Did a fairy kill Stephen Law’s apple tree?

Posted on 10/22/11 9 Comments

Brad asked Stephen Law: “I think you presented probably the most cogent and succinct case that an atheist can give in a debate, but why should I rationally assent when you have no alternative accounts of the universe, design, morality, or the resurrection?”

Stephen Law replied: “Does the fact that I can’t explain why my apple tree died entail that I should remain agnostic on or even sympathetic to the suggestion that the fairies did it?”

Stephen, this is a response not worthy of an academic of your lofty stature. Indeed, it is not even worthy of an academic of my lowly stature.

You compare “fairies” to God. But what’s the analogy exactly? That they’re both invisible explanatory entities? So are quarks. (And don’t forget minds and their intentional states, which play a key role in the explanation of the sentences you are reading.)

So what is the comparison? That people of sufficient intellect cease to believe in fairies? No, that can’t be right. There are lots of intellectually mature individuals who remain theists but few if any who still believe in fairies.

Perhaps the analogy is this: Stephen is himself incredulous to both God and fairies. Well good for him, but why should a glimpse into Stephen’s personal psychology be of any interest to Brad? Let’s consider Stephen’s attempted slur (because that is really what it is) more closely.

The fairy analogy seems focused on treating the concept of God as a hopelessly arbitrary explanation. Stephen’s apple tree dies. What reason does he have to think that a little fairy named Tinkerbell killed it? Precisely none. Ahh, but God as an explanatory concept is not operating at the level of Tinkerbell. That would be arbitrary under the circumstances.

We have two basic options for explaining the demise of Stephen’s apple tree: natural, undirected event causes or an agent cause. Thus, if there is some reason to think that mere natural undirected event causes are inadequate to explain the demise of the tree you could legitimately default to an agent cause as an explanation. That isn’t arbitrary like fairies. It is a reasoned inference based on the evidence.

Let’s say the evidence is the ontological status of objective moral value and obligation and the origin and cosmic fine-tuning of the universe. The kind of agent you would be appealing to as an explanation for those otherwise brute facts would be one consistent with, if not entailing, that which is widely recognized as the God of the philosophers.

So now Stephen is canvassing the neighborhood trying to figure out which agent cause might have poisoned his beloved tree. Then he notices a message carved into the bark. It reads “This is for my Harley you %$#&^.” (I can’t write the last word because this is a G rated blog, at least most of the time.)

Now it all makes sense. Last week Stephen backed his camper van over his neighbor’s Harley Davidson motorcycle. And rather than make amends he then laughed at the neighbor and quipped “Now the neighborhood doesn’t have to listen to that God-awful exhaust anymore!” This new evidence is not only agent-supportive. It is agent-specific. Now we’re not just looking for any ole’ agent capable of poisoning the tree. We’re looking for Stephen’s neighbor. (Just hold on Stephen. Let me call my friends from the local Bandidos chapter. They’ll deal with this.)

The last line of evidence cited by Brad (resurrection) brings us into the territory of agent-specific evidence. It is analogous to the message carved into the tree. After all, if there is viable evidence that Jesus rose from the dead then there is reasonable evidence that it is the God Jesus worshipped who raiesd him.

And thus in the same way that Stephen can reason to a neighbor as the likely agent cause for the demise of his apple tree so somebody can reason to the Christian God as a likely agent to explain all the data Stephen failed to address in his debate.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    It is analogous to the message carved into the tree.

    It’s more analogous to some striations and cracks in the bark that some people think might spell “Harlie”, but might just be an accident like the Kermit on Mars.

    Before you respond, check out Stephen Law’s discussion of that evidence – go here and search for “1967″.

  • Brad Haggard

    Actually, this is the guy who poisoned Dr. Law’s apple tree.

    Randal, you anticipated my response, that in the case of the apple tree there are viable natural explanations. The problem for me with Dr. Law’s response is that he doesn’t even try to offer a counter to the arguments. I think Craig’s best point was to note the inconsistency in Law’s dismissal of skeptical theism while endorsing a “skeptical” atheism with regard to all of Craig’s arguments.

    But I really meant what I said when I commended him on his debate performance. That is exactly how I would go about attacking the concept of God and I think he made good headway against “the foremost defender of Christianity.” Except that, having made that argument to myself it rings hollow because, ironically, it makes a virtue out of not knowing.

    • Stephen Law


      The analogy wasn’t intended as a veiled insult. If you took it that way, well, I’m sorry!

      The point I was trying to make is just the simple one that, in order for someone to quite reasonably reject an explanation, they don’t need to be given, or to provide themselves, a good explanation.

      Brad said: “The thing that left me unconvinced, however, what that you never gave an alternative account to any of Craig’s arguments.”

      Well, I don’t need to be able to explain e.g. why the universe exists in order to reasonably rule out the claim that an evil god made it. Ditto a good god, it seems to me.

      In short, THIS is NOT a good reason for Brad to remain unconvinced (though there may be such reasons).

      However, the mindset of many Christians is “Well, if you can’t explain so-an-so, and God can, then it must be reasonable for me to believe in God”. Craig exploits this.

