New Book on God, Physics, and the Philosophy of Science

Koperski, Jeffrey. The Physics of Theism: God, Physics, and the Philosophy of Science (Blackwell, 2015). The book is due out next month. Here's the blurb:

The Physics of Theism provides a timely, critical analysis of the ways in which physics intertwines with religion. Koperski brings clarity to a range of arguments including the fine-tuning argument, naturalism, the laws of nature, and the controversy over Intelligent Design.
  • A single author text providing unprecedented scope and depth of analysis of key issues within the Philosophy of Religion and the Philosophy of Science
  • Critically analyses the ways in which physics is brought into play in matters of religion
  • Self-contained chapters allow readers to directly access specific areas of interest
  • The area is one of considerable interest, and this book is a timely and well-conceived contribution to these debates
  • Written by an accomplished scholar working in the philosophy of physics in a style that renders complex arguments accessible
Further details here.

Swinburne Conference Videos

Sorry, I've been meaning to put this up for a while, but it got set aside due to work. Here they are. I haven't seen them all yet, but the one's I've seen are terrific.

Note the comment under each video: "In late 2014 or early 2015, there will be an opportunity for the speaker to respond to selected comments and questions. Comments (which can be made in the box below) will be moderated and will not appear immediately."

Call for Abstracts: Theistic Ethics Workshop

CFA, Theistic Ethics Workshop

The organizers of the first annual Theistic Ethics Workshop encourage abstract submissions for our inaugural meeting at the Graylyn Conference Center ( on the campus of Wake Forest University. The workshop will be held on October 8-10, 2015, and details can be found here:

Authors of accepted abstracts will have all their expenses covered, including travel. This workshop is being supported by generous funding from the Thomas J. Lynch Funds of the Wake Forest University Philosophy Department. Please direct any questions to

Mark Murphy (Georgetown)
Christopher Tucker (William and Mary)
Christian Miller (Wake Forest University


Theism and Material Causality


1. Introduction
Call classical theism the view that there is a necessarily existent personal god who is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect, and call the classical view of creationthe view that consists of the following three theses: (i) God is wholly distinct from the natural world: the world is not identical to God or made from the stuff of God’s being. Nor is it an idea in the mind of God or a mere feature or mode of God’s being. Rather, it is a concrete object that exists in its own right (or an aggregate of such[1]); (ii) God is the originating or sustaining cause of the natural world; and (iii) God created the natural world ex nihilo, i.e., without the use of pre-existing materials. Finally, call classical theismcvc any version of classical theism that includes the classical view of creation.[2]In this paper, I offer a new argument against classical theismcvc. In particular, I shall argue that creation ex nihilo is impossible, and that since the classical view of creation is constitutive of classical theismcvc, classical theismcvc is false.

2. The Argument
The problem of creation ex nihilo can be expressed in terms of the following argument:

1. All concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining efficient cause have an originating or sustaining material cause, respectively.

2. If classical theismcvc is true, then the universe is a concrete object that has an originating or sustaining efficient cause with neither an originating nor a sustaining material cause.

3. Therefore, classical theismcvc is false.

The argument is valid, and so the conclusion follows from the premises of necessity. What, then, can be said on behalf of the premises?

Premise 1 expresses a causal principle, which I shall call the principle of material causality, or PMC for short. In simple terms, PMC says that all made things are made from or out of other things. A bit more carefully, it says that concrete objects have an originating or sustaining material cause whenever they have an originating or sustaining efficient cause, respectively. Before I defend the premise, some preliminary remarks about terminology are in order.

First, concrete object denotes at least the sorts of entities classically individuated by the ontological category of Substance, and to distinguish the entities at issue from those of other ontological categories (e.g., properties, relations, events, tropes, and the like). Examples of concrete objects thus include atoms, stars, rocks, planets, trees, animals, people, and (if such there be) angels, Cartesian souls, and gods. They are thus to be distinguished from concrete entities in other ontological categories (shapes, surfaces, events, and the like) and abstract objects (propositions, numbers, sets, and the like).

The next two key terms in premise 1 are those of originating cause and sustaining cause. By the former, I mean an efficient cause of the temporal beginning of a thing’s existence[3] (if it should have such), and by the latter, I mean an efficient cause of a thing’s continued existence. So, for example, matches and lighter fluid are at least partial originating causes of the existence of a flame, and the oxygen that surrounds it is at least a partial sustaining cause of the flame’s existence.

Finally, material cause aims to capture (roughly) Aristotle’s notion of the term, and to individuate the type of cause in play from the other three sorts of causes distinguished by Aristotle, viz., formal, efficient, and final causes. In particular, by material cause, I mean the temporally or ontologically prior things or stuff from which (though not necessarily of which) a thing is made. So, for example, the originating material cause of a shiny new penny is the parcel of copper from which it was made; the originating material causes of a new water molecule are the hydrogen and oxygen atoms from which it was made; and the sustaining material causes of a flame are the reacting gases and solids from which it is made.

Two points about the causal premise merit special emphasis. First, PMC is restricted to concrete objects as we’ve defined them. As such, it is neutral as to whether entities in other ontological categories require a material cause. Second, the requirement of a material cause is restricted further to just those concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining efficient cause. It therefore allows for the possibility of concrete objects that lack a material cause, namely, those that lack an originating or sustaining efficient cause. So, for example, the premise allows that the universe may lack a material cause of its existence if it is both beginningless and also lacks a sustaining cause. It also allows that a universe with a temporal beginning may lack a material cause if it also lacks an originating and sustaining efficient cause. An example of the latter sort of case might be a temporally finite, four-dimensional “block” universe. As such, the causal premise is neutral as to whether all concrete objects begin to exist, and to whether all concrete objects that begin to exist have a material cause. The causal premise only rules out concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining efficient cause, but lack a material cause.

