So, would you ever leave your faith?

Scott Smith —  October 31, 2014 — 16 Comments

“So, would you ever leave your faith?” That’s what I was asked. It had come out that I didn’t think evolution was plausible, and that I thought God better explained the facts.

My friend asked me, “So, what if evolution were proven? Would you leave?”

“Leave what”, I asked. “Christianity, or belief in God?”

“Well, they both go together, don’t they?”

I told my friend that there were two things that were foundational to my worldview. I’ve considered the alternatives and I’m convinced that God exists, and that Jesus rose from the dead. I’ve already covered the reasons I’m convinced Jesus actually existed, that he believed himself to be God, and that he rose again to vindicate that claim. The one under question tonight was God’s existence.

Rather than outlining the moral argument, the cosmological argument, or other apologetic standards, I decided to take a big picture approach. I explained that the existence of a God seemed to fit best with reality. There are many big questions in life, and God’s existence seems to address them all. Something that happened to my car might help explain my angle.

carLast summer I noticed that my car’s A/C wasn’t working. The car was difficult to steer too. Since these seemed unrelated, I wondered what on earth was going wrong. I turned down the radio and heard some horrible clunking noises. At this point, I noticed that my engine gauge read incredibly hot, so I pulled over to shut it down before anything worse happened. (Side note: I’m definitely not a car guy, so looking at the engine is something I do because I know you’re supposed to – not because I’ll be able to fix anything.)

When I opened the hood I saw oil sprayed everywhere and what remained of a belt.  Even though I was out of my depth at this point, I had an idea what all the big parts did. It seemed to me that there were a couple of options, broadly speaking. Either there was one thing that caused all this destruction, or I had just witnessed a remarkable automotive catastrophe. Either a bunch of individual components simultaneously self-destructed like some horrible mechanical symphony, or one thing started a chain of events. One initial problem seemed most plausible, but the symptoms were so unrelated that it seemed like a stretch.

After reflecting on the symptoms, a scenario began to emerge. I knew a lot of expensive things had been connected to the belt that was now in shambles. That could explain how the problem spread. Since there was an oily mess that seemed to emanate from the steering pump, that reminded me of my difficulty steering. What if that started it all? If that seized, it would probably cause the belt to slow down. If the belt slowed down, it would make sense that my A/C would suffer. Since belts don’t do well with seized parts, it probably snapped pretty quickly. That would completely shut down A/C and steering and anything else connected to the belt. If the water pump stopped working, that would explain the skyrocketing engine temperature.

It looked like the steering pump was the single cause of everything else. Was that explanation certain? No, but it did seem most plausible. If not that, it seems I would have to track down what could explain a spontaneously dying A/C unit, difficult steering, an overheating engine, and several other symptoms. It seemed more plausible to me that there was one cause rather than many. Why look for a half-dozen explanations when would would do. And when diagnosing it, the mechanic should probably start by looking at simple causes rather than outrageously rare ones.

When I say I believe in God, I’m doing the same sort of thing. I believe in God because a number of questions about reality are answered solely by his existence.

  • How did something come from nothing?
  • Where did life come from?
  • Where did consciousness come from?
  • Where did morality come from?
  • What about things like justice, love, and hope?

On the Christian worldview, all these questions and more can be answered in a single response: God. I’m aware that nonbelievers have answers to some of these questions, but they are not terribly persuasive to me. Besides that, they require me to accept a separate explanation for each one. I could accept undirected macro-evolution, inexplicable forces of nature that happen to work nicely together, a herd morality that developed on its own, and all the other naturalistic explanations. Or I could observe that an all-powerful being could easily create all those things, and he could design them to function properly together. The naturalistic worldview requires I take on a number of new, and unusual beliefs. The theistic worldview only requires I accept one. I realize many people think that belief in an eternal, supernatural being is a big step – and maybe it is. But I’d rather take on one foreign belief than ten. And even so, this says nothing of the questions I’d have to be content leaving unanswered as a naturalist. Where did matter, space, life, consciousness, and all the rest come from? For these, there are no naturalistic answers. Nature can’t explain where nature came from. Things cannot cause themselves – we have to look to other things for explanations. To explain nature we have to look beyond nature. Something you might call “super-nature”. And that sounds to me like God. An omnipotent being that exists prior to space, matter, and time could create them all. A big bang needs a big-banger. The source of all life could create more life. A conscious creator would explain our consciousness. A maximally great being could do maximally great things. One explanation. One cause. Taking on this one belief that God exists explains everything we see. I’ll concede that alone doesn’t mean it’s true. But it does mean it is the simplest explanation, and to my thinking the most plausible.

