Theism Is Ill-Defined



Cosmologist Sean Carroll debated William Lane Craig in February 2014, which can be watched here (Carroll’s presentation begins at 44:15). He also gives a detailed recap of his arguments on his website, where he lays out his overall perspective, what can only be called agnosticism based on naturalism. (Naturalism generally is similar to materialism and some philosophers equate the two in essence. But many naturalists – unlike many materialists – reject any type of determinism; what is “unseen” but detectable is accounted for as “nature” and so naturalism may include metaphysics but without the label, which they eschew as “antiquated”.)

Carroll’s main point, a rebuttal to Craig’s conclusion that theism is better off with modern cosmology than without it, is this:

“[T]he real reason theism isn’t taken seriously is because it’s completely ill-defined. If we would presume to contemplate theism from an intellectually honest perspective, we would try to decide what kind of universe we would expect to live in if theism were true; then we would do the same for naturalism; and finally we would compare those expectations to the real world. But when we do that we find theistic expectations failing to match reality over and over again. Now, I know perfectly well (from experience as well as from cogitation) that you can never make headway with theists by claiming “If God existed, He would do X, and He doesn’t” (where X is “prevent needless suffering,” “make His existence obvious,” “reveal useful non-trivial information to us,” “spread religious messages uniformly over the world,” etc.) Because they have always thought through these, and can come up with an explanation why God would never have done that. (According to Alvin Plantinga, our world — you know, the one with the Black Death, the Holocaust, AIDS, Hurricane Katrina, and so on — is “so good that no world could be appreciably better.”) But these apologetic moves come at a price: they imply a notion of theism so flexible that it becomes completely ill-defined. That’s the real problem. Craig’s way of putting it is to suggest that God is “like the cosmic artist who wants to splash his canvas with extravagance of design.” That’s precisely why naturalism has pulled so far ahead of theism in the intellectual race to best model our world: because it plays by rules and provides real explanations for why the world is this way rather than that way.” (Sean Carroll, Post-Debate Reflections)

Wait a minute! If we would presume to contemplate theism from an intellectually honest perspective, would we not try to understand the kind of universe we do live in and from it see if theism is true? Then we would not do the same for naturalism; and finally compare those understandings of the real world? Science is about understanding what there is, not what we wish there might be, after all.

But this goes to the point about which Carroll is absolutely right: theism is vague and cannot be true as an ill-defined “higher power” or whatever. And because of this, his proposition above – thinking of the best of all possible worlds and evaluating a nebulous notion of a “deity” (for that is all theism can be) based on his imagination alone – is unsurprisingly unsatisfactory to him. Indeed, it is why he cannot make sense out of Plantinga’s assertion that our world is the best of all possible worlds, for Plantinga is not asserting this with an unspecific “theism” in mind, but the very specific Theos. Carroll allows for plenty of debate to occur among naturalists but then expects all theists to be uniform. He will compare and contrast numerous cosmological theories but disregard all religions equally, a mistake Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris often make as well. Carroll writes:

“[N]obody really becomes a believer in God because it provides the best cosmology. They become theists for other reasons, and the cosmology comes later. That’s because religion is enormously more than theism. Most people become religious for other (non-epistemic) reasons: it provides meaning and purpose, or a sense of community, or a way to be in contact with something transcendent, or simply because it’s an important part of their culture. The problem is that theism, while not identical to religion, forms its basis, at least in most Western religions. So — maybe, I suggested, tentatively — that could change. I give theists a hard time for not accepting the implications of modern science, but I am also happy to give naturalists a hard time when they don’t appreciate the enormous task we face in answering all of the questions that we used to think were answered by God. We don’t have final answers to the deep questions of meaning and fulfillment and what it means to lead a good life. Religion doesn’t have the final answers, either; but maybe it has learned something interesting over the course of thousands of years of thinking about these issues. Maybe there is some wisdom to be mined from religious traditions, even for naturalists (which everyone should be).” (Ibid.)

Cosmology, particularly the standard ontological arguments or Aquinas’ “five proofs” arguments have actually convinced people. The best of all possible worlds cosmology as presented by Plantinga has also convinced people to believe in God, but never to become theists. They immediately then move on to the resulting questions: What is God? Is God a Person or a Force? Is God connected with the universe or separate? The answers to these questions are intimately connected with religion; religion as Carroll defines it is a sociological understanding, not a theological one. Thinking people who are religious for the reasons he outlines do not remain so for long and end up materialists/naturalists or convert to another religion or denomination.

Yes, there should – in a sense – be a distinction made between theism and religion, but not for the reasons Carroll outlines. Theism is a vague notion of a deity of some vague higher rank than humans that is “out there” somehow; it is simply a statement of fact, that there is a “god.” That is it. Religion is a specific take on “god,” and offers an anthropology resulting from it as a consequence. In other words, it is not that theism forms the basis of religion, but rather theology does. Just as it is ill-defined (and unsatisfying and really meaningless) to be an atheist unless one adheres to a specific naturalist cosmological theory, so it is to be a theist.

Theism is a term out of comparative religion, it is not a principled position to debate against. William Lane Craig sees modern cosmology – despite his categorical and textual mistakes, Carroll cites, in presenting other cosmologists’ arguments – as having evidence for God. He accepts that we are in the best possible world, Black Death and Hurricane Katrina and all. This is why he replied that if the rules of cause and effect occur within the universe they must necessarily cause the universe. Why not a bicycle indeed? William Lane Craig is classified as theist sociologically, but only because he is an evangelical (Molinist) Christian.


Author: Ruminator

Roman Catholic priest of the Ordinariate. Selections or essays from others, with or without comment, is not necessarily an endorsement.

2 thoughts on “Theism Is Ill-Defined

  1. Alvin Plantinga gave a very informative interview where he discusses his best of all possible worlds argument and the current fine-tuning argument:

  2. The argument that God/Theism is very ill-defined has always struck me as odd. There are many things in science and history that are unclear and unable to be defined with strict boundaries. This isn’t the subject’s fault at all.

    And clearly Sean Carroll is misrepresenting science by saying that theism has to have detailed predictive properties WITHIN the universe: that’s like saying you should be able to tell something specific about a car-designer’s life based on the shape of the vehicle he creates. Science doesn’t work that way either: if a theory explains the observations, it’s accepted, if not it’s revised or rejected: that’s what William Lane Craig is doing and even the atheist anti-theist cosmologist Lawrence Krauss admits that in astrophysics you come up with a hundred theories a day and you go and test them and 99% of them fail. That’s just how it is with induction (science, history; their relationship to theology) unlike deduction (math, logic, philosophy).

    So I don’t see a difference between what Craig and scientists do at all, especially when dealing with the metaphysical which is only partially revealed unlike nature.

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