Is PMC plausible? It certainly seems so. First, PMC enjoys abundant empirical support. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the case of the extremely well-confirmed law of the conservation of mass/energy. The law states that if there is a given quantity of mass/energy at a given time, then it must have been caused by exactly the same quantity of mass/energy at any earlier time. In general, though, our uniform experience is such that whenever we find a concrete object with an originating or sustaining cause, we also find it to have a material cause. Furthermore, there seem to be no clear counterexamples to the principle in our experience. What explains this? PMC is a simple, conservative hypothesis with wide explanatory scope, which, if true, would best explain this data. Experience thus provides significant abductive support for PMC.[4]

Second, consider a version of PMC with stronger modal force:

(PMC’) It is metaphysically impossible for a concrete object to originate or be sustained by an efficient cause if it lacks a material cause.

It seems that PMC’ is supported by rational intuition or rational seemings. In particular, PMC’ appears true on reflection, where the notion of reflection at issue is broad enough to include thought experiments or intuition pumps. Rational intuition has traditionally been taken as evidence of metaphysically necessary truths. Perhaps such intuitions aren’t enough to demonstratethe impossibility of an originating cause without a material cause, but we ordinarily take such seemings to be at least defeasible, prima facie evidence for what can or cannot be the case. Therefore, if rational intuition supports PMC’, then since PMC’ entails the modally weaker PMC, then rational intuition thereby provides at least prima facie support for PMC as well.

We can support PMC’ by means of the following thought experiment. Suppose that while walking through a meadow, you came upon a glass blower with a translucent glass sphere that is six meters in diameter. Suppose further that the glassblower told you the sphere has the following special characteristic: he created it out of nothing without the use of pre-existing materials – not from molten glass or any other concrete objects or stuff external to the glass blower; nor from some internal reservoir of energy or stuff internal to him; nor yet from the stuff of his own being. Rather, he created it merely by saying, “Let there be a glass sphere.” Most, I imagine, would likewise find such a claim strongly counterintuitive or absurd: Absent materials internal or external to the agent from which to create things, it seems that even the most strenuous attempt can only result in creative “dry heaves”, as it were.

A similar intuition obtains when we consider any other concrete object arising from an originating cause without a material cause. Furthermore, the intuition doesn’t seem to depend on whether we take the glassblower to have limited power: Saying that an omnipotent glassblower can create a translucent glass sphere without pre-existing materials seems on an epistemic par with saying that an omnipotent being regurgitate a lunch from a completely empty stomach with a sufficiently strenuous dry heave.

We have similar grounds for thinking that concrete objects that depend upon a sustaining cause for their existence have a material cause. So, for example, the continued existence of a flame depends upon an efficient sustaining cause for its continued existence. But here we find that the flame’s sustenance also crucially involves a material sustaining cause, viz., reacting gases and solids. Furthermore, our intuitions in support of the causal principle are triggered when we attempt to imagine the flame’s continued existence without the presence of reacting gases, solids or some other material cause; the intuition does not diminish when we imagine the flame to be past-eternal.

In addition, it doesn’t require a full-blown Aristotelian metaphysic to find the materials for a compelling thought experiment for PMC in the apparent relationship between what actually exists and what merely has the potential to exist. Thus, the possibility of the origination or sustenance of an object requires the prior potential for its existence. But it seems that this potential must “reside” in some actually existing thing or stuff. So, for example, the potential existence of a penny “resides” in a parcel of copper. By contrast, nothingness lacks the capacity or potential for becoming anything, since nothingness, being nothing at all, has no capacities or properties whatsoever. Prima facie, then, concrete objects can’t come into being from nothing, but only from other concrete things or stuff.

Finally, the same conclusion can be gotten from an extremely weak version of PMC:

Weak PMC: Possibly, every concrete object (and aggregate of such) that has an originating or sustaining efficient cause has an originating or sustaining material cause, respectively.

In simple terms, Weak PMC says that it is possible that all made things are made from or out of other things. A bit more carefully, it says that there is at least one possible worldin which all concrete individuals and stuffs that are made are made from or out of other concrete individuals or stuffs. Now my own view is of course that a much stronger version of PMC is true -- viz., that it holds of metaphysical necessity. But we’ve also seen that there are strong grounds for thinking PMC holds in at least the actual world: it's intuitive, it has no uncontroversial exceptions, and it's encoded in the well-confirmed conservation laws of physics. A fortiori, then, there is intuitive evidence to warrant the claim that there is at least one possible world W in which such a principle is non-vacuously true. But if so, then in W, some concrete objects are made, and all concrete objects that are made are made out of other things or stuff. And if so, then no concrete objects in W that are made are made ex nihilo, in which case no god or gods made them ex nihilo in W. But on classical Anselmian theism, for any world that contains concrete objects or stuffs distinct from God, at least some of those objects or stuffs were made ex nihilo. It follows that the god of classical Anselmian theism doesn't exist in W. But if so, then by (i) the fact that classical Anselmian theism entails that God is a metaphysically necessary being, and (ii) Axiom S5 of S5 modal logic, it follows that such a God doesn't exist in anyworld, and therefore, a fortiori, such a God doesn’t exist in the actual world. Therefore, the same conclusion can be gotten from even a very weak version of PMC. For those who remain unconvinced, however, I will argue shortly that the same conclusion follows even if one rejects all forms of PMC. I therefore urge those readers to sit tight.

All that remains is to defend premise 2. Why should we accept it? Premise 2 follows from our partial stipulative definition of ‘classical theismcvc’. It is therefore a conceptual truth. This causes no trouble for the argument’s significance, for the partial definition captures several theses that are prima facie constitutive of classical theism. Such theses are among those that individuate theism from neighboring views about God, such as pantheism, panentheism, demiurgic theism, Berkeleyan idealism, and Spinozistic monism. They are also among the theses about God that have been accepted and defended by most prominent philosophers within the theistic tradition, including Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, (and, more recently) William Alston, Alvin Plantinga, and Richard Swinburne. Indeed, it is safe to say that most contemporary analytic philosophers, both inside and outside the theistic tradition, would consider them essential theses of any account of classical theism worthy of the name. I therefore think it’s safe to say that the stipulative truth of the premise won’t undermine its relevance for evaluating classical theism’s epistemic merits.

