic. Now that rule is a very simple rule based on your method. But if we restrict our rules to things we actually can check exist then that is the mother of all unjustified assumptions and so must be rejected not embraced for parsimony. Same with God and his powers.

    Anything that is true by definition tells us you a lot about the words you have invented but not about what actually exists in reality. So the fact that you have defined God as being fundamental and therefore not limited tells us nothing about whether God is really unlimited, but only about how you or other theologians have defined him. Exactly how do you determine the rule for beings that our outside of space-time (and check that you have those rules right? ) Are you seriously telling me that in determining these rules you are doing less speculative work for determining the rules for things within space-time i.e quantum gravity.
    You say Christianity is not an anything goes assumption, but tell me, what action by God would change your view about his omnibenevelance? Since genocide and torture of animals don’t, what will?
    I don’t see that the Jesus story makes God’s command to Abraham to kill his sown makes any less cruel and sadistic, what an awful way to test the faith of your followers. Its worthy of the worst movie villain. According to Genesis “10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.” Which implies he did intend to carry out Gods command. Other authors whether it be Paul or Kiekargegard can speculate all they like about what Abraham thought, but the story in Genesis tells us Abraham went through with the deed until the angel stopped him. If Abraham has no uncertainty, God would know this and what kind of test of faith would it be then ?

    Yes I used to be a strong believer in God. But then I looked on the bible with open eyes and saw the cruelty of Abraham being told to kill his son, of God selecting children to kill rather Pharohs, of God commanding the torture of animals and genocide and I decided that if there is a loving God it cant be the God of the bible. This is all best explained I think by God being a creation of an ancient cruel culture.

    How do you know the bible isn’t a test from God to see if we have the moral courage to speak out against its dark passages ( kill all the amalakites, even the women children and animals ). Rather than make excuses for them?

    I recently read Steven Pinker’s book “The better angels of our nature”. Have you read it? It shows quite clear evidence to me that I should consider people are more good in an age of less religion than in say the medieval period when they were more religious. So I’m not sure people are more good in his precence, exactly how do you determine that?

    You may say you know you are in a relationship with Christ but that isn’t something you can verify to others and I don’t see any reason to assume that’s nothing than your own imagination. People say they have had relationships with aliens, we have lots of eyewitnesses to UFO’s, alien abductions etc , should I believe them? We know people have powerful imaginations, they can have false memories, beliefs can be driven by all kinds of interesting pyschological factors and social pressures. Its simpler to believe that is the explanation for your perceived relationship than it is to believe in all powerful, all loving God that allows and commands genocide for mysterious reasons we just cant figure out.
    Anyway I’ve written too much and I thank you for you interaction, it is very generous of you.

  23. Jason says:

    @howie
    Anything that is true by definition tells us you a lot about the words you have invented but not about what actually exists in reality. So the fact that you have defined God as being fundamental and therefore not limited tells us nothing about whether God is really unlimited, but only about how you or other theologians have defined him. Exactly how do you determine the rule for beings that our outside of space-time (and check that you have those rules right? )

    There is a whole field called philosophy that determines that.

    You say Christianity is not an anything goes assumption, but tell me, what action by God would change your view about his omnibenevelance? Since genocide and torture of animals don’t, what will?

    How are you saying that genocide and the torture of animals in the Bible are morally wrong, can you please explain?

    I don’t see that the Jesus story makes God’s command to Abraham to kill his sown makes any less cruel and sadistic, what an awful way to test the faith of your followers. Its worthy of the worst movie villain. According to Genesis “10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.”

    Can you explain please how you would “test” someone who has the free will to choose anything they want?

    The story of Jesus does relate to the story of Abraham. Do you know what Abraham called that place? he called it “The Lord will provide” and that is exactly what God provided. He provided His son to die on the cross for our sins. At that point in time in history when Christ was crucified God's perfect Justice, Loving Nature and Holiness converged and made us free in the process to know Him fully and commune with Him.

    But then I looked on the bible with open eyes and saw the cruelty of Abraham being told to kill his son, of God selecting children to kill rather Pharohs, of God commanding the torture of animals and genocide and I decided that if there is a loving God it cant be the God of the bible

    Can you please tell how many times the Pharaoh was given direct miracles (proof) of what God wanted him to do before the incident with Pharaohs son?

    oh and by the way how many years were the Amalekites given before the judgement was passed on them?

    Also can you explain to me that if God is the Creator of the universe and life itself and will eventually resurrect everyone (on judgement day) then how different is that to when people kill or do genocide?

    I recently read Steven Pinker’s book “The better angels of our nature”. Have you read it? It shows quite clear evidence to me that I should consider people are more good in an age of less religion than in say the medieval period when they were more religious. So I’m not sure people are more good in his precence, exactly how do you determine that?

    Well we have already seen the 20th century to be the bloodiest in history with millions of people killed under atheist regimes. What historical proof do you have to say that?