So, to return to the question I was posed, the proving of evolution would not cause me to turn from Christianity. (I think proof of such a thing is a very tall order, though I accepted it for the sake of argument.) Evolution itself says nothing about Jesus’ resurrection or God’s existence. As I hope I’ve explained above, I am convinced that God exists. Until a better explanation can be given for reality, things like evolution seem minor and insignificant.

In the rest of life, we typically exhaust simple answers before turning to the extravagant. Why not in metaphysical questions as well? Smart people have examined the evidence and come to different conclusions. I realize that. But if you haven’t pondered the issue, you would do well to consider it. Given the shape of reality, what is the most plausible explanation – one cause or an infinite number of causes?

Scott Smith

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Scott Smith is a lifelong Christian and an active member of his church. He enjoys blogging and teaching on Christian theology and defense as well as engaging skeptics in debate regarding Christian truth claims. Scott is a co-founder of Etcetera as well as TC Apologetics, and in his spare time he runs his own 3D design company.
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  • Chip Salonna

    In our twitter conversation, you seemed to want to have some distinctions. You differentiate between natural and supernatural explanations. You want to answer physical and metaphysical questions separately. And you postulate God as the simple, complete answer to the metaphysical and supernatural. I have no problem with this. But I think that you’re blurring the lines in this article.

    Here, this distinction is not so clear. You don’t clarify which is which. In fact, you follow up your list of metaphysical questions with this comment: “I could accept undirected macro-evolution […] and all the other naturalistic explanations. Or I could observe that an all-powerful being could easily create all those things[.]” You are now talking about a physical explanations for physical questions. Sure God could create all those things. But evolution (and whatever else) is not an explanation for “How does something come from nothing?”.

    So, what are we really talking about here? When you say “I’d rather take on one foreign belief than ten.” are you referring to ten natural explanations or ten supernatural explanations? Ten physical explanations or ten metaphysical explanations?

    I don’t think I’m overreaching if I say you believe that God is the (ultimate) explanation for the physical as well. That’s actually the ultimate metaphysical explanation, right. But what about our physical explanations? We have physical explanations for things that work well and allow us to do some really amazing things that we couldn’t do before we had such explanations.

    You write “Where did matter, space, life, consciousness, and all the rest come from? For these, there are no naturalistic answers. Nature can’t explain where nature came from.” Maybe. Maybe not. There’s ongoing work on some on this stuff. But nature CAN explain how the planets move and how chemicals combine and how life progressed AFTER it got started. That’s a naturalistic explanation through and through that we’ve had for over 150 years.

    So, if, as you say, a naturalistic proof of evolution “would not cause [you] to turn from Christianity”, then I invite you into a full-blown discussion of evolution. I challenge you to learn about it in detail. Take an online course or two. Read some books like Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” and Collins “The Language of God”. Engage with me. Evolution has more evidence for it than any other scientific theory we have. It has survived challenge after challenge not only in the scientific community but in the courts. It is one of the very best natural explanations we have for anything. Don’t turn your back on it.

    Your closing question is this: “Given the shape of reality, what is the most plausible explanation – one cause or an infinite number of causes?” Again, this conflates your metaphysical explanation with the physical. What are these “infinite number of causes”? I think you mean to refer to physical causes. And I think we’ve agreed these are not answers for the metaphysical.

    So, what do you really mean? Tell me if I’m understanding you correctly. I think you mean not just that the truth of evolution would not cause you to lose your faith but that ANY natural explanation would not cause you to lose your faith. I think you mean that physical explanations do not shake your metaphysical explanation. And again, this is fine. But I repeat, if this is true, then you should not fear the physical explanations we have and you should stop resisting what science has affirmed over and over again for more than 150 years.


