Category Archives: Alister McGrath

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Paley Plagiarised

William Paley plagiarized his watchmaker argument.

In 1802, William Paley published his famous Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, which was based largely on Enlightenment era theology. In the book, Paley argues for the existence of God by arguing by analogy between watches and organisms. Living things, Paley argued, are just as complex and ordered as pocket watches are. Thus, we should infer the existence of a cosmic Watchmaker (i.e. God). Of course, this is the argument which contemporary Intelligent Design advocates use.

But regardless of the contemporary political issues surrounding the argument, there are multiple intriguing questions which can be raised about the argument. One such question is how we come to recognize which objects are designed. After all, archaeologists are able to distinguish designed from non-designed objects all the time; surely, even if Paley’s argument fails on multiple levels (which it does), there should be a way to characterize what archaeologists are doing. That’s a question that I raise in a paper I’ve been working on. But another sort of question one can ask is about the historical origins of the argument.

In his book Darwin and the Divine, historical theologian Alister McGrath pretty conclusively shows* that Paley plagiarized large portions of the watchmaker argument. Consider this passage from Bernard Nieuwentyt (1750):

So many different wheels, nicely adapted by their teeth to each other… Those wheels are made of brass, in order to keep them from rust; the spring is steel, no other metal being so proper for that purpose… Over the hand there is placed a clear glass, in the place of which if there were any other than a transparent substance, he must be at the pains of opening it every time to look upon the hand.

And now consider this passage from Paley:

A series of wheels, the teeth of which catch in and apply to each other… The wheels are made of brass, in order to keep them from rust; the spring of steel, no other metal being so elastic … Over the face of the watch there is placed a glass, a material employed in no other part of the work, but in the room of which if there had been any other than a transparent substance, the hour could not have been seen without opening the case.

Comparing them line by line, they’re virtually identical. And according to McGrath, Paley didn’t think to even cite Nieuwentyt in the first edition of his book.


According to McGrath, he’s not the first person to comment on this. But this was the first time I’d ever come across allegations that Paley plagiarized.

Alister McGrath C.S. Lewis Christianity Karl Popper philosophy science and religion

Christianity Explains Too Much

This week I’m speaking in my Philosophy of Science seminar on Karl Popper’s Falsificationism. Reading over the assigned reading, I’ve been reminded of a statement made by C.S. Lewis and I think it raises some questions about the peculiar sort of justifications given by Christians for their beliefs. Stated briefly, I think Christianity explains too much.

Karl Popper was concerned with answering the question S: “What is science and what distinguishes it from pseudoscience?” In his “Science: Conjectures and Refutations”, Popper states the problem as: “Is there a criterion for the scientific character or status of a theory?” More generally, one can ask what is sui generis (or special) about science or its methodology. He was not concerned with whether or not a scientific theory was true or false; rather, he was concerned with what properties made a given theory properly scientific. False scientific theories are still scientific. Answering S is known as the Demarcation Problem. While most present philosophers would agree that Popper’s answer is naive, I think it does capture some good intuitions.

Popper’s answer to S is that scientific hypotheses (or statements) need to be
falsifiable. He reaches that conclusion by comparing Adlerian and Freudian psychological theories on the one hand and General Relativity on the other.

He wrote:

I found that those of my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory power. These theories appeared to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirming instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refused to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still ‘un-analysed’ and crying aloud for treatment.

The problem with Marx, Adler, and Freud (according to Popper) is that these theories do not provide conditions under which we would conclude that they are false. They are consistent with all possible situations. More importantly, Adlerian and Freudian psychoanalysis provide distinct (and sometimes contradictory) explanations for human behaviour. They cannot both be true, but they cannot be distinguished on the basis of experiment.

Furthermore, Popper writes:

I could not think of any human behavior which could not be interpreted in terms of either theory… It began to dawn on me that this apparent strength was in fact their weakness.