      He does this particularly in connection with his moral argument. His actual argument for his first premise: “If there’s no god, there are no objective moral values”, was pretty dreadful on the night, and I pointed that out. But many Christians think I failed to refute his moral argument because I did not show how there could be objective moral value without God. Yet *I didn’t have to* in order reasonably to rule out his God.

      • randal

        “The analogy wasn’t intended as a veiled insult. If you took it that way, well, I’m sorry!”

        I wasn’t taking it as an insult. But I did take it that you were drawing some deeper comparison between the notion of God as explanation and fairy as explanation. To the extent where such comparisons are based on legitimate and substantive analogues between the two concepts I have no problem. I would just ask that the person making the comparison make clear what the point of comparison is. We do live in an age where God is routinely compared to invisible pink unicorns, flying spaghetti monsters and orbiting teapots. And Dawkins himself compared belief in God to belief in fairies in the second edition of The God Delusion. He did so as a defensive move to explain his ignorance of theology (he doesn’t know any fairyology either and yet can argue reasonably against the existence of fairies).

        All that is to say that your fairy illustration finds itself within a rhetorical minefield. Given that you never intended such a comparison, it is rather like an immigrant coming to America, buying a confederate flag thinking it is just a nice old flag, and waving it on his front lawn in Boston. He didn’t realize all that the flag brings with it until his neighbors begin protesting.

        “The point I was trying to make is just the simple one that, in order for someone to quite reasonably reject an explanation, they don’t need to be given, or to provide themselves, a good explanation.”

        Sure, in general I agree with that. A large explosion in Siberia flattens thousands of square miles of forest in 1908. It is fully consistent to say that you don’t know what did cause the explosion although you know what didn’t do it.

        However, the matter is complicated significantly when you have multiple lines of evidence which are mutually supporting of a given hypothesis as in a court trial. The prosecution may have eye-witness testimony that the defendant was at the scene. The defendant’s attorney obviously has some sort of obligation to neutralize that testimony if he is going to win over the jury. There are two ways he could do it to make the strongest case for his client.

        Single line defense: if he can come up with a single line of evidence so decisive that the prosecution’s eyewitness testimony becomes irrelevant. For example, CCTV evidence establishing that the defendant could not have been at the scene because he was in his apartment. If the defendant’s attorney has evidence this strong he doesn’t need to deal directly with the eyewitness testimony.

        Multiple line defense: the defendant’s attorney could provide his own eyewitness supporting the claim that the man was at home. But since this is less than compelling evidence (it is simply eyewitness against eyewitness), he needs to address the reliability of the prosecution’s eyewitness as well, perhaps by challenging his credibility (e.g. pointing out that he is on parole and made a deal with the prosecution to testify).

        I guess it is for the audience to decide whether any of your arguments against Craig were of sufficient strength to require only a single line defense, or whether they really required a multiple line defense where you provided some alternate explanation for the evidence he provided. When in doubt about the strength of one’s single line evidence, it is always better to provide an alternate explanation for the counter-evidence. We can continue to argue about whether you were obliged to provide an alternate explanation for Craig’s evidence, but we can surely agree that your case would have been stronger if you had.

      • Brad Haggard

        Dr. Law,

        What if I thought that the force of God in shedding light on a whole host of things about the universe and in my life was more powerful than the evidential problem of evil? It wouldn’t matter how hard you pressed that problem, because you’re ignoring all of the other reasons I have for my belief in God.

        In your case, though, I can see how coming to the arguments with the prior conviction that God cannot exist based on the POE will cause you to look at those arguments very unfavorably, even in the absence of counter-models. It just rings hollow to me until you can combat the other arguments apart from pressing the problem of evil.

    • randal

      “Except that, having made that argument to myself it rings hollow because, ironically, it makes a virtue out of not knowing.”

      Remember Socrates’ famous quote: “I know one thing: that I know nothing.”

  • David P

    I think Brad is thinking outside of purely evidential considerations. Suppose you come across some truth T which disrupts your current web of beliefs (noetic structure or whatever you want to call it) in such a way that you will need to re-assess a majority of your central beliefs. T is not compatible or else makes-less-probable many of your central beliefs.

    I think many see atheism as the kind of T that not only disrupts their deeply held views about transcendence, morality, and religious traditions; but it does so with limited payback, in that it provides them “we just don’t know” answers. (Queue Dawkins saying “but we are working on it! you can’t just say God did it and sit down!” And I’m not personally advocating this kind of thinking, but it is prominent.)

    Is is rational to weigh acceptance of T against the impact it will have on one’s noetic structure, in the way I have described, such that the “explanatory power” and “explanatory scope” will be reduced? I guess many theories work this way…they don’t explain as much as their previous theories, but what they do explain they explain better.

    Then again, this whole worldview changing business depends on how sure we are about T. And explanatory power does seem relevant.

    T does not explain [x,y,z]
    G explains [x,y,z]

    Does this not confer limited epistemic probability on G as a theory via explanatory scope and power? Seems that way.