    • Scott Smith

      Good questions Chris. Starting with your third paragraph, I’m referring to explanations of any sort. My point was, given two alternatives that plausibly explain a cause, we ought to prefer the one that takes on fewer explanations.

      In your fifth paragraph, you challenge my claim that nature cannot be explained by natural causes. Before we go too deep, I want to make sure we’re on the same page. The thing we’re looking to explain is ontological in nature – IOW, what explains the existence of nature? Natural causes can’t explain the existence of nature. That’s a category mistake. That’s my primary point. Does that help?

      I understand what you’re saying in your 6th paragraph. It’s true that I don’t find evolution compelling, but honestly that’s beside the point. Even if I were persuaded that evolution were true, that wouldn’t get me any farther than I am now. For example, where did matter come from? Where did energy come from? What explains the natural laws that govern evolution? See what I mean? The fact that you point to Coyne and Collins kind of makes my point. Coyne is a naturalist and Collins is a Christian, yet they both advocate for evolution. That illustrates that evolution, by itself, does not necessitate a solely naturalistic explanation of reality.

      I’ll leave it there for now and throw the ball back to you. In closing though, you use a lot of language about me being afraid of physical explanations, and that I ought to embrace them. It’s not that I’m not afraid or unaware. I am aware – I’m just not convinced. I have no particular aversion to them. If I were persuaded, I’d happily change my position. But that would not affect my view of ultimate explanations, simply because they are in different categories.

      • Chip Salonna

        So, I suspect we are in agreement more than our dialogue suggests. But let’s test that hypothesis.

        1) Regarding your comment about “one foreign belief [rather] than ten”, you write “My point was, given two alternatives that plausibly explain a cause, we ought to prefer the one that takes on fewer explanations.” Complete agreement here. Occam’s Razor, yada yada. I won’t even quibble about “explanations” versus a word I think is better.

        My question is “What are you trying to explain?” If you are trying to answer metaphysical questions, there is *no natural explanation* to put up against the God explanation. I think you agree with that because you’ve said as much. Phrased differently, there is *no choice* here for Occam to make. God (at least, to you) is the only viable alternative.

        If we’re asking physical questions (What are fossils doing in the ground? Why are the same fossils found in the same strata? Why does 98% of our DNA match that of chimpanzees?), then God has zero explanatory power and evolution has lots. Once again, Occam is irrelevant since the proposed answers are not equally plausible. Saying God created it that way doesn’t give us antibiotics or gene therapy while evolution does.

        2) Regarding your claim that nature cannot be explained by natural causes, I didn’t mean to challenge it so much as shrug it off. (Notice I said, “Maybe. Maybe not.”) Whether nature can or can’t explain itself is irrelevant to the point I was making (that evolution is a physical answer to a physical question).

        3) You write “That illustrates that evolution, by itself, does not necessitate a solely naturalistic explanation of reality.” Again, I agree. Your questioning of origins (metaphysical) is not the same type of question as whether evolution is true (physical). But throughout your post you conflate the former and the latter.

        I point once again to your last sentence where you ask what best explains reality. If, when you say “one cause or an infinite number of causes” you mean, respectively, “God or science”, then you have offered a metaphysical answer alongside a physical answer as a response to a metaphysical question. If you mean something else, I don’t know what that might be and I request further clarification. What is the metaphysical “infinite number of causes” that requires Occam’s intervention to decide between one and many?

        4) With respect to physical explanations, which do you find to be a more “unusual belief”: quantum physics or evolution?

        P.S. When I used rhetoric suggesting you were “afraid” of evolution and the like, it was just that, rhetoric. My intent was not provocation or derision.

        • Scott Smith

          No worries. I didn’t expect you meant anything by it. Given the prevalence phobia language these days, I just wanted to make sure my motives were clear.

