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Schaffer Fought the Law and the Law Won

A short response to Jonathan Schaffer’s Causation and Laws of Nature: Reductionism

Schaffer’s Reductionism

Schaffer argues that both causation and the laws of nature reduce to history. What he means by this is that all descriptions of laws are sufficiently grounded on the history of the world. If a law is to change, then something about the history of the world would have to change. Schaffer uses two analogies to get this point across. First, he says that the laws reduce to history in the same way that a movie reduces to the individual frames; in order to have a different movie, one would need to have different frames. Moreover, describing the frames in their totality describes the movie in its totality. Second, he says that for God to create a universe, He need only to create the space-time components of the universe and the laws fall out for free; He does not need to sew everything together with spooky metaphysical thread. Likewise, describing the entire history of the world will describe the laws of nature [1].

An Argument in Favor

I agree with Schaffer that the strongest argument in favor of reductionism is the argument from grounding. This hinges largely on the defense of whether modal existents reduce to occurrent existents. Since I am inclined to agree that is sufficient to reduce the laws to history, I will not argue against his (35)[1]. I do not see a way out of reductionism if this holds. Schaffer offers three arguments in favor of thinking that modal existents reduce to occurrent existents: (i) it is intrinsically plausible because free-floating modal entities are spook to the max, (ii) it is consistent with Humean recombination, and (iii) it is theoretically useful in ruling out unsubstantiated metaphysical positions [1].

The Final Assessment

I find Schaffer’s arguments interesting, yet uncompelling. The primary problem is with his seemingly unwavering adherence to Humean recombination. Schaffer essentially argues that laws place unwanted limitations on what is possible. Even if that is the case, then so much the worse for recombination. The purpose of laws, it seems to me, simply is to restrict our notions of what is and is not possible. Specifically, laws constrain what scientists can posit as a constitutive equation that describes the behavior of some material or physical system [2]. Schaffer repeatedly appeals to science: a practice whose purpose is to find out how the natural world is, not how the world could be. In light of this, his complaint that the possibilities are limited seems jarring. But in fact, I do not think that being a primitivist violates Humean recombination.  Interestingly enough, while Schaffer complains that theism is what got us into this nomological quandary to begin with, God may be the solution. Imagine a world consisting of two spheres of some mass but are not drawn to each other in accordance with the law of gravity. As it turns out, God is supernaturally holding the two spheres apart from each other. With an omnipotent being in our metaphysical toolbox, recombination does not seem the worse for wear. Even still, I am not convinced that God must intervene to maintain recombination. Imagine that same world with the two spheres but God failed to instantiate the law of gravity. It appears the same outcome is achieved. I am not arguing that this a rebuttal to reductionism; however, I do not think that Schaffer’s arguments go far enough in warranting the position.


  1. Schaffer, J., Causation and Laws of Nature: Reductionism, in Contemporary debates in philosophy, T. Sider, J. Hawthorne, and D.W. Zimmerman, Editors. 2008, Blackwell Pub.: Malden, MA. p. ix, 404 p.
  2. Freed, A., Soft solids : a primer to the theoretical mechanics of materials. 2014, New York: Springer. pages cm.

[1] “If modal existents reduce to occurrent existents, then laws reduce to


Preliminary Analysis of the Fine-Tuning Argument

This year, I’ve decided to focus some of my research attention on the so-called fine-tuning argument for God’s existence. I am not particularly convinced of it one way or another and there is a significant amount of data to sort through. This is my understanding of the argument and opinions on it at the time.

The Argument Defined

In years past, theists of all stripes have pointed to the intricate attributes of our world that, in any other context, would indicate design. The primary focus of past generations has been in the field of biology. While it is widely considered that the neo-Darwinian evolutionary paradigm has all but eradicated such arguments for special creation from biology, a new line of evidence has recently emerged from the field of physics. As it turns out, there are many features, constants, and initial conditions of the universe that must be incomprehensibly precise in order for life to evolve anywhere. To somewhat formalize it, for any given constant/initial condition/feature, there exists a range of quantized values it could possibly be (Rp) and a subset of that range which would be non-prohibitive to life (Rl). To say that a quantity is “fine-tuned” is to say that Rl/Rp « 1. To give an example, the expansion rate of the universe can be described by the second Friedmann equation.