We’ve seen that the argument from material causality is valid. We’ve also seen that premise 1 -- the principle of material causality – is well supported from both a priori and empirical sources, and that premise 2 is a conceptual truth. It therefore looks as though the argument poses a formidable problem for classical theism.[5]

How might the classical theist respond? Premise 2 is non-negotiable, as we’ve seen that it is a stipulative, conceptual truth. That leaves open only two types of response for the classical theist: a non-concessive response, which would require providing a defeater for premise 1, and a concessive response, which grants the soundness of the argument, but rejects classical theismcvc. In the next two sections, I will consider and criticize both sorts of response. Briefly, I will argue that (i) the non-concessive responses are unsuccessful, that (ii) most of the concessive responses require rejecting classical theism, and that (iii) the remaining theism-friendly concessive responses are of dubious religious significance and epistemic merit.

3. Non-Concessive Responses
As mentioned above, the only sort of non-concessive response to the argument is to provide principled grounds for rejecting or resisting premise 1. This would require principled grounds for thinking the principle of material causality is false or without adequate justification – that is, to undercut or rebut the claim that all concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining cause have an originating or sustaining material cause of their existence, respectively. I can think of seven ways in which one might attempt to do so, which I shall consider below.

First, one might appeal to God’s omnipotence as a way of defeating premise 1. Thus, one might argue that omnipotence is also constitutive of classical theism, that omnipotence entails the ability to do anything metaphysically possible, and thus that God can create the universe ex nihilo. The problem is that the argument is missing a crucial premise, viz. that creation of the universe ex nihilo is metaphysically possible. And we’ve already seen that there are burden-shifting epistemic grounds against it. As such, even when the enthymatic premise is added to avoid invalidity, the objection begs the question at issue.

Second, one might reply that it’s conceivable that a god creates the universe ex nihilo, that conceivability is prima facie evidence for metaphysical possibility, and thus that divine creation ex nihilois metaphysically possible. However, this line of reasoning would seem to prove too much. For by the same token, one could argue that it’s conceivable that a universe pops into existence ex nihilo without any cause whatsoever, that conceivability is prima facie evidence for metaphysical possibility, and thus that a universe popping into existence ex nihilo without any cause whatsoever is likewise metaphysically possible. But then we have a new argument against classical theism. For it’s also constitutive of classical theism that for any possible world, if there is a universe distinct from God in that world, then God created it. Therefore, the conceivability of an uncreated world that pops into existence ex nihilowithout any cause whatsoever provides equally compelling grounds against classical theism as the prima facie impossibility of creation ex nihilo.

A third response is related to the second, and goes back to Hume. To get at the response, consider the following principle, which I'll call the Impossibility of Uncaused Concrete Objects(IUC):

(IUC) It's metaphysically impossible for a concrete object to come into existence out of nothing without a cause.

IUC is just an instance of the more general principle, ex nihilo nihil fit.And as far as widely accepted metaphysical principles go, the latter is about as good as it gets. For not only does it seem self-evident, but all of nature appears to conform to it without exception.

However, some philosophers remain skeptical. Philosophers in this camp tend to sympathize with Hume that anything that can be imagined or conceived without contradiction is prima faciemetaphysically possible (or, more weakly, such imaginings defeat conflicting modal claims). And since one can imagine, say, a quark -- or even the whole universe -- popping into existence uncaused out of nothing, and can do so without a contradiction in one's conception, that's enough to call the principle into question. On the basis of this line of reasoning, philosophers of this stripe take it to be a live possibility that ex nihilo nihil fit is false, and thus that it's at least a live possibility that the universe popped into existence uncaused, out of nothing.

Now consider the following simplifying gloss on PMC’:

(PMC’) It's metaphysically impossible for a concrete object to originate or be sustained by an efficient cause if it lacks a material cause.

PMC’ looks to be on an epistemic par with IUC: Both seem self-evident, and both enjoy the support of universal experience. However, neither principle is analytic, and so one can deploy the Humean gambit above to resist them if one is so inclined. Given that IUC and PMC’ are in the same epistemological boat, therefore, it seems unprincipled and arbitrarily selective to accept one while rejecting the other. It therefore looks as though one should treat them similarly: either accept both, or use the Humean gambit to reject both.

Here's the rub. Either option entails a defeater for classical theism. For consider the first option: accept both principles. If you do that, then you accept PMC’, in which case you accept something that entails that God can't create concrete objects ex nihilo, in which case you accept something that entails that classical theism is false. On the other hand, suppose you reject both principles. Then you reject IUC, in which case you accept that it’s at least a live epistemic possibility that there is a metaphysically possible world at which concrete objects pop into existence out of nothing without a cause. But since classical theism entails that God is the creator or sustainer of all concrete objects outside himself in all possible worlds in which he exists, you accept something that is a defeater for classical theism. Therefore, either way, you accept something that entails a defeater for classical theism.In short, rejecting PMC’ is just as problematic for classical theism as accepting it.

A fourth sort of response one might raise against premise 1 is one heard from some in the field of quantum cosmology, viz., that there are plausible models of the origin of the universe according to which the universe arose from nothing without any cause whatsoever.[6]One might reasonably worry that upon closer inspection, the claim supported by the scientific evidence is not that the universe popped into existence ex nihilo, but rather much weaker claims, such as that it arose from a random fluctuation in a quantum vacuum.[7] I will not pursue this worry here, however. For, strictly speaking, the possibility of concrete objects popping into existence ex nihilo without any cause whatsoever is compatible with PMC. For PMC does not require that all concrete objects have an originating and sustaining material cause. Rather, it only requires that they do if they have an originating or sustaining efficient cause. In this regard, PMC treats universes that pop into existence out of nothing without an efficient case as on a par with past-eternal universes and four-dimensional block universes.