          Rather than reply to all your points, let me back up a step to make sure we’re on the same page. It sounds like you are adamant to get me to agree with you about evolution. This is similar to the question that prompted me to write this post. The point I was trying to make (perhaps poorly) is that the acceptance or veridicality of evolution is irrelevant. Even if I were persuaded, that would have no bearing on my belief that Christianity is true. By that, I don’t mean that I have blind faith that is unaffected by reason. Rather, what I mean is that these topics have very little to do with one another. The framing of evolution vs. Christianity, or even science vs Christianity, is a false dilemma. The two are not in themselves opposed to one another.

          My purpose was not to say anything in favor of or opposition to evolution. What I had hoped to accomplish was to point out that the challenge I was presented with was illegitimate because one does not follow from the other.

          Does that much make sense?

          • Chip Salonna

            Yes, I understand. I’m picking on you with respect to evolution because that’s the context of your original post and because it’s a clear example of physical explanation you reject and, frankly, because it boggles my mind that you reject inestimable amounts of research that support evolution while claiming it wouldn’t affect your theistic beliefs to accept it AND at the same time, there’s probably not another single area of scientific inquiry which earns your disdain like evolution does.

            Regardless, the first three points of my previous post are focused on your physical/metaphysical distinction. I hope you will respond to those (or at least one and three). If you want to ignore number four, that’s fine.

            I agree that the “framing of […] science vs. Christianity is a false dilemma.” That’s exactly why I’m pushing you so hard on your closing sentence. (Issue number three in my previous post.)

          • Scott Smith

            I’ll give your previous points a shot. But first, it strikes me that you’re framing the positions as pro-evolution vs. ignorance. Are you aware of the scholars who have abandoned evolutionary explanations, and done so on scientific grounds? I’m not suggesting this should sway you away from evolution, but I would think it would at least suggest a modicum of humility on the topic. As presented, it sounds like you think I’m holding to a flat earth.

            Ok, onward and upward…

            1) … What am I trying to explain?

            As I said in the post, I’m attempting to explain reality. To save space, just look to the bullet points I gave as examples. I am asking what most plausibly accounts for the universe as it is.

            2) … “evolution is a physical answer to a physical question”

            Granted. But it is only a tiny piece of the puzzle. It doesn’t explain electromagnetism, or the immaterial self, or the ratio of gasses in our atmosphere. If I give you evolution, you still have to explain everything else as well. The God hypothesis plausibly answers them all in one sweep. That’s my point.

            3) … Why is Occam’s intervention required?

            It feels like I’ve answered this a number of times. Maybe I’m just failing miserably. Let’s try this…

            Option A:

            The big bang was caused by bubble universes.

            Life on earth arose from extraterrestrial intervention.

            Variety of life came from evolution.

            Matter as we know it came from quantum fluctuations.

            The balance of forces was a lucky chance.

            Information arose by chance.

            Minds are an emergent property.

            Option B:

            The big bang was caused by God.

            Life on earth, in its diversity was caused by God.

            Matter was created by God.

            The balance of forces was finely tuned by God.

            Information came from an intelligence – God.

            Minds are the product of a greater mind – God’s.

            See what I mean? The answers given in both A & B are possible. In Option B, one answer – the same answer – works for every question. In Option A, a separate answer must be provided for each. Not to mention the fact that in A, most of them are unrelated to one another. And this says nothing of the fact that the responses in A give us more questions than answers. (In other words, they may be causes, but they are also effects that must be explained by *other* causes. It’s an infinite regress.)

            That’s why I mentioned Occam. One cause, is a preferable explanation to many causes.

          • Chip Salonna

            I immensely appreciate your thorough and patient engagement with me on this topic. I hope you won’t abandon me yet as I push the limits of that patience once more. (Consider what a great teaching tool this discussion will eventually be for you.)

            Apologies for sounding “pro-evolution vs. ignorance”. I was being blunt in my last post and expressing feelings more than logic and argument. Yes, at some level, I admit feeling that way but I don’t want that to rule over my rational discussion of the topic. I don’t want to argue the topic in that fashion. Nevertheless, I must “be blunt” again.

            Yes, I know about scholars who have abandoned evolution. And I know that ID is by far and away the favorite (only?) alternative among these people. And that they say their work is scientific. But those who have abandoned evolution are dwarfed in number by those who continue to learn about it, verify its conclusions, and use those conclusions to further our knowledge and create benefit for humanity.