One of the more influential terms is Λ (referred to as the cosmological constant); for Λ > 0, an attractive force results which slows the rate of expansion while for Λ < 0, a repulsive force results which increases the rate of expansion. The value turns out to be 2.3 x 10-3 eV. Allegedly, if this value varies by a mind-boggling one part in 10120, the universe would either (a) expand too quickly for planets, stars, and other large bodies to congeal or (b) expand too slowly and collapse back into a singularity [1]. With a litany of constants, quantities and laws exhibiting such precision, the likelihood that embodied agents like humans emerged by luck seems to evaporate. This realization has been encapsulated in various forms by philosophers. The most persuasive version in my estimation is put forward by Robin Collins and is built from what he refers to as the Likelihood Principle, defined as follows (Collins 2009):

Let h1 and h2 be two competing hypotheses. According to the Likelihood Principle, an observation e counts as evidence in favor of hypothesis h1 over h2 if the observation is more probable under h1 than h2.

Collins also includes the caveat that the hypotheses must have additional, independent warrant outside of e, otherwise, the hypothesis could be considered ad hoc. I think that this is fairly intuitive as it follows the rationale commonly used in analyzing courtroom evidence. Typically, the investigation team will narrow the range of suspects down to a handful before considering the lines of evidence such as fingerprints and the like. Sometimes, the particular evidence can be equivocal and multiple scenarios fit as the “best explanation”. Using the Likelihood Principle, one can go down the line and individually compare competing hypotheses against one another. This is roughly parallel to the difference between doing an ANOVA test and a pair-wise t-test. For this reason, I think this line of argument puts the fine-tuning evidence in its strongest niche. The formal argument as stated by Collins is as follows (Collins 2009):

  1. Given the fine-tuning evidence, a life-permitting universe (LPU) is very, very epistemically unlikely under a naturalistic single universe (NSU).
  2. Given the fine-tuning evidence, LPU is not unlikely under theism.
  3. Theism was advocated prior to the fine-tuning evidence (and has independent motivation).
  4. Therefore, by the Likelihood Principle, LPU strongly favors theism over NSU.

An Objection Considered

Exceedingly rare are philosophical arguments accepted without objection and the fine-tuning argument is no exception. As mentioned in the previous section, the evidence of fine-tuning includes absurdly high magnitude numbers, for example Rl/Rp (Λ) ≈ 1/10120 which is thoroughly incomprehensible. While the determination of Rl may be straightforward, it is not immediately obvious how Rp is to be determined. Indeed, it actually seems to be the case that any natural number is equiprobable and Rp ought to vary from ±∞ for any given constant. But, now we have an odd situation on our hands. If Rp encompasses an infinite range of values, then, every constant is fine-tuned to an infinite degree. No matter what value Rl takes on, as long as it is finite, the degree of fine-tuning is equivalent. To put this another way, it is not clear how each fine-tuned parameter should be normalized.

The criteria I use to consider whether an objection is “good” or not are (i) how powerful the objection is, (ii) how broad the scope of the objection is, and (iii) how persuasive the objection is. The “normalizability problem”, in my estimation, optimizes these three criteria. If successful, this objection provides a major undercutting defeater for what “fine-tuning” is even supposed to mean. First, this means that every data point in the argument is affected, irrespective of what version of the argument is advanced; this seems to be as wide of a scope as an objector could hope for. Second, this acts as a refutation – the most powerful form of objection – of the fine-tuning argument in that no alternative explanation (a la multiverse scenarios) needs to be provided. Lastly, it does not require advanced knowledge to grasp the thrust of this objection, which makes it widely accessible and thus, persuasive.