That these theories could not be shown to be wrong was actually reason to reject them, according to Popper. If the theory cannot be falsified (even in principle) this is a reason to think that whatever explanatory power it has is vacuous.

Now compare Popper’s idea with a famous quote from C.S. Lewis (from his “Is Theology Poetry?” and often quoted by theologian Alister McGrath):

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

The quote seems to reflect exactly the same idea which Popper expresses. Except that for Lewis this kind of explanatory power is seen as justificatory. I think this gives an interesting insight into a sort of peculiarity about the justifications commonly given by Christians.

Amongst contemporary Christians, Christianity (or their “relationship with Jesus”) is often understood as a transformative lens through which one views the world and by which one decides how to act (Popper: “The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated”). All experience is interpreted through that lens; extraordinary and noumenus experiences are explained in terms of the Divine instead of in terms of psychology.

One can also consider the sort of theodicies that are often given in response to the Problem of Evil to see that such a view directly contradicts what Popper thought were good scientific virtues. To many theists, there is simply no such thing as a disproof of their beliefs (Popper: “Whatever happened always confirmed it”).

I remember sitting in a Philosophy of Religion class and having the following sort of conversation (these quotes are fictional, but they accurately capture my memory of what was expressed):

Person 1: I think religion helps people live better lives. If you look at religious people, you see people who are better off than non-religious people.

: Actually, studies show that the Scandinavian countries rank the highest on all of the indices of personal prosperity — life expectancy, health, happiness, educational attainment, etc. The Scandinavian countries are also the least religious countries in the world. By contrast, the most religious countries in the world rank the lowest on these indices.

Person 1: I think that actually supports what I’m saying. People turn to religion when they are living in horrible conditions because they have nothing else to turn to.

Interestingly, this might also help to explain the large number of theists who claim that atheists secretly believe in God or really just hate God (Popper: “unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth”). Because theistic belief forms such a strong paradigm under which such believers operate, one might think that it becomes almost inconceivable for the believer that there exist those who have radically different ideas about the nature of reality. It can also explain the difficulty that some believers (who I have met) have in understanding what it’s like to be a non-theist. How many times are we asked so you really don’t believe in God? Or but how can you do/think about x, y, or z?

Alister McGrath Atheism Christianity Dawkins Draper-White Thesis New Atheism NOMA science and religion scientism

What’s the Relationship between Science and Religion?

There’s a debate currently going on at the Huffington Post, with user feedback, on the relationship between Science and Religion. Instead of providing commentary directly on that debate, I thought that I would take some time to outline the four basic views that philosophers and historians have had on the science/religion interaction. This is not meant as an argument for one view over any other, but as an educational outline of the way philosophers have treated this distinction. The four basic views are:

1. Conflict (the Draper-White Thesis)
2. Dialogue
3. Independence (NOMA)
4. Complexity

(1) is the idea that science and religion have always been in conflict, have never had even temporary allegiances between each other, and (often) that religion holds back scientific progress. It was most famously proposed by Draper and White in the 19th century. View (1) is an idea that plenty of people would have in mind. Unfortunately, most historians feel that view (1) is simply false.  Most historians would simply point out that the relationship between science and theism are more complex than Draper and White would have us believe. For example, medieval scholastic philosophy — the only area in which anything like science occured during the middle ages — was a distinctly Catholic phenomenon. And some of the most famous cases of theists supposedly suppressing scientists for their heretical views might (arguably) be better seen as political disputes between religious believers. Galileo was certainly not an atheist and his science was not altogether decoupled from his religion (in fact, Galileo’s theology had about as much to do with his science as his science had to do with his theology.) The view that science and religion have any kind of professional barrier would have been an utterly foreign concept during the Scientific Revolution. The idea that there is a professional class of citizens, distinct from a professional class of religious thinkers, is a much later development.