            I have yet to see any similar power in the alternative. I don’t see ID creating reliable anti-viral medications or finding “rabbits in the pre-Cambrian” or anything else. Their work is primarily focused on pointing out “flaws” in evolution and, very often it seems, that work turns out to be itself flawed or is answered by later evolution research.

            With 150 years, thousands of scientists and millions of pages of research to back up evolution, it is not incumbent on me to express humility in the presence of the ideas of a few dissenters. “All knowledge is provisional” is a statement of humility I embrace. It doesn’t mean I must defer to fringe researchers who haven’t proven their case.

            Enough of that. Reigning in the emotion now.

            I have been trying (at least in my head if not in my posts) to make a very clear distinction between the physical and the metaphysical. I’ve been trying to show that your original post conflates the two and, fortunately for me, this continues right up to your most recent response to me.

            You have explicitly agreed with me that evolution is a physical answer to a physical question. This is an excellent start that I would like to build on. Now, I’m going to make a request. I’m going to ask that you stop reading this post and google “metaphysical questions”. Peruse a couple of the links that have examples, then come back here and pick up with the next paragraph.

            Here is my assertion: you are confusing physical and metaphysical questions and answers, and, as a result, your action to choose one cause over many, a la Occam, is unfounded.

            To see this, I ask you to review the lists you made for Options A and B in your last post. In Option A, you list physical answers (that have greater or lesser empirical support) for physical questions, including evolution. (Sorry for bringing up evolution again but it is the best physical answer proposed in your list so it’s a clear example.) In Option B, you simply answer “God” for everything.

            Here is the crux: “God” is NOT a physical answer. God is beyond the physical. God is METAPHYSICAL. The physical answer to the physical question “Why do we have such a variety of life?” is “Evolution”. The metaphysical answer to the metaphysical question “Why evolution?” is “God.”

            Look back at the examples you found with the Google search above. What are the questions you see? “Is everything that exists an actual entity?” “What are numbers?” “What is experience?” These questions go beyond the physical. Now look at your lists of options again. You are clearly using physical questions.

            It is as if prior to understanding gravity we asked “What causes things to fall to the ground?” Answering “God makes them fall.” seems a likely response using your technique. But, like evolution, it’s a physical question with a physical answer: gravity. If you ask “What is the nature of gravity?”, we’re suddenly much closer to a question that tolerates “God” as an answer.

            Since “God”, as an answer to the questions in your lists, is inappropriate, the appeal to Occam is spurious. None of your examples are ontological. None of your examples are metaphysical. Answering “God” to them, and indeed, the entire Option B, is, as you put it earlier, a “category mistake”.

            In summary, I will answer my own question: What is the metaphysical “infinite number of causes” that requires Occam’s intervention to decide between one and many?

            The answer is you do not have an infinite number of metaphysical “causes”. You are looking only at physical “causes” and these cannot be placed on the metaphysical (and metaphorical) scale to weigh against the one metaphysical “cause” you propose. This is, in essence, the false dilemma of science vs. Christianity of which we have both spoken and to which we have both agreed.

            Choose, if you like, “God” as the answer to all your questions regarding what transpired before the big bang. But don’t use “God” to explain HOW everything works after the big bang. Explaining how the cosmos works necessitates a lot of answers. And there’s no getting around that.

            I apologize also for the length of this post. I would like to address other things you’ve said but I’m sure I’d lose any intrepid readers that have made it this far.

          • Scott Smith

            That’s a lot to respond to!

            Given current time constraints I’m going to pick and choose. I’m happy to come back to other topics later, but I think this will be a better use of time.

            Your last response had essentially two topics: my non-acceptance of evolution and my confusion over Occam. Since it’s more closely related to the OP, I’ll start with your challenge about Occam.

            I understand the difference between physical and metaphysical. I’m not sure what you would like me to do though. This is kind of at the heart of the issue. If my opposition rejects the supernatural as a category, and the natural realm cannot explain the natural realm … what would you propose? I am putting up the most plausible answer(s) on my worldview against the most plausible answer(s) on opposing worldviews. How would you have proposed I frame this otherwise?