Is this normalizability problem successful in undermining fine-tuning? It is not immediately obvious one way or the other. It seems to me that there are scenarios wherein the range of possible outcomes is infinite, yet, we still are rational to consider the event “fine-tuned”. For example, suppose that the universe is actually infinite in extent; I have a transmission radio and one day I pick up a series of notes d e c C G. It turns out that this broadcast was sent from a distant planet to Earth, but, only Earth. Indeed, only to my radio at the unique frequency I was listening to [2]. Now, the signal could have been broadcast at any frequency and to any spatial region of the universe [3], which is an infinite range of possible locations. However, this fact does not seem to undermine the inference that this signal was, in some sense, fine-tuned to broadcast exactly to my location under the exact scenarios under which I could hear it. While there is undoubtedly some limitation to this example, it seems sufficient to demonstrate that infinite ranges do not seem to be a sufficient condition for undermining fine-tuning.

The Current Assessment

Should “fine-tuning” be a coherent concept, I am inclined to think the fine-tuning argument, as stated above, is successful in providing evidential weight to theism over a naturalistic single universe scenario. The normalizability problem does pose a legitimate hurdle for the defender of the fine-tuning argument; however, I think that it can be overcome by providing specific physical limitations (as can be done with some values other than the cosmological constant) or by non-quantizing the fine-tuning argument. That is, probability judgements need not be quantized to have force. I am not aware of many juries that provide a p-value in their verdicts. I think the fine-tuning argument is probably the most persuasive in the form of an aesthetic argument. Rather than spitting out a stream of numbers, the defender of the fine-tuning argument should broadly sketch the issue and trust her interlocutor’s intuition to recognize “fine-tuning” in a similar way to recognizing “beauty”.

However, the case does not seem to be settled on whether the universe is, indeed, fine-tuned. Moreover, there are likely epistemic considerations that are not being adequately evaluated. In particular, could the arguments for skeptical theism come back to undercut the fundamental probability evaluations? I am unsure. For the time being, I am inclined to say that the naive argument is tentatively persuasive, but I am unsure if it will hold up under scrutiny.


  1. Collins, R., The Teleological Argument: An Exploration of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe, in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. 2009, Wiley-Blackwell. p. 202-281.


[1] That is, Rl/Rp (Λ) ≈ 1/10120

[2] Clearly, if the broadcast had been sent out in all different directions, this would undermine our inference to fine-tuning.

[3] We will ignore, for the time being, the physical limitations behind such a scenario

Terrorists, Microchips, and other Half-Baked Frankfurters

Frankfurt cases are classic thought experiments used to explore the necessary conditions of a free choice. Allegedly, they demonstrate that the principle of alternative possibility (PAP) is not a necessary condition. In other words, even if something is all you can do, you can still do it freely. Here are a few common examples to get the gist.

  • Scenario A: Suppose you are running out of a burning building and you reach the ground floor. Ten feet to your left is a door labeled Exit A and ten feet to your right is a door labeled Exit B. You choose Exit A and escape to safety. Unbeknownst to you, Exit B was actually blocked on the outside by a giant beam and could not have been opened.
  • Scenario B: Suppose there is an evil scientist who has been hired by the Donald Trump campaign in the battleground state of Colorado. This evil scientist is systematically installing microchips into people’s brains under the guise that they are Pokémon Go updates. In reality, they are chips to ensure that the individual votes for Donald Trump. If the person attempts to vote for Gary Johnson, the chip activates and changes their mind to Trump. Come Election Day, some voter, Ash, has a chip in his brain. He’s in the booth and decides that he wants to Make America Great Again™ and freely votes Trump. However, he could not have voted for anyone else but Trump.
  • Scenario C: Every evening from 6pm – 7pm, I make a cuppa joe and read from a book from my personal library. Suppose at 6:15pm, a terrorist runs into my house, points a gun at my head and says “Read that book for the next 45mins or I shoot!” I look at him and tell him it won’t be a problem because that what I wanted to do anyways. I freely read my book even though I can’t do otherwise. (This example is adapted from the great Protestant pope Ronald Nash).

I have two problems with the Frankfurt cases. First, I don’t find them convincing and second, they don’t bear the argumentative weight that some people think.

