Lowder’s Case for Naturalism

Lowder organizes his case in the form of 9 lines of evidence, but 8 of these fall under two broad categories.

Probabilistic Arguments

Bunch of Multi-sided DiceLet’s imagine that Jim buys a lottery ticket and we want to consider if he will win or lose.  It is probably true that Jim’s ticket is not a winning ticket (given the odds of the lottery), so we think he most likely won’t win.  In other words, Jim’s ticket (X) is probably a loser (Y), but only possibly a winner (not-Y, or ~Y).  Since Jim only might win but will probably lose, it seems reasonable to conclude that he will probably lose.  We can summarize the standard of evidence this way: If X is probably Y but only possibly ~Y, then X counts as evidence for Y.  Substitute Jim’s ticket for X and a losing ticket for Y and you’ll get our scenario with Jim’s lottery prospects.

Lowder’s arguments from Physical Matter, a Hostile Universe, and Evolution are all something like this.  Lowder suggests, for example, that Physical Matter probably exists if naturalism is true but only may exist if theism is true.  He takes this to mean that physical matter counts as evidence for naturalism.

The Fine-Tuning argument runs on this standard of evidence, so we shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.  Fine-Tuning is probably true for the Design hypothesis, but only possibly true for the Chance hypothesis.  This gives us good reason to prefer the Design hypothesis over the Chance hypothesis.

Notice, however, that there are two conditions that must be met in order to satisfy this standard of evidence.

  1. X must probably be true for Y
  2. X must only possibly be true for ~Y

Physical Matter Exists

Let’s phrase this in terms of our standard.  Physical Matter probably exists if naturalism is true but only possibly exists if theism is true.  Lowder runs into problems on both conditions here.  Why should we think that matter would come to exist if God does not exist?  Why wouldn’t it be just as likely that physical matter does not exist (perhaps that nothing exists)?  Also, why should we think that God would not prefer to create physical matter?  Remember that it has to be only possibly true that God should create physical matter.  If X is just as likely for Y as ~Y, then the standard isn’t met.  Why not think that God should prefer that a material world existed, and therefore it would be probably true that God should create physical matter?  These challenges seem insuperable, so I don’t think Lowder’s argument can satisfy the standard of evidence being used.

Hostile Universe

We can rephrase this, A Hostile Universe probably exists if naturalism is true but only possibly exists if theism is true.  Once again, we run into both problems.  Why think that any universe would exist at all if naturalism is true?  Why would it be probably true on naturalism that a universe does exist, even a hostile one?  Why should we think that God would not prefer a universe like ours, thus making it probable that our universe would exist if theism is true?


Stephen Meyer and Michael Behe would disagree that unguided evolution is as settled of a fact as Lowder makes it out to be, but we can set that aside for the sake of the argument.  Our paraphrase here would be, Evolution is probably true if naturalism is true but only possibly true if theism is true.  Here we run into problems on both conditions once again.  Evolution is certainly not probably true if naturalism is true.  It is fantastically improbable in any event.  It is far more likely that no life should come to exist at all and if it did that it would not develop beneficial mutations than that we should see the sort of diversity of life we find in our world.  Remember that Lowder’s burden here is to show that given naturalism, we should expect naturalistic evolution (which entails that life should arise naturalistically).  Why is it not just as likely on naturalism that the universe would be completely devoid of life?  His burden is NOT given naturalism and diversity of life, we should expect evolution.  His burden is to show that given naturalism alone, we should expect evolution.

Evolution probably best shows Lowder’s most fundamental mistake with these arguments.  Notice that I first said Lowder’s arguments are “something like” the standard we have been reviewing.  In fact Lowder’s arguments are more like this: If X must be true for Y to be true, but need not be true for ~Y, then X counts as evidence for Y.  If physical matter must exist for naturalism to be true, but only may exist if theism is true, then Lowder takes this as evidence for naturalism.  Remember that Lowder said, “God’s existence doesn’t entail physical matter, in contrast naturalism implies that physical matter exists.”  In other words, God may exist even in the absence of physical matter but naturalism can only be true if physical matter exists.  Naturalism just doesn’t follow from this, no matter what variable is substituted for X (physical matter, hostile universe, etc).

The problem can be made obvious with Jim’s lottery ticket.  It doesn’t follow that Jim is a winner just because he has to have bought the winning ticket in order to be a winner, but only may have bought the winning ticket if he is just a player.  Neither would it follow that naturalism is true just because physical matter, a hostile universe, or evolution have to all be true for naturalism to be true.  At bottom, Lowder’s argument boils down to this, “If we assume that physical matter came to exist naturalistically, then naturalism best explains physical matter.”

