It’s an old post (“Playing The Mystery Card (incl. McGrath vs Dawkins) from my book Believing Bullshit”) on Patheos, from 2014. As Dr. Law has recycled it on Twitter I thought it deserved appropriate interaction.
Dr. Law’s target concept is the question of mystery. In theological circles we use that term to cover the concepts and conclusions that are not perfectly clear in the Bible’s direct teachings or which may not be precisely concluded from a systematic analysis. Dr. Law uses it to describe a religious skepticism about things that are “beyond the ability of science/reason to decide.” Though our language may differ the practical meaning of these two approaches is basically the same. Dr. Law includes in his discussion some matters which science and scientism cannot decide. Most prominent is the matter of ethics. Or more specifically those things we ought or ought not do.
He extends his argument to something called the “veil analogy.” He frames the the problem as a sort of Platonistic or Gnostic issue (though he doesn’t use those categorical terms). He says that some approach unknown scientific questions this way:
Suggest that observable, scientifically investigable world is not all there is – there is also some sort of mysterious further reality hidden from us, as if behind a veil. Maintain that some of us – those lucky enough to be equipped with the right sort of transcendent faculty or insight – may perhaps obtain glimpses of the mystical reality that lies beyond the veil (and of course it’s terribly important that we listen to these “experts” – psychics, say, or “spiritual” people).
By doing so he has correctly classified a problem with some approaches to science. Whether this represents a fair description of Christian theology in general is another question. Yet he does reach the proper conclusion in his identification of Hegel’s influence which is certainly that of a neo-Platonist.
Such anecdotal approaches (veils and mystery) to science by people uninformed (whether apologists for God or not) does no good for the arguments of either side of the questions raised. Yet one might ask whether arguments from either apparent reason or apparent empiricism amount to anything more than alternative anecdotal arguments. That is, might it be that those arguments miss the core issue of the God’s providential presence? Might they be arguing against an erroneous notion of God rather than the fact of God?
As Dr. Law pursues is argument against God’s existence he first appeals to the scientific method. For those of us born before 1970 (ok, that’s an arbitrary number, but it will suffice for the sake of argument) “the method” was the question of hands-on experimentation. For those born later the language has changed and has been broadened to include the observable fruit of an experiment. While the language of the two is very similar the latter opens the door to estimations which are outside the realm of the old laboratory test. One may now look at a calendar of events, calculate what should fit into an empty slot and, if the results work out correctly, the estimation test is considered a success. This change has opened all types of doors and all types of questions.
Dr. Law’s next question goes back to the matter of ethics, specifically the problem of evil. Though he bundles this with his empirical question it is concerned with the apparent artifacts of God’s existence rather than with the broader question of God’s existence. Good and evil, pain and suffering, and so forth are artifacts. They are results of something. They do not constitute God’s existence. One might say that he has a malformed question. He questions X by questioning X[a].
It is of course a sound response to ask Dr. Law to cease using the terms “good” and “evil” if there is no God. In our world those terms find their home in Christian theism. This is especially true when the argument is framed around questions of justice. If he were raising this argument in the Islamic world his examples would not suffice because his, um, analogy would not match their theology.
One might also say that his use of the terms panders to a Christian apologetic. He cannot use those terms without acknowledging, at a minimum, the substance of the theological structures he seeks to dismantle. He may disagree with the origin of the systematics but he at least acknowledges their internal consistency in drawing a set of ethical positions. That seems to weaken his argument as he lacks the language to describe observed (dare we say empirical) morality apart from the language of morality.
Dr. Law commits the same error by equating some various spiritist metaphysical questions with those of Christian theology. That’s like saying Newton and Einstein were doing the same thing. It’s a nonsense argument – a straw man. Perhaps he simply missed it.
While his argument from morality against the existence of God fails, I would also submit that our arguments from morality for the existence of God might not be as strong as we wish. They seem to say more about a particular understanding of morality, along with some matters of apparent human consensus, than about an external, all-powerful Being.Finally, as his discussion continues he delves into the question of negatives. His understanding, a subtext through the piece, is that the universe does not need God and that one can prove a negative. I’m not going to pursue the question of negatives (he is generally correct) except to say that “prove” might be language that is too strong for inductive reasoning. (I of course disagree with his conclusion.) He is looking not for empirical evidence but for the ends of an induction process. This is the weakness of his reasoning.
What is my argument for the existence of God? It is historical. The Bible is, among other things, a book of history. It explains God’s providence over the created order since the beginning. It employs language whose meaning has been lost to the millennia but which covers the principles of His care for creation. The argument of modern science, via Darwin, is that there is a natural explanation of history. Neither of these is an empirical argument. Both appeal to empirical treatment of artifacts. Neither is a deductive proof. The structural failure of Darwinism has been progressing for the past two centuries and will continue as we passed through classic Darwinsim, neo-Darwinism with its sibling punctuated equilibrium, followed by the third wave and some post-Darwinists and non-Darwinists all constructing a variety of models and questions that do not fit any of the Darwinist models.
The question of morality, of good and evil, is an artifact that fits better with the providential existence of God. The question of pain and pleasure, of being red in tooth and claw, fits better with naturalistic materialism. The skeptic borrows the language of the Christian to the detriment of his argument.