As stated, the purpose of these thought experiments is to show that the PAP is not necessary for a choice to be free. However, the strength of the argument is completely dependent on how broadly or finely one defines a possibility. Here, I appeal to Sarte’s notion of “radical freedom” in that every choice is a free choice and every situation is a freedom permitting circumstance. The standard example is of a group of hikers who going up a mountain encounter a giant boulder blocking their path. “We have no choice but to turn back”, says the leader of the group. “False,” retorts Sarte “for you have the choice to jump off of the mountain to your near-certain death”. Sarte is correct in that there are alternative possibilities in this case and in all of the above Frankfurt examples. You can choose to die in the burning building, get shot by the terrorist, or kick over the voting machine and urinate on it. There is nothing about the thought experiments that precludes any of these behaviors, thus, the hypothetical scenarios don’t truly demonstrate a lack of alternative possibilities.

The above retort is only true in the finely grained sense of “alternative possibilities”. On a more broad understanding, this isn’t the case. (By “broad”, I’m referring to the way we typically use “I had no choice” e.g. “I had no choice but to swerve off the road – I was going to run over a child”. Sure, you could run over the kid, but c’mon). In the broad sense, these scenarios might eliminate alternatives because (i) given that I want to escape the burning building, I must choose Exit A, (ii) given that Ash is going to vote, he must choose Trump and (iii) given that I don’t want to die, I must stay in my chair. Even still, I don’t think that Scenarios A and B truly capture a lack of alternative possibilities in the broad sense. Surely there is a difference between picking Exit A first and choosing Exit A after learning Exit B is locked. Equally, there is a difference between voting for Trump because the chip detected a Johnson vote and voting for Trump first. The terrorist example comes closest to truly creating a no-alternatives scenario, but, also shows the limitation of Frankfurt-style arguments.

It creates a problem for divine determinists (e.g. Calvinists) because it is by mere happenstance that the choice and the external limits coincide. My decision-making process is entirely independent of the terrorist’s, yet, they both line up by luck. The divine determinist wants to say that God sovereignly determined all events, not that His decree happens to line up with what His creatures have already decided. Notice how the terrorist has no causal relevance in the scenario. If he were or were not there, I would still read my book. To say that this scenario is some kind of parallel to the divine decree is to make the decree causally irrelevant, which is the exact opposite of what the divine determinist is wanting.

To use another illustration, suppose there is a grid of numbered squares in a large field. Each odd-numbered square has a land mine underneath but each even-numbered square is clean. Suppose Jane, who knows nothing of the land mines, is walking through the field and on a whim decides to cross the field by walking only on even numbers. The person who placed the mines didn’t determine Jane’s path – he only determined that < if Jane steps on an odd numbered square, she will die >. The fact that Jane made it to the other side seems to be by luck.

What happens if a creature tries to go against the divine decree? Well, there are two options. Either (a) she can but won’t because God’s decree is compatible with her choices by luck or (b) she can’t because the divine decree didn’t just remove alternative possibilities but actually determined the specific choices she is going to make. The Frankfurt cases do not independently support such a strong position as (b). At most, this argument only shows that the PAP is not a necessary condition for free will which is not the same as demonstrating that a free decision is compatible with causal determinism. Don’t get me wrong – should Frankfurt-style arguments go through, the conclusion is non-trivial; however, the conclusion is often overstated. Compatibilists will need additional argumentation for their position.

Who Overheard Jesus and Pilate?

(Alternate Title: The Problem of Private Parlance Pericopes)

There is an interesting objection to the reliability of the Gospels centered on the problem of private conversations. There are several interactions, the objection goes, wherein the details of the events are privy only to the participants of those events. The writers of the Gospels neither participated themselves in these events nor plausibly had access to witnesses of these event. Consider for example the conversation between Jesus and Pilate described in John 18.

Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”

Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?”

Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?”

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”

Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?”

Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”

Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?”

  • John 18:33-38 (NASB)

This is a pretty detailed account for a guy who was not there to hear the conversation. Could it be the case that the author of John wove this vignette from whole cloth? Before we jump to that conclusion, let’s survey the potential candidates for John’s information.