In any case, and perhaps most saliently for our purposes, the truth of the current objection would provide no relief for the classical theist. For such evidence would likewise seem to provide a defeater for classical theism as well. For, again, classical theism entails that for any world in which there are concrete objects distinct from God, God created them. But if the present objection is correct, then there are possible worlds where concrete objects pop into existence without a cause, in which case God does not create them at that world, in which case classical theism is false.

Fifth, the theist might resist premise 1 by appeal to agent causal views of the self. Thus, they might argue that there are good reasons to think that (i) humans possess libertarian free will, that (ii) this is best explained on the assumption that the physical realm isn’t causally closed, that (iii) the agent can thus cause things via energy from “outside” the natural causal order[8], and that (iv) this is sufficient justification for the existence of genuine creation ex nihilo, in which case premise 1 is false. This reply won’t work, however. For even if (i)-(iii) could be adequately supported – contrary to the opinion of the majority of analytic philosophers[9]– the falsity of the causal closure of the physical wouldn’t require positing the creation of concrete objects ex nihilo. Rather, at most, it would require the transfer of pre-existing energy from the agent (who acts from “outside” of the natural causal order) to the physical realm.

Sixth, one might object that (i) our intuitions and experience regarding material causes have been conditioned by our experience of causation within the physical universe; (ii) the case of the origin of the physical universe itselfis quite different from such cases; and therefore that (iii) such evidence is insufficient to support PMC when applied to the origin of the universe. But this objection is of little help to the classical theist. For if it’s sufficient to undercut our intuitive and empirical evidence for the requirement of a materialcause, then it also seems sufficient to undercut our intuitive and empirical evidence for the requirement of an efficientcause. But then we have an equally powerful defeater for classical theism. For as we’ve seen in our response to previous objections, it’s likewise constitutive of classical theism that for any possible world in which God exists, if there is a universe distinct from God in that world, then God is its efficient cause. Therefore, the epistemic possibility of a universe that pops into existence ex nihilo without an efficient cause provides equally persuasive grounds against classical theism as the prima facie impossibility of creation ex nihilo.

Finally, one might reject premise 1 via an appeal to theoretical cost-benefit analysis. In particular, one might argue that while denying PMC is a theoretical cost for classical theismCVC, it can compensate for that cost if it turns out that classical theismCVCembodies the theoretical virtues (e.g., simplicity, scope, conservatism, etc.) better than other competing hypotheses (e.g., naturalism, pantheism, panentheism, deism, demiurgism, etc.). And if that should turn out be so, the classical theistCVC would then be warranted in rejecting PMC in favor of a qualified version of it — say, one that asserts that all things with an efficient cause besides the creation of the universe require a material cause.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to assess whether classical theismCVC wins out over competing large-scale hypotheses in terms of a comprehensive theoretical cost-benefit analysis.[10] But for the purposes of this paper, it is enough to note that to respond in this way is just to grant that the argument is an undefeated defeater for theismCVC unless or until it can be shown that the explanatory merits of the latter warrant rejecting PMC. But that is all that the argument aims to do.

4. Concessive Responses
If one finds the non-concessive responses implausible, one might finally turn to a concessive response; that is, one might accept a view of God that denies the classical view of creation. There are three basic versions of such a response, each one corresponding to a rejection of one of the three clauses of the classical view of creation as we have defined it. I will briefly consider each sort of response below.

The first type of concessive response is to reject thesis (i) of the classical view of creation as we’ve defined it, thereby denying that God is wholly distinct from the natural world. According to this sort of response, one allows that the world is either (a) identical to God, (b) made from the stuff of God’s being, (c) a mere feature or mode of God’s being, or (d) an idea in the mind of God. Unfortunately, options (a)-(c) come at the high cost of abandoning classical theism altogether, as embracing one of these options amounts to embracing something in the neighborhood of pantheism, panentheism, or Spinozistic monism, respectively. And while (d) is arguably a version of theism, it requires embracing something on the order of Berkeleyan idealism. It would take us too far afield to evaluate the case for such a view, but it’s enough for our purposes to note that few have found the case for Berkeleyan idealism persuasive, in which case it seems unlikely that many are likely to accept a concessive response of this sort.

The second type of concessive response is to reject thesis (ii) of the classical view of creation. According to this sort of response, God may or may not be omnipotent[11], omniscient, and morally perfect. However, he does not play the role of creator of the universe in any sense. Call this sort of view hands-off theism.

It seems antecedently unlikely that there will be many takers for hands-off theism. This is for at least two reasons. First, hands-off theism looks epistemically unmotivated. For many standard lines of evidence for theism depend upon inferences from the natural world to God. Examples include design arguments from the fine-tuning of the universe to a cosmic designer, as well as cosmological arguments for a first cause, ground of being, and sufficient reason for the existence of contingent concrete reality. But the god of hands-off theism plays none of these roles with respect to the universe. As such, accepting hands-off theism commits one to rejecting many of the core arguments of natural theology. It’s also arguable that it causes trouble for religious experience. For example, in his widely-influential account of the evidential force of religious experience, William Alston[12]grants that awareness of certain phenomena (e.g., religious diversity) can undercut a good deal of the epistemic force of religious experience, and thus that the justification of theistic belief requires further buttressing with the help of other evidence, such as cosmological and design arguments. But again, the hands-off theist is committed to rejecting many such buttressing arguments as evidence for her belief. Now perhaps an adequate case for hands-off theism can be made that does not depend on these lines of evidence. But for our purposes, it’s enough to note that the hands-off theist has their work cut out for them.

