Critical Response to John Haught’s Speech at King’s College

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Haught believes that the universe would be a boring place if there were no suffering and evil and sees suffering and evil as part of God’s plan to offer a grand cosmic story.

“God likes drama” is no answer to the problem of evil…and why so much drama, anyway? I think the universe would be a much better place without millions of people dying to natural disasters…

Theologians like John Haught constantly say that the “New Atheists” have a very simplistic view of God and refute a common conception of God that theologians don’t believe in. I hear this criticism quite often, but I never hear these theologians offering plausible answers to common objections such as the problem of evil, problem of miracles, Euthyphro’s Dilemma, and the Free Will/Omniscience problem. I hear explanations that admit there is a problem and just drag us deeper into the problems. Theists say “You need to read more theology,” but I find this useless when the theologians aren’t answering the problems and just make god smaller, smaller, and smaller to the point of metaphor (even though they insist that He still exists).

I had the pleasure of listening to an hour long speech by theologian John Haught tonight. The topic was “Faith and Evolution: What’s the Problem.” Haught argued that evolution and faith are compatible and that one can be a scientist and a theist by looking for “layered understanding” and “deeper meaning” to evolution and cosmology.

Haught critiques the Intelligent Design movement and the “New Atheists” (why this term even exists, I don’t know) who “look for ultimate explanation at the level of scientific accounts and says that science and theology should be kept separate. Meaning, he believes, can be found from a layered view of evolution in which God creates drama in a universe that is not perfect; God creates some sort of cosmic story that makes life interesting. Haught believes that without suffering and evil, there would be no future, freedom, or life (!). Haught says that “evolution is the intellectual foundation for the ‘New Atheism” and attacks Dawkins and Coyne.

Haught explains his idea of “layered explanation” and says that “everything admits of levels of understanding.” He shows an image of Darwin on the screen and asks us “Why is the image on the screen” and says that many answers can account for this such as “the speaker is making a point” or “the projector is emitting patterns.” Haught notes that there need not be competition among levels; there need not be conflict.

Haught then asks, “Why have there been so many species of life?” and offers various explanations such as “Accidental changes,” “Accidents in natural history” [such as a asteroid falling and killing life], or “divine creativity.” He notes that, “The causal efficacy of natural selection doesn’t rule out creativity.”

Haught then asks, “Why does life exhibit complex ‘design’?” He says that it is not wrong to look for underlying wisdom as an ultimate explanation and adds “It’s a leap of faith to assume that science is the only way to make sense of living traits.”

Haught then makes various assertions: We should look for meaning not in design, but in the drama of life, there would be no drama if design were perfect, and there would be no story if there were no wait. He says that atheists and believers insist that God exhibit himself in a perfect world and notes that intelligent design advocates and “evolutionary atheism” share the traits of impatience and perfectionism.

Haught then explains that Christianity is simpler than most people make it to be; the two main points are incomprehensible mystery and God’s self-communication and love from the world of the infinite to the finite. Haught asserts that the finite mind can’t grasp the infinite and get around the incomprehensible mystery.

Haught notes that without accidents in the universe, there would be no novelty, adventure, or evolution because that which is perfect can’t possibly progress/evolve; the universe would be meaningless and purposeless.

Haught notes that the main symbol of Christianity, the cross, allows God to participate in the world’s struggle and suffering. He then says, “Doesn’t suffering make more sense with drama?”

As a theologian, Haught notes, his fundamental drive is trust. He said he just couldn’t be a philosopher. Closing, Haught ends with a non-sequitur and says, “We should be open to possible new outcomes. Christianity has already done so much for us.”

After the lecture, I was able to ask the following question, “You say that Intelligent Design is looking for an ultimate explanation at the level of scientific accounts, but aren’t you doing the same thing when you discuss layered explanation? How would you answer to objections saying that your layered explanation is ad hoc and unfalsifiable?” My second part of the question was unanswered, but Haught said that his theology is kept separate from his science. He didn’t answer my first part, either. He’s clearly taking scientific findings and adding a layer of theology. Why bother doing this at all? How can we possibly save these explanations from being ad hoc and unfalsifiable?

Haught is just adding layers to that which is explained to fit his god with evolution. This method is profoundly ad hoc. Like Haught, I could have gone up to the podium and reconciled Allah, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Zeus with evolution by offering any sort of explanation that came to my mind. I could go up to the podium and say, “The Flying Spaghetti Monster really enjoys people struggling with natural disasters and hopes that they will give ramen noodles to survivors of earthquakes. Wouldn’t the universe be a dull place without disaster victims?” Haught offers no evidence whatsoever to warrant his “layered explanation” of drama in the universe being perfectly aligned with God’s plan. He doesn’t define God, he doesn’t tell us why he believes, and he doesn’t explain how he knows there is a specific Christian god rather than another or a team of gods.

Haught’s layered explanation example of evolution and Darwin’s picture is very problematic and serves as a false analogy. When offering Darwin’s picture, Haught offers various naturalistic explanations of why Darwin is on the screen. He can provide evidence to support each reason and each explanation is plausible. He then says there is no competition between explanations, great…but then he steps to the species of life and offers a supernaturalistic explanation with no evidence supporting it!