Nonetheless, there are a few things which (1) does not say. Even if (1) is false, as most historians believe, that does not imply that science and religion have never been in conflict or that they are not presently in conflict. Nor would the falsehood of (1) imply that scientific reasoning and faith are compatible or consistent. The Draper-White Thesis is a descriptive, historical view, not a view about the fundamental natures of science and religion.

View (2) the idea that the best way to treat the relationship between science and religion is as a continuing dialogue. Religions might integrate scientific developments into new theological positions, or one think that science does nothing more than reveal a better view of God’s creation. Certainly, this view is ecumenical and is favoured by many theologians and religious people (people talk about “interfaith dialogue”; this appears to be a similar concept.) Talk about reconciling religion and science implicitly assumes that something like (2) must be true. In a 1996 message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul II echoed view (2) when he stated:

To those whom he enjoyed calling the Scientific Senate of the Church, he asked simply this: that they serve the truth. That is the same invitation which I renew today, with the certainty that we can all draw profit from “the fruitfulness of frank dialogue between the Church and science.” (Discourse to the Academy of Sciences, October 28, 1986, #1)

2. I am delighted with the first theme which you have chosen: the origin of life and evolution—an essential theme of lively interest to the Church, since Revelation contains some of its own teachings concerning the nature and origins of man. How should the conclusions reached by the diverse scientific disciplines be brought together with those contained in the message of Revelation? And if at first glance these views seem to clash with each other, where should we look for a solution? We know that the truth cannot contradict the truth. (Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus) However, in order better to understand historical reality, your research into the relationships between the Church and the scientific community between the 16th and 18th centuries will have a great deal of importance.

View (3) is also one that tends to be favoured by religious people (although most famously proposed by a non-believer.) It is the view that religion and science constitute two independent domains, or, as Stephen J Gould would have put, two independent magisteria. Unlike views (1) and (2), view (3) is a prescriptive view. It attempts to inform us about what the proper relationship between science and religion should be, not what it has historically been. Some theologians have responded to New Atheist literature by citing (3); certainly, this is Alister McGrath’s primary indictment of Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Nonetheless, in its traditional formulation, it suffers from a variety of problems. For instance:

-Gould seemed to claim that religion covers exclusively value-laden issues, like moral quandaries and how to live a good life, but not any kind of claims about the existence of various kinds of things in the world. In other words, Gould thought that all religious language was normative while all scientific language was existential. But if that’s true, then utterances like “God exists” are not claims about the existence of any sort of entity. That would seem to be rather strange to me; I’ve never met a religious person who told me something as perplexing as, “Oh, well, you see, when I say ‘God exists’, I’m not really referring to anything! Instead, I’m informing you about morality.” I don’t think that’s what theists do when they pray, go to church, listen to sermons, and so on. I think Christians would be very surprised to learn that they don’t believe in the existence of Jesus, Heaven, Hell, God, and so on.

-If religion uniquely covers moral quandaries, what in the world do we do with philosophy or literature? Aren’t there non-religious ways of dealing with such issues? And how would Gould, himself a non-believer, deal with these kinds of issues?

-It’s simply not true that all religious statements are out of the reach of science, even if some are. For example, if we proposed a non-deceitful deity who wanted the entire world to be purple and therefore made it that way, we could rule out such a being based on the observation of non-purple objects. Responding to arguments along these lines, philosophers have noted the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation; in analogy with that doctrine, a deity could make the essence of objects purple without changing their outward appearances. Still, that’s altering the original hypothesis. Given enough clauses, we can surely generate a god hypothesis that can be ruled out. For instance, a non-deceitful deity who made the outward appearances of all objects purple and ensured that we humans would see them as purple. An example which Dawkins uses to address this point in his God Delusion is the Templeton Foundation funded study of intercessory prayer, which found that such prayer is ineffective (in fact, patients who know they are being prayed for were slightly worse off than those who did not.) Dawkins’ claim would then follow that at least certain kinds of prayer, and in certain circumstances (like when being monitored by a double blind study), are ineffective.