Second, the god of hands-off theism seems to be of much less religious significance than the God of classical theismcvc. For on such a view, God is not responsible for the existence and order of the natural world. He is therefore not the cosmic architect, first cause, or ground of being upon which all else depends, let alone Anselm’s greatest conceivable being. Rather, he exists as just one among the many uncreated concrete objects within the universe, having less creative and providential control than even Plato’s demiurge. On such a view, then, the grandeur, preeminence, and otherness of God are severely diminished. There is also a corresponding loss of the awe that comes from a sense of ultimate dependence upon a Creator.

The third and final type of concessive response is to reject thesis (iii) of the classical view of creation. According to this sort of response, God plays the role of creator and designer. However, he did not create the world out of nothing, but rather from pre-existing materials. For obvious reasons, let’s call this sort of view demiurgic theism. Now it seems that demiurgic theism is an improvement over hands-off theism in terms of epistemic motivation, since on such a view god plays at least a diminished role qua creator and designer of the universe, fashioning the universe out of primordial matter/stuff. Therefore, while standard cosmological arguments cannot be marshaled in support of demiurgic theism[13], perhaps an argument from design can be made on behalf of such a view, as well as (perhaps) religious experience and other sorts of evidence that don’t appeal to an inference from the sheer existence of the universe to God.

However, whatever the epistemic merits of demiurgic theism, many of the drawbacks of hands-off theism apply here as well with respect to religious significance. For as with the latter view, the god of demiurgic theism is not the preeminent first cause and ground of being for the fundamental stuff of the natural world; nor does he provide the sufficient reason for its existence. He is therefore not responsible for the existence of the natural world in the ultimate sense that is ascribed to the god of classical theismcvc. Rather, he exists alongside of it as another uncreated concrete object. Therefore, such a view entails a much weaker view of divine preeminence and uniqueness than what has been historically attributed to the God of classical theism. For at least these reasons, then, it is doubtful that many classical theists will be happy with this route to resisting the argument.

5. Conclusion
A powerful argument against classical theism can be constructed from two simple elements: (i) classical theism’s doctrine of creation ex nihilo, and (ii) the well-supported principle of material causality. The prospects for the only non-concessive reply to the argument – rejecting the principle of material causality – look bleak. Furthermore, the concessive replies all leave the classical theist with a picture of God and creation that they are likely to find costly and unattractive. Little attention has been paid to the argument to date, but our brief exploration suggests that is worthy of serious investigation.[14]

Albert, David. 2012. ‘On the Origin of Everything: Review of ‘A Universe From Nothing’, by Lawrence M. Krauss’. New York Times 23 Mar 2012. Web. 18 Aug 2017.

Alston, William. 1993. Perceiving God. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Bengson, John. 2015. “The Intellectual Given”, Mind124: 207-760.

——-.2015. “Grasping the Third Realm”, Oxford Studies in Epistemology 5: 1-38.

Chudnoff, Elijah. 2014. Intuition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Huemer, Michael. 2007. “Compassionate Phenomenal Conservatism”, Philosophy & Phenomenological Research74: 30-55.

Krauss, Lawrence. 2013. A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing. New York: Atria.

Moreland, J.P. 2008. Consciousness and the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument. New York: Routledge.

Morriston, Wes. 2002. ‘Creation Ex Nihiloand the Big Bang’. Philo 5:1, 23-33.

Oppy, Graham. 2013. The Best Argument Against God. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Plantinga, Alvin. 1980. Does God Have a Nature?Milwaukie: Marquette University Press.

Swinburne, Richard. 2004. The Existence of God, 2ndedition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

——-.2016. The Coherence of Theism, 2ndedition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tucker, Christopher, ed. 2013. Seemings and Justification: New Essays on Dogmatism and Phenomenal Conservatism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1] Henceforth I will leave this qualification unstated but assumed.

[2] Berkeleyan idealism arguably fails to satisfy clause (i) of the classical view of creation as defined here. As such, while it may count as a version of classical theism, it fails to count as a version of classical theismcvc.

[3] Consider any arbitrary carving up of the stretch of time of a given object’s existence into equal intervals of finite, non-zero duration, and ordered according to the ‘earlier than’ relation. As I’m using the expression, an object has a temporal beginning of its existence just in case any such carving up includes an earliest temporal interval.

[6] See, for example, Krauss 2013.

[7] See, for example, Albert 2012.

[8] An argument in this vicinity is broached in (e.g) Moreland 2013.

[9] According to a recent poll (, only 13.7% of philosophers answered with “accepting or leaning toward libertarianism”. At least 71.3% of philosophers polled stated that they think we don’t have libertarian free will, with 59.1% answering with “accepting or leaning toward compatibilism”, and 12.2% answering with “accepting or leaning toward no free will” (14.9% answered with “accepting or leaning toward ‘other’”).

[10] For an important case for theism on this score, see Swinburne 2004. For an important case against theism on this score, see Oppy 2013.

[11]Perhaps one will object that a god of this sort cannot be omnipotent if he cannot create or sustain the natural world. However, there is a long and established tradition of theists who claim that there are lots of things that an omnipotent god cannot do (e.g., make a round square, change the past, act contrary to his nature, know future free acts, etc.). One standard justification for such restrictions is to say that such things are metaphysically impossible, and that omnipotence does not include the power to do what is metaphysically impossible. But the same sort of justification seems available here. For the hands-off theist can say that creating or sustaining the universe without a material cause is metaphysically impossible, and thus his inability to create or sustain a universe ex nihilodoes not count against his omnipotence.

[12]Alston 1993.

[13]I suppose a cosmological argument for an unmoved moveris still a possibility, although few have found arguments of this sort convincing since at least the dawn of Newtonian physics. Perhaps, though, the argument can be revitalized. We’ll see.