    • Brad Haggard

      This is exactly my point. My conviction in x, y and z is stronger than any conviction I have in the POE. The difference between Dr. Law and I is how much weight we give to the evidential problem of evil as we are evaluating the other arguments.

  • Jag Levak

    “You compare “fairies” to God. But what’s the analogy exactly?”

    From my perspective as an outsider, they both look like fanciful, untestable, magical ‘just-so’ stories proffered to explain, without really explaining, phenomena which are claimed to be in need of exceptional explanations. Why does water freeze into ice? Some people thought fairies did it. Today, theists may use physics to describe the process, but then in turn will invoke God to explain the physics. Theists view this as more sophisticated, but I see it as magical thinking being pushed outwards by advances in understanding about how things work. The more remote magical beings are more ‘reasonable’ only because they have retreated from our expanding areas of understanding, and they have not yet been overtaken–like the hapless fairies.

    “Let’s say the evidence is the ontological status of objective moral value and obligation and the origin and cosmic fine-tuning of the universe. The kind of agent you would be appealing to as an explanation for those otherwise brute facts would be one consistent with, if not entailing, that which is widely recognized as the God of the philosophers.”

    There can be no such thing as objective moral value. Value has no meaning apart from a valuer, which means all value is relative. And the case for objective morality is based on nothing more than our moral sensibilities and intuitions, guides which many theists will happily toss out the window to avoid some of the more disturbing moral implications of BibleGod. So this is ‘evidence’ which depends on some intuition that there must be something objective about morality (even though nobody can point out what that something is), as well as the unsupported supposition that the only possible way to account for the existence of morality is that God did it.

    Fine tuning arguments appear to be an attempt to raid something which is regarded as a problem in science to serve as a sort of teleological argument (ie. if things had been different, things would now be different; that would be bad, therefore God exists). But when a scientific model requires fine tuning in order to fit the evidence, that is regarded as a problem because that is a classic symptom of a post-hoc or reverse extrapolated theory, and those have a track record of being notoriously vulnerable to error. You cannot fit the theory to the data, and then say you have confidence that the theory is correct because it ‘would have’ predicted the data which you just tailored it to fit. Big Bang cosmology is one of those theories which is necessarily post-hoc, and enormously reliant on reverse extrapolation, but even so, it is requiring constant tweaks and tinkering to explain away one problem after another. There is a real sense in which we can see the hand of design in Big Bang cosmology, but that is our own hand. I see that as evidence of a theoretical problem, not evidence of a God.

    And citing the origin of the universe itself as being a form of evidence for a god is the ultimate appeal to ignorance. In the first place, we have no reason to suppose the universe is in need of explanation. Explanations of phenomena within this universe rest on apparent causal relationships, but our understanding of causal relationships is inextricably grounded in qualities of this universe. To suppose that we can lift causality out of the entire context which gives it meaning, and then apply it to the universe as a whole looks like a type of composition error.

    And it could be even worse than that, because in our understanding of causality, we can speak of A bumping into B, thereby changing the behavior of B, and the bump can be regarded as the cause of this change, but there is nothing about this notion of causality which suggests it has any application to existence itself. So an argument from analogy which uses a premise like “anything which begins to exist must have a cause” runs into the very serious problem of being completely unlike anything in our experience. We have never seen any cause actually augment existence. All of our understanding of “begins to exist” applies only to apparent conceptualizations of arrangements of things. We might say the marble statue began to exist when it was carved, or that was ’caused’ by the sculptor, but all the sculptor did was remove the extraneous rock to reveal a particular configuration of material which was already present in the rock before the sculptor ever laid chisel on it. In this sense, when you break a rock in two, each of the two resulting rocks “began to exist” when you split the progenitor rock, but all you have done is take existing material and put it into a new configuration. Every instance of “beginning to exist” that we have any experience of is entirely conceptual, and it never involves anything more than the rearranging of already-existing material. And there is nothing about the process of rearranging of existing stuff which suggests the same process *must* apply to the commencement of the very existence of stuff–along with space and time itself. Indeed, it isn’t even apparent how it *could* apply.

    “The last line of evidence cited by Brad (resurrection) brings us into the territory of agent-specific evidence.”

    Not only are miracle stories a pretty feeble form of ‘evidence’, given the known human fondness for making up miracle stories, the reasoning seems to run counter to the emotional appeal of the fine-tuning argument. The fine-tuning God is made out to be the ultimate long-distance bowler, able to set everything into motion with such precision that billions of years later, on one tiny speck in the cosmos, life would arise and develop into a great many forms, all to bring about, and provide for, humans (with humans being the reason this God created hundreds of billions of galaxies). But then fine-tuning God turns into miracle God, and comes to the Earth speck and violates the very laws and properties he set into motion with such perfect exactness all those millions of centuries ago. If miracle God can do anything, then he could just as easily have made, for example, an unmoving flat world with tiny stars that can hover over particular buildings, and with a haltable and reversable sun that traverses the sky during the day and goes to sleep in a temple at night. Indeed, a world like that would have been a much stronger testament to the existence of a god. But back in the world we live in, is it simply inconsistent to claim reason and science leads you to conclude there must be a being which then acts in defiance of reason and science.