The Problem of Evil – Rehashed

I have already written about the fundamental flaw in the Problem of Evil, so I won’t go into great detail.  You can find that article here.  The Problem of Evil can be framed like a reductio ad absurdum:

  1. Nothing happens apart from God allowing it. (for the reductio)
  2. X happens.
  3. Therefore, God allows X. (from 1 and 2)
  4. If God allows X, then there is a morally sufficient reason (MSR).
  5. There is not an MSR.
  6. Therefore, God does not allow X. (from 4 and 5)
  7. Therefore, God both allows and does not allow X, which is absurd. (from 3 and 6)

Substitute extreme/unnecessary pain, mass extinctions, non-resistant non-belief, and ethical disagreement for X above and you’ll essentially have Lowder’s arguments.  One critical weakness of these arguments is premise 5.  If the naturalist wants to run this argument, then he has to prove 5.  It is not my burden to disprove 5.  If he doesn’t give a good reason for 5 then we do not have a good reason to believe 6, and thus the reductio ad absurdum falls apart.  The article I linked above covers why our inability to detect an MSR does not give us reason to believe that there is no MSR.

Mind-Brain Dependence

anatomy-1751201_640Lowder’s argument here doesn’t seem to fall under either of the first two categories.  He states that nothing in the mind happens without a physical reaction in the brain.  He takes this as evidence that the mind can’t exist without the brain, and that the mind is therefore nothing but the brain.  Since the mind is nothing but the brain (there is no immaterial soul), then naturalism is true.

There are several missteps here.  First, how would we know that nothing in the mind happens without a physical reaction in the brain?  In order to detect this, we would need to detect everything that happens in the mind and everything that happens in the brain independently and show that they correlate at every point.  The only things that we can independently detect, however, are things that happen in the brain.  It seems that there is, in principle, no way to know that this is true.

Lowder’s second problem is that, even if true, this principle wouldn’t prove that the mind is the brain.  Correlation does not imply identity.  Let’s consider the correlation between physical objects and gravitational forces as an example.  Physical objects always correlate to gravitational forces.  It does not follow from this that physical objects are nothing but gravitational forces.  In the same way, it would not follow from the correlation between activity in the mind and activity in the brain that the mind is nothing but the brain.

Additionally, none of this would have any bearing on the existence of God.  It may be the case that human beings are purely physical beings and yet God exists.  It may be the case that human minds cannot exist without a  physical brain but yet God’s mind may exist without a physical brain.  I just don’t see how any of this would give us a reason to affirm naturalism.

Finally, Lowder’s argument proves far too much.  Let’s assume that Lowder is entirely correct, and the mind is nothing but the brain.  This entails that none of our thoughts are free, they are determined by the laws of physics acting upon our brain chemistry.  Our thoughts and ideas are not reasoned conclusions but are rather just the most recent product of the random collisions of particles in our brains.  It may be that our thoughts are sources of truth, but we have no reason to trust that our thoughts are sources of truth because they are not “aimed” at truth.  If the evolutionary account is to be believed, then they may be aimed at survival/reproduction but we cannot trust that they are aimed at truth.  Alvin Plantinga gives several examples of false beliefs and bad reasoning may be advantageous for survival, but for the sake of brevity I won’t go into it here.  Using this relationship between physics and the mind, we can develop a reductio ad absurdum argument of our own.

  1. We can trust that our minds are just our brains. (for the reductio)
  2. If our minds are just our brains, then our thoughts are just chemical reactions.
  3. If our thoughts are just chemical reactions, then they are not trustworthy sources of truth.
  4. Therefore, our thoughts are not trustworthy sources of truth. (from 1-3)
  5. The statement, “Our minds are just our brains,” is one of our thoughts.
  6. Therefore, we cannot trust that “our minds are just our brains”. (from 4 and 5).
  7. Therefore, we both can and cannot trust that our minds are just our brains, which is absurd. (from 1 and 6)

If Lowder is correct in what he is saying, then you should not trust his conclusions.  So if you agree with him, you should doubt him.

In the end, none of Lowder’s arguments can successfully provide good reasons for thinking that naturalism is true and that God does not exist. There remain, however, good reasons to believe that God does exist.

*I’m using the term “evolution” here to refer to macro-evolution.