Quick Sketch of a Case Against Classical Theism

First Argument: The Argument from Horrors, Hiddenness, Revulsion, and Inhospitable Environment

1. We’d expect horrors, hiddenness, revulsion, and an inhospitable environment if naturalism were true.
2. We wouldn’t expect horrors, hiddenness, revulsion, and an inhospitable environment if theism were true.
3. If we’d expect this data if naturalism were true, but we wouldn’t if theism were true, then the data confirms naturalism vis-à-vis theism.
4. Therefore, horrors, hiddenness, revulsion, and an inhospitable environment confirms naturalism vis-à-vis theism. (1-3)

Why we’d expect this data on naturalism, but not on theism:
o Horror: Some people suffer to the point where their life is prima facie ruined (e.g., being raped, tortured, dismembered, and driven permanently insane). If God exists, we’d expect that God would allow a person to suffer horrifically only if doing so is required for their deepest good (viz., endless intimate fellowship, giving ever-increasing knowledge of God). But prima facie, God's allowing horrific suffering isn’t required for this deepest good. By contrast, we’d expect horrific suffering if naturalism is true. For on such a view, the universe is indifferent to our welfare. (cf. Schellenberg)

o Hiddenness: If God exists, then we’d expect that God would meet all the prerequisites for all those who would want a voluntary relationship with him. One of the prerequisites is to let others know (or reasonably believe), if they wish, that he exists. But this condition hasn’t been met: there are non-resistant non-believers. One might resist or reject this line of reasoning on the grounds that God might have some outweighing reasons for allowing non-resistant non-belief -- e.g., moral, spiritual, or intellectual development. However, none of these grounds explains the massively uneven distribution of theists and non-theists in the world. For we’d expect the causes of non-resistant non-belief to lead to a fairly even distribution of theists and non-theists. But this isn’t what we find. By contrast, we would expect to find such an uneven distribution if theism were false. (Cf. Schellenberg, Maitzen)

o Revulsion: If theism is true, then we’d expect our cognitive and affective faculties to be reliable, and thus to track the truth about aesthetic properties of the world. Now if theism is true, then God made the world, and it is good. Furthermore, given epistemic reliability, my aesthetic judgments about the repulsiveness of parts of the natural world are prima facie justified, in which case parts of the creation are prima facie repulsive (See this post for examples). But this conflicts with the hypothesis that it is good (at least aesthetically). By contrast, repulsive features of the world aren’t at all surprising on naturalism, since we wouldn’t expect it to aim at aesthetic goodness. (Me)

o Inhospitable environment: The Earth is filled with harmful and lethal flora and fauna. Such flora and fauna are often either undetectable, or look harmless upon first inspection. Theism makes this surprising, as the Earth is supposed to be our home, and not a Hunger Games scenario. By contrast, such a human-inhospitable environment is expected if naturalism is true and life’s history is governed by evolutionary factors. (Me)

Second Argument: The Argument from Material Causality (Me. A draft of the long version can be found here. Comments on the draft are welcome!)

  • Concrete object denotes at least the sorts of entities classically individuated by the category of Substance, and distinguishes them from those of other categories (e.g., property, relation, event, trope, etc.). Examples: atoms, stars, rocks, planets, trees, animals, and people. They are distinguished from concrete entities in other categories (shapes, surfaces, events, ideas, etc.) and abstract objects (propositions, numbers, sets, etc.) 
  • Material cause denotes the things or stuff out of which a new thing is made (e.g., the material cause of a penny is a sheet of copper). 
  • Classical theism denotes the view that there is a personal god who is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect. 
  • The classical view of creation denotes the view that consists of the following three theses: (i) God is wholly distinct from the natural world: the world isn’t identical to God or made from the stuff of God’s being. Nor is it an idea in the mind of God or a mere feature or mode of God’s being. Rather, it’s a concrete object that exists in its own right (or an aggregate of such); (ii) God is the originating or sustaining cause of the natural world; and (iii) God created the natural world ex nihilo.
  • Call  classical theismcvc  any version of classical theism that includes the classical view of creation. 
The Argument:

1. All concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining cause have a material cause of their existence.
2. If classical theismcvc is true, then the universe is a concrete object that has an originating or sustaining cause without a material cause of its existence.
3. Therefore, classical theismcvc is false.

· Support for premise 1: (a) rational intuition; (b) the relationship between what is actual and what is possible; and (c) inference to the best explanation.

· Support for premise (2): It’s a conceptual truth. It follows from the definition of ‘classical theismcvc’.

Hawthorne & Dunaway's Fantastic New Paper on Theological Scepticism

Billy Dunaway & John Hawthorne. "Scepticism", in William J. Abraham Frederick D. Aquino (ed.), Oxford Handbook of the Epistemology of Theology. Oxford University Press (forthcoming).

State of the art. Absolutely required reading.

CfP: Special Issue on Cognitive Science of Religion

Topical Issue on Cognitive Science of Religion
Assistant Professor
St. Olaf College, USA