“Divine Creativity” is certainly in conflict with “accidental changes” and “accidents in natural history” because one is a supernaturalistic explanation and the other two are naturalistic. Science won’t offer supernatural explanations or unfalsifiable explanations such as “there is divine creativity.” Haught wants to keep his science and theology separate, but he isn’t doing this at all with these layered explanations. He can’t have it both ways.

I also object to the idea of “There need not be conflict between layers of explanations.” The mere idea of different layers does not mean that there need not be conflict. I’ve already explained why there is a problem with this, but imagine the following scenario: There is a mug on my desk. Here are three explanations: My mother put it there, I put it there, Richard Dawkins put it there. All of these explanations are certainly possible, but some are more and less probable than others.

All of them can’t possibly be true (unless they all put it there at the same time) and there must be conflict. “I put it there” is the most probable explanation with little background information because I have access to my room at King’s and no one else has been in the room in weeks. I don’t leave my door open for others to come in and place my items that were in other areas of my room. My mother has never been in my room and neither has Dawkins. My mother placing the mug is more probable than Dawkins because Dawkins does not personally know me.

Haught notes that “the causal efficacy of natural selection doesn’t rule out [divine] creativity.” Great, but this is an unfalsifiable claim. How can we possible rule out creativity, anyway? It’s certainly possible, but is this a probable explanation? Haught mentioned a great deal of evils in nature and noted that natural selection seems to be an impersonal process. I agree. This is exactly what we would expect if there were no Christian god.

This, of course, does not completely rule out the Christian god (nothing can, really, because he is unfalsifiable, but we can regulate his probability close to zero) as Haught strawmans the “New Atheists” as thinking. The “god of the gaps” argument is something that atheists often accuse theists of. God of the gaps is an argument from ignorance that places God in some area that we haven’t fully explained. For example, God used to be thought of as the contributing factor to disease, lightning, and earthquakes. God would get angry and punish earthlings. Divine creativity would be more likely (even though it would still be quite implausible) if there were less “natural evil” in the world such as disease, earthquakes, and “nature red in tooth and claw.”

Haught accuses “New Atheists” of “scientism” and says, “It’s a leap of faith to assume that science is the only way to make sense of living traits.” This is a strawman because the “New Atheists” don’t hold the position of scientism…and it’s already been falsified because of random quantum events that literally have no explanation. What else, though, can possibly make sense of living traits besides areas of science? Should we really be accused of scientism if we appeal to the only area that can explain things?

I assume that Haught is saying that Christianity or some sort of supernatural explanation can offer an answer to why the world is the way the world is, but isn’t that a bigger “leap of faith?” Christianity has not been demonstrated to be true and its metaphysical claims have not been supported by reason, evidence, and argument. This would be like me saying, “It’s a leap of faith to assume that probability is the only way to make sense of outcomes of successive dice rolls.” Are there other areas that can possibly offer meaningful explanations supported with evidence, reason, and argument?

Haught argues that “if design were perfect, there would be no drama.” This is another strawman… I have constantly rebutted this claim from theists in previous posts of mine and at public discussions. I’m not asking for a perfect universe, but rather saying that we would expect a universe without such egregious natural evil if an omni-god created it. If a perfect universe even possible? What would this even mean? Haught thinks that there would be no future, freedom, or life in a perfect universe, but he never supports this claim.

Haught believes that there would be no story if there were no wait. Why is this the case? Imagine that humans existed a mere thousand years after the universe formed…or even if God put humans on a planet that formed right after the universe formed. Would there suddenly be no story? Of course not.

Haught charges atheists and believers with “demanding that god exhibit himself in a perfect world.” I haven’t heard of atheists or believers expecting a perfect world if God made it. Atheists don’t argue like this either by saying “The world is not perfect, therefore God doesn’t exist.” Divine hiddenness is a curious problem of Christianity because, one would think, if God really wanted people to believe in him, he should make his existence known to us. If he exists and is an omni-god, he’d surely know how to do it.

Haught asserts that God’s world and God is infinite and we can’t comprehend it because we have finite minds. This position is ultimately self-refuting because theologians and all sorts of believers make very specific claims about God. To be more charitable, let’s assume that he means “we can’t comprehend specifics about God” or “there are some things that we can’t comprehend.” This seems to be an unfalsifiable answer to any given objection that theologians don’t have a good answer to such as the problem of evil.

I hear this quite often in public discussions, but it reeks of dishonesty because an answer of “I don’t know” should be said instead of this “we can’t comprehend God.” Believers and theologians are happy to make some claims about God when they have a good explanation, but when difficult questions are raised, this objection is unsatisfactory. It’s also not the case that we can’t comprehend this infinite because infinities are used in mathematical equations quite often and physicists offer great explanations of infinity.

After my question wasn’t answered, another member in the audience charged Haught with pareidolia; the audience member said, “Aren’t you just making up your own stories and then seeing them in the universe and just verifying what you’re seeing by offering ad-hoc explanations?” This audience member “hit the nail on the head” and reinforced the second part of my question. This is exactly what is seems like Haught is doing. Haught offers no evidence, argument, and reason for his claims of “drama in the universe” that originates from the divine and merely asserts this to have an explanation that is in-line with his notion of god. He had about an hour to speak, but I heard no evidence to support any of his claims.

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