Thus, neither most scientists nor most lay religious believers would really want something like (3) to be true, at least as formulated by Gould. Religious language really does appear to be making claims about the world in a way that does not create a stead-fast barrier between science and religion. This has led several theologians and several atheists to collectively reject (3). Certainly, most Intelligent Design advocates and creationists reject (3); this is plainly obvious because their view is that science can show that God exists.

View (4) is the mainstream view of historians of science. The view would simply be that the relationship between science and religion has been historically extremely varied and complex. At times, scientists and theologians have been in conflict, while at others, they have had truces or even been advanced one by the other. Note that this view is not prescriptive, nor does it inform us about whether or not the methodologies of science and theism (e.g., faith) are, at their core, compatible. There might still be a very broad inconsistency between demanding the use of Reason in addressing some questions, but not in those pertaining to gods. If this is true, then the latter would simply appear to be a case of special pleading. Nor does it tell us whether or not science and religion are presently in conflict, or how to resolve such conflicts if they are (or even if such conflicts should be resolved. For instance, some would suggest getting rid of religion altogether.)



The Huffington Post Debate

Pope John Paul II’s letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution
Non-Overlapping Magisteria by Stephen J Gould

The Questions Science Cannot Answer by Alister McGrath

My Critics are Wrong to Call Me Dogmatic by Richard Dawkins (responding to McGrath)

Does Science Discredit Religion? by John Worrall

Alister McGrath Christopher Hitchens Dawkins faith Glickman intelligent design justification science and religion scientism

"But I have faith!"

I recently came across this article by Charlie Glickman. Glickman’s post is about confronting religious people vis a vis their religious views and how one should properly approach such an affair. He writes that we should engage with respect to the believer, not necessarily with respecting the beliefs of the believer. I agree with much of what Glickman wrote and this is a topic that I’ve frequently commented on.

However, in the comments section, a user named Dawn Fortune writes:

I like the idea of challenging ideas and of challenging beliefs, and of questioning both without ridicule or shame, but I think what is missing is an understanding that matters of faith are that: matters of faith, and not all can be measured, quantified and duplicated using scientific method. Also what must be kept in mind is that faith is enormously important for a lot of people, and some traditions have doctrine that calls questioning of those beliefs an exercise in sin to begin with.

This reminds me of a common exaltation I’ve heard from religious believers: “But I have faith!” There are so many things wrong with this….

First of all, it’s a false dichotomy. The choices are not faith or science. There could be an additional epistemic category involving neither (mathematics comes to mind as a potential area that does not involve faith nor does it involve the usual empirical methods found in the sciences.) Glickman did not claim that science was the necessary alternative to faith, nor that science should be used instead of faith. That’s an accusation of scientism — the idea that all legitimate knowledge is scientific or that the only legitimate epistemic mode is scientific methodology (whatever that might mean.) However, I see no reason to accuse Glickman of that in this article. Nonetheless, it is an accusation often levelled at New Atheists.

Theologian Alister McGrath provides a quite succinct misinterpretation of Dawkins’ view (from here):

Science has all the answers — and God isn’t even on the short-list.

Unfortunately, this is a gross misapprehension both of Dawkins’ book The God Delusion and of new atheist thought more generally. Consider this quote from Christopher Hitchens:

Religion ends and philosophy begins, just as alchemy ends and chemistry begins and astrology ends, and astronomy begins.

Note that for Hitchens, it’s not science that replaces religion but philosophy. Similarly, Dawkins makes it very clear in his book that he does not think science is the unique source of human knowledge. As Stephen Law has pointed out, Dawkins writes:

Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science.

Dawkins also states (again as quoted by Stephen Law):

…we can all agree that science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic to say the least.

Dawkins does appear to think that science has something to say about God, but what McGrath would actually need to show — and has not shown in any of his writings — is not that there are questions unanswerable by science (a thesis that most would not deny) but that the existence of god is either:

1. Not one of the questions answerable by science;
2. Dawkins’ argument is insufficient to show that God does not exist (i.e. that it is answerable by science, but Dawkins has failed to provide a sufficient scientific response.)