In the last couple of decades, the cognitive science of religion (CSR) has established itself as a major area within the scientific study of religion. According to this general approach, if we want to understand religion – and specifically why human beings tend to be religious – then in addition to doing what traditional scholars of religion do, we also need to think about the nature of human cognition. For, goes the claim, various cognitive structures and habits naturally give rise to a belief in supernatural agents in diverse environments. This approach to the study of religion, though it does not pretend to answer every question about religion, nonetheless raises a number of important questions for science, philosophy, theology and their various relationships. We invite submissions that address one or more of these relationships. Some possible questions are as follows, though we welcome papers that address other topics related to CSR:
Philosophical and Theological Questions
  • Much recent work in CSR suggests that people distrust atheists. What are the moral or political implications of such claims, if they are true? Can anything be done to change this pattern?
  • Does CSR threaten to undermine or explain away religious belief or the reliability of religious testimony? Might it be supportive of religious claims?
  • Can one think that CSR debunks religious beliefs without also thinking that CSM (cognitive science of morality) debunks moral beliefs?
  • How might CSR shape the challenge of religious diversity? Does CSR support the idea that the divine, if such there be, isn’t too concerned about the specifics of people’s religious outlooks?
  • What is the relationship between CSR and the problem of divine hiddenness? Is the so-called ‘problem of natural nonbelief’, according to which some nonbelief in God naturally occurs, answerable?
  • Many theologians want to resist the idea that the divine is literally a person. Does CSR pose a cultural challenge to their claims? Does it show that abstract conceptions of the divine (i.e. that God is the ground of being or the Ultimate nonpersonal reality) will not likely enjoy cultural success? If so, does this matter?
Scientific Questions
  • How far has CSR gone in explaining religion? And how far might it reasonably be expected to go?
  • What is the cognitive and/or evolutionary relationship between religion and morality? Did one evolve first?
  • Is the common selection versus by-product dichotomy in the scientific study of religion a false one?
  • CSR has had a lot to say about religious belief, ritual, and morality. But has it paid insufficient attention to religious experience? If so, how might CSR fruitfully incorporate investigation into religious experience?
  • Are we really natural born dualists, as Paul Bloom has claimed?
  • What is the relationship between religious belief and autism?
Questions for Religious Studies
  • Can CSR help to illuminate the vexing question of what religion is, or is the latter question entirely immune to scientific investigation?
  • Some within CSR (e.g. Cohen, Lanman, and Whitehouse 2008) have suggested that standard criticisms of CSR (e.g. it is irrelevant, reductionist, ethnocentric, narrow-minded etc.,) voiced within religious studies are unjustified and unfair. Are they right?
  • Does CSR have any interesting implications for recent discussions about religious pluralism or religious dialogue?
Submissions are due by August 30, 2015. To submit an article for the special issue of Open Theology, please use the on-line submission system  choosing as article type:  ‘Special Issue Article: Cognitive Science of Religion’.
All contributions will undergo a critical review before being accepted for publication.
Further questions about the thematic issue can be sent to Dr. Jason Marsh at In the case of technical questions or problems please contact Managing Editor of the journal Dr. Katarzyna Tempczyk at
Authors publishing in the special issue will benefit from:

  • transparent, comprehensive and fast peer review
  • efficient route to fast-track publication and full advantage of De Gruyter Open’s e-technology,
  • no publication fees,
  • free language assistance for authors from non-English speaking regions.
(Thanks to Jason Marsh for the pointer)

A Quick Inductive Argument Against Anselmian Beings

The argument is simple: We've observed a huge quantity of an extremely wide variety of concrete objects, and all of the concrete objects we've observed are contingent; so, probably, all concrete objects whatsoever are contingent. But no Anselmian being is contingent. So, probably, there are no Anselmian beings.

An abductive version of the argument can be constructed as well: our extensive experience of an extremely wide variety of concrete objects is such that we find them all to be contingent. What explains this? The simplest, most conservative explanation of the data with the widest explanatory scope is the hypothesis that all concrete objects are contingent beings. It is thus the best explanation of the data. But no Anselmian being is a contingent being. Therefore, probably, there are no Anselmian beings.

If needed, an abductive (or inductive) argument could be run for a weaker, defeasible, yet burden-shifting principle that normally, concrete objects are contingent. It would take a bit more work to show it, but I think that even apart from the sorts of considerations above, such a principle, when combined with several other considerations, suffices to serve as an undercutting defeater for the key modal premise of the modal ontological argument, as well as the key principle of cosmological arguments, which links the existence of contingent beings to the requirement of their explanatory ground in a necessary being.

One might of course reply that such a hypothesis (viz., that all concrete objects are contingent) has narrower scope than the hypothesis that there is a necessary being as well, on the grounds that the latter, but not the former, can account for the fact that there are contingent beings at all, rather than just nothing. However, the reasons we have for thinking that such an account is needed rely upon the principle of sufficient reason, which is itself in need of inductive or abductive support from our uniform experience. If so, then even if such evidence is likewise universal, we have a mutual canceling-out of the epistemic force of both my hypothesis and the principle of sufficient reason, in which case the PSR doesn't favor the proposed competing hypothesis over mine. But even if this weren't true, we've seen on another occasion that the most defensible versions of PSR may well be satisfied even on the assumption that there are only contingent beings.

Call for Papers: Divine Hiddenness

The British Society for the Philosophy of Religion 2015 Conference

Submission deadline: March 31, 2015

Conference date(s):
September 10, 2015 - September 13, 2015

Conference Venue:
Oriel College, Oxford University 
Oxford, United Kingdom

The British Society for the Philosophy of Religion 2015 Conference

Divine Hiddenness 

Oriel College, Oxford, Thursday 10th – Sunday 13th September 2015.

Saturday 12th will focus on the legacy of Richard Swinburne in honour of his 80th birthday 

Keynote Speakers: Professor Richard Swinburne (Oxford), Professor Stephen R. L. Clark (Liverpool), Professor Sarah Coakley (Cambridge), and Professor Paul Moser (tbc) (Loyola University, Chicago) 

Call for Papers 
The problem of the "Hiddenness of God" has been explored in analytic philosophy of religion in recent decades mainly as an issue of theodicy and providence: if God wishes to make Godself transformatively available to humans, why does God not do so more obviously and openly? Many, such as Russell and, more recently, Schellenberg, have taken this to be an argument against theism. 

There is however also a deeper ontological issue at stake, that of the apparently intrinsic divine transcendence of God as creator. What philosophical sense can be made of a God who is (it is said) utterly unknowable in 'essence' but equally utterly available ‘in energies’, grace and revelation? Is there anything to be gained by a comparison with modern cosmological speculation here? We know what ‘dark matter’ does (namely, pull visible baryonic matter into stars and galaxies) but not what it is. 

There is also an epistemological problem, with echoes in other (non-religious) spheres. We may hope one day - though perhaps without much reason - to know the nature of 'dark matter', whereas - we are told - God is forever incomprehensible. How - as Hume enquired - does an incomprehensible divinity differ from an equally incomprehensible, non-divine, origin? How does "God does it" differ from "we can never know what does it"? Papers are invited which probe these philosophical issues from different directions, in connection with Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or classical pagan traditions, both ancient and modern, and from the perspective of abstract metaphysics and epistemology. The theodicy question in the earlier discussion need not be neglected, but should be considered in the light of the metaphysical and epistemological issues already named. 