  24. i like pizza says:

    I'm a bit late to the party here.

    Anyway, I don't know enough about philosophical theology to present a well-reasoned argument for God's attributes, but I'd like to return to Aron's original post about Christianity not being based on speculation.

    Jesus' execution by crucifixion; his empty tomb; the experiences of multiple people, including skeptics, who believed to have subsequently encountered Jesus; the proclamation that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead; the formation of a new movement around this message; and at least some eyewitnesses willingly dying for these beliefs are widely accepted facts based on empirical data.

    Many scholars stop short of concluding that Jesus was resurrected because, as Aron pointed out, they work according to methodological naturalism -- the exclusion of the supernatural as an explanation. Since all naturalistic explanations fall far short, they simply say that they don't know what happened. But the data is there.

    Perhaps philosophical theology is more speculative, but the resurrection, which is the foundation of Christianity, is grounded in empirical evidence.

    Also, comparing the evidence for alien abductions to that of the resurrection is tenuous at best. In order for alien abductions to have the same amount of evidence, something roughly along the following lines would need to be accepted:

    The alleged abductee went to bed (roughly equivalent to Jesus' execution)
    Later that night, the abductee's roommates go into his room and find him missing (roughly equivalent to Jesus' tomb being found empty)
    Multiple people claim to see an alien craft lifting the abductee into the ship (roughly equivalent to multiple people subsequently claiming to have encountered Jesus)
    These people disrupt their lives and commit themselves to proclaiming that aliens are real, starting a new movement (roughly equivalent to Jesus' followers starting a new movement and proclaiming the resurrection)
    They're so confident in what they've witnessed that they willingly die for these beliefs (roughly equivalent to some disciples dying for their faith)

    Of course we have nothing even close to that level of evidence for alien abductions.

    I also read a reference to the opinion that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; but it's nothing more than that -- an opinion. A much more reasonable approach is requiring evidence that we wouldn't expect to find and can't otherwise explain if the event did not occur.

    Concerning the violence in the Old Testament, I think it raises legitimate questions. I won't pretend that there are easy answers to it, but understanding the historical, sociological and anthropological data can certainly correct mistaken assumptions we may have through a plain-text reading of the material (see here for an example concerning the Canaanites).

    Ultimately, though, I echo Aron's view that I find the historical evidence for the resurrection stronger than our philosophical musings (or 'armchair reasoning' as Aron would say) about what God would and wouldn't do.

  25. Flavio says:

    So, Scott and Aron, do you think that string theory is the correct theory of QG? What are the alternatives to string theory and loop quantum gravity? Is it possible that that the true theory of QG has not been thought of yet?

  26. Aron Wall says:

    Flavio,
    While we do not yet have a complete formulation of string theory (except in some special situations), it seems likely that it exists and corresponds to some mathematically consistent model of quantum gravity.

    My take on LQG is here. Three of the many other rival approaches are called Causal Dynamical Triangulations, Causal Sets, and Asymptotic Safety, although each of these approaches has some very serious issues. But I do think it is very likely that there are additional good ideas out there that haven't been thought of yet.

    So for me, the main question (about which I am agnostic) is whether there is essentially only one good way to construct a mathematically consistent model of QG, or multiple different ways. In the former case, string theory makes a very good case to be that model. In the latter case, since there is no direct experimental evidence for string theory, there would be no good reason to think the physically correct model has to be string theory...

    One other advantage of string theories is that they have a striking tendency to be "dual" (i.e. secretly equivalent) to superficially different looking theories (sometimes other string theories, sometimes completely different models). So it is always possible that someone will construct a non-stringy approach to quantum gravity, and then further investigation will reveal that it is still string theory after all.

    There are various non-stringy ways to quantize pure gravity in 2+1 dimensional spacetime, but this is a bit of a special case since that theory has no local degrees of freedom.

  27. Scott Church says:

    Hello @Flavio,

    My apologies... I wanted to respond sooner but it's been a crazy week! Aron is far more qualified to speak to this topic than I am, but with his gentle oversight (and perhaps, any needed corrections), let me offer a few additional comments...

    From a theoretical standpoint, string theory--or more properly, M-theory--is particularly well-equipped to provide mathematically consistent quantum field unifications and has led to many fruitful discoveries from which physic and mathematics have both "cross-pollinated" each other. So, if there is a truly unified field theory of "everything" (which most physicists believe to be the case), there probably is a "stringy" way to formulate it. To that extent, it arguably is, as its proponents claim, "the best game in town." But that said, it faces two rather large hurdles that IMHO at least, are all but deal breakers.

    First, it should be noted that the term "string theory" is a bit of a misnomer. M-theory isn't a theory per se, but a theoretical framework within which viable string theories can be formulated. As of this writing at least, comparatively few of the stable, internally consistent theories within it have been worked out, and none of these look anything like the universe we actually live in. As Aron said, we do not yet have a complete formulation of string theory, except in some special situations. But the range of potential solutions it supports--the so-called string landscape is mind-bogglingly huge. It's currently thought that M-theory allows for some 10^{500} possible solutions, each of which yields different laws of physics and possible universes. That's 1 with 500 zeros after it. This is how many different possible variations on the laws of physics that M-theory can accommodate... and respond to any potential empirical test with.