At any rate, the accusation of scientism, as levelled against new atheists, is simply false. Two of the four horsemen, often considered leaders in the movement, are not even themselves scientists. Daniel Dennett would undoubtedly tell us that philosophy has important information to tell us. Christopher Hitchens would chastise those of us who thought nothing of value was to be found in literature or politics, both of which he wrote substantially about before his death. I have not seen a concerted effort by new atheists to undermine anthropology, history, mathematics,  or several other disciplines whose status as sciences is questionable in other sorts of ways (not to say that these fields are illegitimate; to the contrary, I think that all of these are legitimate fields of enquiry. What I am pointing to is that there are academic disciplines which are not clearly scientific – in the traditional sense – that are valued by many in the new atheist movement. Thus, accusations of scientism are simply strawmen.)

The second point to be made is that faith — defined as non-justified belief or as suspended doubt — is the real problem. I don’t particularly have a problem with religion qua religion so I find no particularly pressing reason to argue against it; my issue is primarily with the concept of faith.

Some — theists and atheists alike — would try to argue that without faith, a religion isn’t really a religion at all. It is worth noting that while all orthodox Abrahamic religions certainly involve the concept of faith, not all religions always have. Hunter gatherer groups, for example, will often lack the concept. At the very least, and non-controversially amongst anthropologists, not all cultural groups have a word for or an articulation of anything like the Western notion of faith. In fact, anthropologist Pascal Boyer remarks in Religion Expained that it would be extremely difficult to communicate the concept to a large number of cultures.

But why is faith dangerous?

Suppose that you go to Las Vegas and walk into a casino. You proceed to sprinkle salt over your shoes. How the salt lands determines how you bet at the Roulette table. For three games, this method works perfectly. You’ve won every time. Now, the fourth game comes up and you do this again. Since you’ve already won so much, you lay everything on the line. But this time, the Roulette wheel does not give you a win. In fact, you’ve now had a significant loss.

But not to worry! You have faith in your salt sprinkling method. You sprinkle the salt again, expecting that the magical salt knows what is best, and while you might have lost once, it was really for the better. After all, salt works in mysterious ways!

But, again, you lose. And again you repeat to yourself the mantra that the salt works in mysterious ways and that this loss was really for the better.

A friend of yours comes over to you. “Dude!” he exclaims, “Stop that! You’re just going to keep on losing!”

“No,” you say, “I have faith. You cannot question this. In fact, you’re really offending me right now by trying to tell me to stop or by bringing up doubts.”

“You have a wife and kid. I don’t want to see you destroy their lives because of your ‘magical’ salt…”

“But look at how much good the salt has done for me before! Even if the salt doesn’t really predict the Roulette wheel, it makes me happy and makes me do good things like win lots of money for my family!”

And on it goes. I’m sure you probably see what I’m trying to say, but allow me to indulge in unpacking this further.

Faith is non-justified belief. There is no reason to believe anything, anywhere, at any time on the basis of faith (that is, without justification.) And if you’ve suddenly found a reason to believe something via faith, you haven’t really found faith at all (since there were justifications of some kind involved. Even badly justified belief is still not faith, because even bad justifications are still justifications.)

People who use faith in place of a justification are liable to believe absolutely anything and are likely to have destructive behaviors over the long term. For the fideist, there cannot be anything that distinguishes that which is absurd from that which is sound. As early Church father Tertullian would have put it, the religious will often believe because something is absurd (“credo quia absurdum”). Faith has been defined as a suspension of doubt, even when we have good reason to be doubtful. Thus, faith is precisely the thing that I find most dangerous about modern religions.

But this neglects a further issue. I don’t think any religious person I have ever spoken to really had faith. All they really had, as far as I can tell, were really poor justifications that they defended as “faith” when you called them into question on it.