            (I know I’ve brushed aside a number of things, but my schedule is crazy right now. I want to continue our conversation, but I’m hoping we can do so in pieces like this. Otherwise, it’s going to be a long time before I have time to write the thorough reply your questions warrant. Hope this is ok.)

          • Scott Smith

            Also, feel free to bump your next comment out into a new “thread”. It’s probably a logic point to do so anyway. I like how Disqus does threaded comments, but they’re starting to get awful narrow!

  • Chip Salonna

    “[W]hat would you propose?” – A most excellent question. Let’s see if I can answer this in half the space I used for my last post.

    First, I propose that, at least on some level, the nature realm CAN explain the natural realm. What are we doing if not exactly that when we do science? Are we not using nature to explain nature? Aren’t we using physical means to perform experiments and thereby understand nature? Nature is telling us about itself every time we make an observation.

    Second, I propose a less controversial assertion: the natural cannot explain the supernatural. This comes right out of the definition of “supernatural”.

    (By the way, if nature cannot tell us about the natural, would you say that super-nature cannot tell us about the supernatural? Would you need a super-super-nature?)

    Now you are perfectly free to say any of the things you said before. “A big bang needs a big banger.” “An all-powerful being could create all those things[.]” “Evolution itself says nothing about Jesus’ resurrection or God’s existence.” All metaphysical issues. All still true in your view. All subjugating the natural to the supernatural.

    Perhaps not as dramatic for an apologist but it avoids the attempt to compare the incomparable, i.e., supernatural and natural events. It separates the question “How does the cosmos work?” from “Did someone create the cosmos by an act of will?”

    Naturally(!), I’m writing this from your perspective. I’m proposing what I think is a better answer for you. I’m in no way convincing myself that God exists. But, your stand is intact. When asked if you would leave your faith given that evolution was proven true, your answer is…

    “No, I am convinced for reasons that don’t depend on that. Over the centuries, many natural answers to natural questions have been found. If evolution is the best natural answer we have to explain the diversity of life, that’s fine. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether it’s correct. But if it is true, it is a natural answer that is governed by my supernatural answer.”

    What do you think?

    (Apologies to Occam for leaving him out in the cold.)

  • jazzfeyersalo

    Hey Scott, caught this on my Disqus feed and it peeked my interest.

    I see you have hashed out a lot in your conversation with Chip so it is going to be hard for me to completely avoid overlap, but I do feel my question provides an alternate route than that already taken.

    What I see you arguing for in this post is that God as a metaphysical explanation offers a coherence than that of the motley of theories posited by the sciences regarding the big questions of existence.

    Now, a question that arises for me pertains to the equivocation of scientific explanation and metaphysical explanation. In my understanding, the trademark of scientific explanation is to identify factors or conditions such that manipulations or changes in those factors or conditions will produce changes in the outcome being explained. And the more robust a theory the more it stand to such counterfactuals. While, metaphysical explanation, to my mind, remains on a descriptive plain. While it may provide a basis for prediction, classification, or more or less unified representation or systemization, it does not provide information potentially relevant to manipulation or change.

    The problem with your engine analogy is that you posit a causal explanation *within* the causal mechanism of the system. While a manual for the engine could causally describe the steering pump’s role in the operation of the various parts, it will take a mechanic to test the engine via various counterfactual hypothesis (either on the engine itself or via his/her memory of prior interventions on this particular engine) in order to isolate the steering pump as the cause of your engine trouble. Its not clear to me however, how God can be a testable hypothesis in the way described above. God, as first cause, cannot be part of the caused. God, then, cannot be compared to the malfunction of the steering pump. One would have to move one step back and say that God caused (via Sovereignty, Divine Intervention, Judgement, all untestable explanations) the pump to malfunction, but this would still require an explanation of the malfunction itself.

    All of this to say that the “God” cannot be equivocated with scientific explanation as causal explanation of events in the cosmos. Simply by virtue of the former’s inability to identify factors or conditions such that, if manipulated or changed, the outcome being explained would be altered.

    • Chip Salonna

      Do you mean “equated” rather than “equivocated”?

      • jazzfeyersalo

        Ha, yea. Just edited the post. Thanks!