Please send abstracts either in the body of an email or as a .doc file (no pdfs) of a maximum of 250 words to me ( by the end of March 2015. Unfortunately, it will not be possible to consider abstracts that exceed the word limit or that are submitted after the closing date (allowance being made to colleagues in other time zones). 

Final versions of accepted papers will be due one month before the conference begins. Preference will be shown towards papers that are on the theme of the conference. Time and space at the conference will be limited, so we shall have to be selective, even allowing for the fact that we plan to run parallel sessions and request people presenting papers to keep to half-hour slots. 

In order to keep to the tight timetabling required to permit participants to hear (the whole of) as many papers as possible, papers should take ideally fifteen minutes and an absolute maximum twenty minutes to deliver, leaving ten minutes or so for discussion.


Robust Ethics: Hardback: Erik J. Wielenberg - Oxford University Press

On another occasion, we noted that Wielenberg has been working on a systematic defense of non-theistic non-natural moral realism in ethics. I'm happy to say that it's now out. Thanks to John Danaher for alerting me to this.

UPDATE: John Danaher is doing us a kindness by explicating the main theses and arguments in the book. Here are the first two posts in his series.

Post Index: Blogging Through R. Scott Smith's Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality

Introductory Post: Overview of the book and some preliminary remarks
Smith's critique of Armstrong's theory of perceptual knowledge
Smith's critique of Dretske/Tye/Lycan accounts of perceptual knowledge
Getting clear on Smith's core argument against naturalistic accounts of concept acquisition, correction, and application
Smith's core critique of naturalistic accounts of perceptual knowledge
Smith's core critique of naturalistic accounts of concept correction
Smith's core critique of naturalistic accounts of concept formation
Smith's core critique of naturalistic accounts of intentionality

Smith's Argument Against Naturalistic Accounts of Intentionality

(Very rough draft)
So far, we've looked at Smith's arguments against naturalistic accounts of (i) perceptual knowledge, (ii) concept formation, and (ii) concept correction. In this post, I aim to finish (or at least nearly finish) discussing Smith's book by focusing on Smith's last main type of argument against naturalism: (iv) arguments against the compatibility of perceptual knowledge and naturalistic accounts of intentionality.

As before, Smith's focus is (broadly speaking) Dretske-style accounts of intentionality. According to such accounts, a concept or perceptual state is of or about its referent just in case the former reliably covaries with the latter when functioning properly. So, for example, when functioning properly under normal conditions, thermometer readings co-vary with temperature, and scale readings co-vary with the weights of objects on the scale. Because of this, thermometer readings reliably represent temperatures, and scales reliably represent the weights of objects. In a similar way, sensations reliably represent the external environment when functioning properly under normal conditions. 

The heart of Smith's criticism is that if naturalistic accounts of intentionality are correct, then we can't know if our perceptions are veridical. Smith uses two main arguments to support this conclusion. Smith's first main argument is that if naturalistic accounts of intentionality are correct (again, think Dretske et al.), then intentionality is essentially a matter of a law-like correlation between external object and internal brain state. On such accounts, the object of immediate awareness is the internal brain state, and there is no way to "see" beyond it to see if such states are caused by, and reliably represent, their external referents. And finally, if that's right, then there is know way to know if the former reliably represents the latter, since (argues Smith) knowledge of some x requires the potential knower to have immediate, direct acquaintance with x. Therefore, naturalistic accounts of intentionality entail that we can't have perceptual knowledge of the external world.

What to make of this argument? As we mentioned in the last post in this series, Smith is aware that Dretske and other naturalists can appeal to an externalist account of knowledge, according to which knowledge doesn't require "getting outside one's own skin", as it were, to check if one's beliefs and/or internal representations reliably represent their external referents. Rather, all that's required for knowledge, on such accounts, is that the connection between beliefs and/or referents are, in fact, reliable. However, Smith replies that this sort of response is inconclusive at best, since he thinks knowledge requires conceptualization of its object, and he thinks he has shown that the forming the requisite concepts is impossible given naturalism. Therefore (argues Smith), epistemic externalism is at best necessary, but not sufficient, for knowledge. Unfortunately, as we saw in the previous post in this series, it's not at all clear that Smith is right about that.

Smith second main argument is that if naturalistic accounts of intentionality are correct (again, think Dretske et al.), then we shouldn't think our concepts are veridical, on the grounds that intentionality is at root a causal process. But the problem is that causes always modify what they act upon. But if so, then intentionality must modify the relevant brain states involved in perception. And if that's right, then (claims Smith) perceptual experience must be (or at least probably is?) distorted. And if it's distorted, then it's not veridical. Smith then goes on to use the point as a reply to Dretske's epistemic externalist rejoinder to Smith's "causal chain" objection to naturalistic perceptual knowledge. For if intentionality distorts perception, then we have grounds for thinking that perception is distorted.

What to make of this argument? Perhaps the most obvious worry is the inference from "causes modify" to "causes distort". For while a cause can modify its object for the worse, it can also modify it for the better. And this is no less true when the object of modification is representational. To take an obvious example, consider perceptual registrations in the eye. In this sort of process, the pupil of the eye receives light from the external environment, which in turn registers an accurate two-dimensional image of its referent on the retina at the back of the eye. So here we have a case of a cause that modifies its object for the better from a representational point of view. And given the prima facie plausibility of the view that reliably tracking one's environment is conducive to survival and reproduction, there are strong reasons to think that evolution would select for reliable representational processes in organisms. (Smith claims that his argument doesn't depend on Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism, so let's leave discussion of the latter for another day).  I therefore find this argument unpersuasive.

Job Announcement: Senior Lecturer Opening at the University of Birmingham, UK

The position is a permanent post (equivalent to Associate Professor in the US). Details here . H/T: Yujin Nagasawa