Often, religious people tell me that they believe because they had an experience of one kind or another, or continue to have some kind of experience while in prayer. If they’re a Christian, then surely they’d say that Thomas did not have faith when he asked to see Jesus’ wounds; he was the original “Doubting Thomas”. Yet to have an experience where one feels God (whatever that might mean) is to commit the same mistake as Thomas did. It’s to be justified — however poorly — on the basis of one’s experience.

Other lay Christians believe themselves to be justified on the basis of Intelligent Design, naive forms of the cosmological argument (“if God doesn’t exist, then where did all of this come from?”), or naive forms of Pascal’s Wager (“aren’t you afraid of going to Hell?”). Sometimes I have heard emotional responses as well (“I just couldn’t believe otherwise” or “I wouldn’t want to live in a world where this wasn’t true”.) I have yet to come across someone who simply had no answer when asked why they thought God exists, but I have come across many who had really poor answers.

Some will concede some ground here and state that they do not have blind faith. There is the Catholic notion of reason in aide of faith. For example, the Dei Filius (part of the constitution of Vatican 1) states:

And, not only can faith and reason never be at variance with one another, but they also bring mutual help to each other, since right reasoning demonstrates the basis of faith and, illumined by its light, perfects the knowledge of divine things, while faith frees and protects reason from errors and provides it with manifold knowledge.

I don’t recognise the concept of faith here, or what the word is supposed to mean. As far as I have been able to tell, all faith is blind. If true, this would render the preceding quote either non-sensical, incoherent, or both. The definition I’ve given before — that faith is non-rationally justified belief or suspended doubt — does not seem to apply to the use of the phrase in the quote from Dei Filius. I’m certainly open to there being another definition, but I’ve yet to see a theologian give some other definition. And if the religionist is willing to make the concession that reason can make headway on this issue, why not go all the way? Why bother to keep the concept of faith around at all, if not in some futile attempt to justify the unjustifiable?

At any rate, there is a sense in which I agree with the sort of thing articulated by Martin Luther:

Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but – more frequently than not – struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.

I should immediately comment that I think it is particularly insipid that Luther said this. I think it to be particularly insidious that he thought it to be true that reason opposed faith but retained faith anyway. Of course, Luther was a devout Christian in the process of reformulating the Christian church and much of this sentiment was involved in an anti-Catholic diatribe.

A worthwhile caveat here is that Luther’s characterisation of reason as contemptful of God is something I would not agree with. At least not of necessity; I certainly don’t hate God. I very well might despise various sorts of depictions of that being, in the same way that one might despise a villainous character. Nonetheless, I do not find myself raging in defiance of a being whose purported existence I meet with credulity.

Luther certainly did not think highly of reason, and detested much of Catholic theology for being, shall we say, too reasonable (or too rational.) It is perhaps ironic that many educated Protestants would later abandon Luther’s fideism in favor of Natural Theology (starting in the 17th century, but continuing to the Intelligent Design movement of today. One should note that Natural Theology was a largely Protestant, largely Anglophone development.) I suspect that this is because it is impossible to even maintain acknowledgeably ungrounded beliefs for too long.

To quote from the late Christopher Hitchens:

Actually, the ‘leap of faith’—to give it the memorable name that Soren Kierkegaard bestowed upon it—is an imposture. As he himself pointed out, it is not a ‘leap’ that can be made once and for all. It is a leap that has to go on and on being performed, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary. This effort is actually too much for the human mind, and leads to delusions and manias. Religion understands perfectly well that the ‘leap’ is subject to sharply diminishing returns, which is why it often doesn’t in fact rely on ‘faith’ at all but instead corrupts faith and insults reason by offering evidence and pointing to confected ‘proofs.’ This evidence and these proofs include arguments from design, revelations, punishments, and miracles. Now that religion’s monopoly has been broken, it is within the compass of any human being to see these evidences and proofs as the feeble-minded inventions that they are.