The Witnesses

First, Pilate would have the information regarding this information. Is it likely, however, that he would willingly participate in an interview with the early Christians? Admittedly, I am not an expert in this area, but it does seem highly improbable that a man of Pilate’s stature and background would take time out of his day to tell some fisherman what he discussed with their murdered Messiah. I think we can safely assume Pilate was not John’s source.

Second, there may have been bystanders. The text is unclear as to how private this conversation actually was. The term Praetorium is sometimes translated as “palace” or “headquarters” indicating that this was a large building presumably occupied with many of Pilate’s servants as well as military personnel. It does seem slightly unlikely that Pilate would take a criminal into a completely private room without any security. Thus, it is throughly plausible that a member of Pilate’s court overheard the entirety of the conversation, later converted, and shared their story with the believing community. Over time, this permeated into the oral tradition and eventually became encapsulated in John’s Gospel. While this is less of a stretch than John interviewing Pilate, it does seem slightly ad hoc.

Lastly, we have Jesus. Jesus would certainly have the relevant information about the conversation seeing as he was a participant. Moreover, Jesus certainly would not have a problem talking to John or any of the other disciples about what happened. In other words, Jesus was not a hostile witness. He seems to be the perfect candidate. Why would he not be considered a legitimate option? Here, we reach the crux of the problem.


The problem that a sceptic is going to have with Jesus being the witness is that Jesus was killed after this conversation, before he could tell anybody else. But, notice how this is circular! The only reason that Jesus could be invalidated from being a witness would be if he did not rise from the dead. But, if he did not rise of the dead, then the Gospels are not telling a true story in the first place. In other words, to raise this objection to the veracity of the Gospels requires assuming the Gospels are not veracious in the first place.

But isn’t the Christian reasoning in a circle, too? Isn’t she assuming the Gospels are true to defend the Gospels are true? Here, we need to clarify that the objection is an internal critique.

You Christians have an inconsistency in your source documents. You claim they are eyewitness testimonies, but even on your own view, there isn’t an eyewitness to this conversation!

On this count, the Christian can retort that she has the explanatory resources to remain internally consistent. Since the Gospels were written after the resurrection of Christ and the 40 days of teaching described in Luke 24, Jesus is a legitimate source to fill in some of the gaps, particularly during the Passion Week events. Note that the scope of this response is limited to internal consistency.

What’s the point? It means that the “covert conversation challenge” is not an independent objection  to the veracity of the Gospels; rather, it is dependent on an objection to the resurrection of Christ: whether that is a general philosophical argument against miracles or specific historical case.

Is Evolution at Odds with Atheism?

I defend Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism in this discussion with Erik. Note: the first part is rough because my internet is wimpy and I kept cutting out but it stabilizes about 10 mins in.

Check out my article on the EAAN here.

The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

“If there is no God, then all that exists is time and chance acting on matter. If this is true then the difference between your thoughts and mine correspond to the difference between shaking up a bottle of Mountain Dew and a bottle of Dr. Pepper. You simply fizz atheistically and I fizz theistically.” – Douglas Wilson

Mr. Wilson is hitting on an interesting notion in the worldview of naturalism. It seems that if our minds are the products of naturalistic evolution, then there wouldn’t be any reason to think we can think reasonably. Such is the basis for the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. Let’s start off with a few definitions.

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The Cosomological Argument from Contingency

I think that the argument from contingency (or Leibnizian Cosmological Argument) is one of the more underrated arguments for the existence of God. Let’s start off with some definitions.


Necessity: A being’s existence is metaphysically necessary if it cannot fail to exist; the being exists in all possible worlds.

Contingency: A thing is contingent if it could exist and it could have failed to exist. For example, the Earth’s existence is contingent. It exists but it could have failed to exist (indeed, at one point the Earth didn’t exist). The explanation of a contingent thing’s existence is an external cause.

The Argument Stated

  1. Everything that exists has an explanation for its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause (i.e. it is contingent).
  2. If the universe has an explanation for its existence, that explanation is what we call God
  3. The universe is an existing thing.
  4. From 1 and 3 it follows: The universe has an explanation of its existence
  5. From 2 and 4 it follows: The explanation for the existence of the universe is God

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