Under the Microscope Part 1: An Abductive Case Against Theism

Occasionally, I see the screenshot below getting shared around on Twitter. I am not familiar with the author, but I think it’s clear why the post enjoys popularity: on its surface, it is an unusually and admirably clear and condensed case. I think it is also aimed at typical representations of theism and atheism, which makes it relevant to more people. But what might a polytheist think of this? I’d like to share some thoughts from this perspective in light of my most recent book Polytheism: A Platonic Approach. First, consider the argument itself:

in this post we’ll take a look at (1), and we’ll wrap up in another by going over (2).


The author says that theism is “far less” intrinsically probable than naturalism because the former comes with more ontological commitments, fits poorly with our background knowledge, and fails in informativeness due to its fundamental mysteriousness.

Now, I do not think the author actually intends ‘intrinsic probability’ here because neither ‘fitting with background knowledge’ nor ‘failing in informativeness’ have to do with the intrinsic nature of a theory, but with its extrinsic relations to such things as bodies of background knowledge. What this means is that the author is not starting out by considering theism and naturalism prior to any evidence: we are not starting out at the ‘beginning’, so to speak. Rather, the author wants us to start with considerations which they feel make their point. But what if we looked at these position’s intrinsic probability first, and theism came out on top? How would that affect our impression once we consider the author’s points? For another time, perhaps. Let’s set all this aside for the sake of argument and suppose that the actual intrinsic probabilities of these positions don’t make a difference.

Does theism come with more ontological commitments than naturalism? Does it fit poorly with our background knowledge? Is it fundamentally mysterious? I’m afraid this is where we’ll have to take this individual to task.

First of all, theism does not posit a “whole new kind of reality” compared to naturalism because in saying there is more to reality than Nature, theism is committed to The Ineffable. I cover this in chapter 1 of my book. The Ineffable is not only present in Nature via metaphysical individuality, and so cannot be a ‘whole new kind of reality’; but, in being “ineffable”, by definition it cannot be a “kind” of anything at all, let alone a “new” one.

Moreover, even if theism did posit a new “kind” of thing, it incurs no greater initial commitment in doing so than naturalism does by positing a new “extension” of Nature. Remember, naturalism is not the position that Nature exists. Everyone agrees with that. Rather, it says something like only Nature exists (or is causal, or concrete, or some such). In doing so, naturalism substantively alters the philosophically naïve or neutral starting point by taking a stand on what else besides Nature exists, is causal, concrete, or some such. So, if theism’s complexity increases because it modifies our starting neutral commitment to Nature by stopping Nature’s border short of all things (or all causal, or concrete things, etc.), then naturalism’s complexity increases just as well because it modifies our starting commitment to Nature by pushing Nature’s border around all things (or all causal, or concrete things, etc.). They both modify Nature’s boundaries — from the neutral position — they just do so in different directions.

Secondly, it is not true that theism has a “poor track record.” Here, theism is the simple, abstract position that there is more to reality than Nature (which I argue in my book just is the view that beyond Nature there are Ineffable Individuals). So the author is playing fast and loose with “theism” and some very specific hypothesis which may or may not have anything to do with theism. For example, if the author includes in the intended “poor track record” such “failed” explanations as “ghosts” or “demons”, then they are including hypotheses which naturalists can hold to as well! At least, unless the author takes a very narrow stance on Nature which excludes such things (such as reductive physicalism), and thus no longer speaks for naturalists in general. But in the general sense the post started out with, if the failure of such explanations as these somehow counts against abstract theism, then they count just as well against abstract naturalism, and we are back to square one.

Keep in mind that if specific theistic hypotheses are fair game as representations of abstract theism, then so too are specific naturalistic hypotheses. So should we talk about the track record of such naturalist explanations as logical positivism? The mind-brain identity theory? Eliminativism?

Thirdly, theism is not fundamentally mysterious. At least, in the way intended here, or any more than naturalism! The author is thinking of ‘mysterious’ as some kind of bad thing. That is, like a failure to be understood when it supposedly can or should be. But, ineffability isn’t such that it should be intelligible, or even can be! As such, its transcendence of intelligibility isn’t even like someone positing an explanation which seems like nonsense: we’re positing pure individuals, for whom there is nothing more to describe them by than themselves.

So, theism is mysterious in a trivial sense. As I explain in my book, this is because ‘ineffability’ is just ‘individuality’ considered by way of negation. Just as the subject qua subject has no predicate by which to be described, and so is literally ‘indescribable’, so too is the individual qua individual ineffable.

Insofar as theism is non-trivially mysterious, so is naturalism! Consider just some of naturalism’s non-trivially mysterious intelligibilia: What are moral duties? How does mind interact with matter? What is moral responsibility? What is consciousness? What is causality? Why is there something rather than nothing? The list could go on and on. Every view has mysteries like this, and we each have our fair share of work in trying to answer these sorts of questions in our own terms. But to say that theism is more mysterious just seems like an unhelpfully unquantifiable impression. What are we to do with that?

For what it’s worth, as I go over in chapter 3 of my book, I believe theism predicts Nature (in surprisingly specific ways!) due to divine constitution. So, while it’s beyond my scope here to argue, I would hold that theism is brilliantly informative, and precisely so because it embraces ineffability!

In light of the preceding considerations, I don’t understand how one can say so confidently as the author does that P(N) > P(T); or, in other words, that the probability of naturalism prior to considering any evidence is higher than the probability of theism prior to considering any evidence. I’d settle for a 50/50 split for dialectical purposes, but my honest impression is that it seems quite the opposite!


3 thoughts on “Under the Microscope Part 1: An Abductive Case Against Theism

  1. Is it not also a misconception to think of the the theistic and the naturalistic as different categories? Animism does not separate them. But philosophically the arguments of Galen Strawson for ‘Panpsychism’ (as a necessary assumption for materialists!) also suggest that they should be considered together.


    • I would say definitely in the case of ‘Gods’ and ‘Nature’! But insofar as ‘naturalism’ is a view which seeks to account for all of reality without any Gods, I do not think its view of Nature is the same as the ordinary view of Nature. That is, naturalists modify ‘Nature’ to be reductive or expansive in a way that people don’t ordinarily have anything to do with.


  2. Pingback: Under the Microscope Part 2: An Abductive Case Against Theism | The Analytic Pagan

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