    Pause for a moment and let that number sink in...

    For a sense of how astronomically large it is, consider that the number of subatomic particles in the visible universe has been estimated to be around 10^{80}. The end result is that for all its elegance and mathematical possibilities, M-theory is so flexible that is is, essentially, a theoretical friction-free fluid that can flow into, and accommodate, pretty much any observation imaginable.

    It's worth noting that since the late middle ages physics has never gone more than 10 years or so before any new theory either passed or failed an empirical test of one or more clear predictions. The last time this happened was in the early 70's when the discovery of neutral currents and the W and Z bosons confirmed the electroweak unified field theory (for which the 1979 Nobel Prize was awarded to Steven Weinberg, Sheldon Glashow, and Abdus Salam). String theory first came on the scene at roughly the same time, and all that changed. Three or four years from now, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the first string theory "revolution." Since then, more than 50,000 peer-reviewed papers have been published on M-theory topics, yet to this day, it has yet to make a single unambiguous, testable prediction of any kind. There is no precedent for this in the history of modern science.

    Again, I don't mean to undercut the possibilities M-theory offers or the discoveries it has led to. But this is a real problem... a theory that can explain virtually anything--up to, and including unicorns, fairies, and flying spaghetti monsters--explains nothing at all.

    Second, this testability problem isn't just theoretical. The distance scale at which the real nuts and bolts of M-theory is expected to reveal itself is on the order of a Planck length (10^{-35} meters). Effectively probing this distance requires collision energies that can only be produced in a large hadron collider the diameter of the solar system. To add insult to injury, even if such a device could be built (including solving the inevitable scale-dependent stable luminosity problems such a device would present), how would such a project ever be funded? [Especially, I might add, if the United States continues to have governments controlled by the Republican party which--let's be honest--ain't exactly known for their lack of hostility to science, education, and the advancement of human knowledge (don't get me started...!).]

    In other words... don't hold your breath!

    M-theory is beautiful and elegant, and fertile ground for advancing ideas and mathematical tools. But a theory that can't make unambiguous predictions, and will almost certainly never be testable in our lifetimes or the lifetimes of our great-grandchildren, is quicksand. Aron may know of more possibilities for it than I'm aware of, but IMHO, I don't see how physics can have a future as long as all of our eggs are in this basket.

    Best. :-)

  28. Aron Wall says:

    Scott,
    Haven't you heard? There's a new way to construct vacua in string theory that can (apparently) get about 10^{272,000} of them. Which is a slightly bigger number...

  29. Scott Church says:

    Aron, really??? I had no idea! When did that figure come out, and from where? It would seem things are more fluid than I'd imagined. At this rate, by the time I can retire, the string vacua count might be up to a Penrose number. :-)

    Speaking of the fluidity of string theory and its vacua, it seems Sean Carroll recently came out with a paper defending the multiverse--particularly the ones based on this stringy fluidity--as legitimate science. Last Wednesday Peter Woit had this to say about it... http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=9938. Personally, I think he's spot on. Best.

  30. Aron Wall says:

    Scott,

    See here:
    https://arxiv.org/abs/1511.03209
    for some more discussion see this paper (one of the authors is a Christian friend of mine):
    https://arxiv.org/pdf/1711.06685.pdf

  31. Flavio says:

    I'm interested in the strengh of evidence in logic and math.
    1-What about the munchausen trilemma? It seems to suggest we can't have 100% certainty not even in logic and math.
    2-Take a syllogistic argument. IF, the premises are true, and the conclusion follow, then we're supposed to be 100% certain of it. But if we look from a probability(i consider it to be a part of math), point of view, we can never be sure that the premises are 100%, Take the argument:
    p1-it will rain tomorrow.
    p2-tomorrow i will do X(doesn't matter what)
    c-Therefore, it will rain tomorrow and i will do X.

    We can only think of the premises as being more plausibly true than false, that is P(p)>50%. That being said, even if the two premises are more plausible than their negations, from a bayesian point of view, we have to multiply the probabilities(As they have to be true at the same time) and often we can get a that The P(c)<50%, for example, when the P(p1)=51%= P(p2). That makes math, contradict logic. How do we get out?
    3-Another example would be that of infinities. In ZFC set theory, infinities are well defined objects. But i agree with the kalamists that actual infinities are metaphysically impossible, for philosophical reasons. So, this seems to be a case where the evidence from philosophy trumps mathematics. Some would even argue that infinities are logical contradictions(How can a subset, which is, by definition, a part of the set, be equal in "size" with the whole? (Like N and I)

    [Combined into single comment for ease of reading--AW]

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