Goodness Over God guest Robin Collins

In the twelfth episode of the counter apologetics podcast by Michael Long and Ben Wallis, both atheists of considerable intelligence, their guest was none other than Dr. Robin Collins. For any who don’t know, Dr. Collins is perhaps the world’s leading champion of the teleological argument for the existence of God from the fine tuning of the initial conditions of the universe. As such, it was a surprise for me, and I’m sure it was an honor for them, that Dr. Collins found his way onto their show and agreed to expose himself to their criticisms. This was particularly interesting for me, as Dr. Collins was one of the final candidates which we (the Theological Studies Undergraduate Student Association) were considering inviting and hosting as a guest speaker for a Theological conference at Concordia University here in Montreal. I was warned by one of my professors not to simply consider people based on what they have written in published material, since writing and speaking engagements are different arenas and, as he shared with me, many of the most brilliant writers are terrible communicators when asked to speak. In the end we decided to invite Dr. Denis Lamoureux to present a few papers on the intersection of science and theology, which we anticipate will be an excellent and engaging upcoming event. I found Dr. Collins to be quite sharp and well spoken, and so I know now for future that that certainly wouldn’t be a concern with him (though I expected as much to begin with). In reflecting on the conversation on the podcast I thought I would post some comments. For those curious readers who haven’t discovered this podcast and are interested in listening to it, the link is here.

The conversation begins with Dr. Collins being invited to provide a broad sketch of his teleological argument for the existence of God. He thus begins to cite features of the universe, such as the five fundamental constants or the 12 to 14 laws of nature which are together precisely tuned so as to allow for life. The explanation for this fact is then thought to be God, in the sense that the purpose-displaying feature of the universe’s allowing for instances of human beings, or living beings relevantly similar to human beings, cries out for an explanation in terms of design or teleology. The explanation is, then, God. Initially Collins seems to have been concerned about addressing the objections afforded by the multiverse hypothesis, but the conversation (as I would have anticipated, knowing Michael and Ben well enough) turned to the issue of epistemic probabilities.

The suggestion seems to have been that Collins requires, in his argument, that we should accept a Restricted Principle of Indifference (RPI) with regard to probabilities. He makes rather clear that this is an epistemic axiom, and not a metaphysical stipulation, but the argument was precisely on the level of epistemology. What this RPI proposes, so far as I understand it, is that we ought to assume a uniform distribution across members of a set of possibilities until we have some precedent for thinking some subset of that set is more likely than the remaining members of the remaining subset excluded by the first subset. For example, imagine that one is to Roll a die with six sides having no prior experience with dice or significantly die-rolling-like circumstances; one should assume that, barring some precedence for thinking otherwise, rolling the die will yield any one of six equally probable results insofar as which side faces upwards is concerned.

The objection seems to be that this principle is not legitimate, or at least cannot legitimately be applied in the way Collins means to. Michael and Ben seemed to argue that probability can only be spoken of in terms of models, and models cannot be legitimately constructed of the beginning of the universe such that they allow us to infer a transcendent designer from the apparent ‘improbability’ of the precision involved in the fundamental constants and quantities of our universe for allowing instantiations of life. I don’t think their talk about models and induction really did much of anything to get away from the argument, since the whole argument was using probability based on the best available scientific model of the world at its ‘beginning’. It seems to me that what Michael and Ben are ultimately suggesting is just model-dependent realism of some kind. Perhaps its flavor is a bit different from that to Stephen Hawking because they do have a broad metaphysic, and they are technically idealists; idealism is simply the commmitment, as I understand it, to relations being ontologically prior to relata. Thus it is only as one develops models of the world that one can come to speak about objects of relations (more specifically experience, but I’m not sure what else ‘experience’ is supposed to mean other than relations). However, it seems to me that since Michael and Ben both adopt this form of model-dependent realism they must take seriously arguments which make use of the best models of the way the world works which are available to us. This is precisely what Collins was doing, as he himself points out later in the conversation – but there was a much deeper objection. I suggest that this objection is fundamentally the same one I encountered when I had the privilege of being a guest on their show to talk about miracles and epistemology. Indeed, the problem is precisely that Michael in particular is a non-cognitivist when it comes to Theism, as I’ve suggested to him before.

One of the most interesting things Collins points out at the beginning is that, on the assumption of Determinism, there is no such thing as repeat-ability. Consider, for instance, that you had a machine flipping a coin with exactly the same force and applied at exactly the same angle, and with all the similarly relevant physical features being satisfied – the coin will land predictably, every single time, on the same side. Similarly, every instance of a coin being flipped is similarly physically determined based on the force and angle at which it is flipped. If one is a committed determinist, then every instance of everything is determined. There is no qualitative difference between flipping six coins in a row and having them land heads and flipping six coins in a row and having an even distribution between heads and tails. Therefore, induction does not rely on or express something true of the world, on Determinism, but only true of the way we make sense of the deterministic world. This point was not prominently examined in the subsequent conversation, but it remains one of the features that I most enjoyed reflecting on.

Much of the discussion centered on the issue of assigning a priori probabilities. We are asked, then, to imagine the principle of indifference being applied at the beginning of the universe by a disembodied alien with the psychological equipment necessary to construct models of the world. This disembodied and psychologically well-endowed alien considers, in the first moment following the big bang, whether the universe will be life permitting. Using Dr. Collin’s suggestion of epistemic probability, it appears that his model may imply a 50-50 probability that the universe will be life permitting. A moment later the probability will have to be reassessed according to new information, and so on. I think Collins failed to grasp (as did I) the argument this was intended to establish. In any case, I leave that to you the viewer to listen for yourself. I will note that where Michael and Ben seemed to want to talk about all probability as arising from within a model which itself is constructed in light of experience, Collins agreed that all probabilities arise from within a model, but denied that all models arise from experiences in the way his hosts suggested. He provided an example from atomic theory as one model which itself is not based on experiences which are relevantly similar to those described by atomic theory, and I feel, in company with Ben and Michael, that I just cannot speak much to this point since I know little about the science.

Much of the discussion was about induction, and it was interesting to hear what Dr. Collins had to say in response to Michael on these points. Particularly when he maintained that Christianity suggests a form of “Axiarchism” which Collins, after trying to criticize a Humean account of induction, goes on to define:

Theists… because they believe God is good, their ultimate commitment is a form of axiarchism that the world is structured to realize goodness. One can argue from there that induction is necessary and justified by this ultimate-assumption.
~ 1:20

I think this is something I’ve expressed before, though not with nearly as much sophistication. However, theism implies that the world will be relevantly similar in the future to how it has been in the past, precisely because of what it is oriented to realize on the assumption of theism. Theism requires that the rational faculty be capable of understanding that there is a God from reflection on the world, and must be able to take the world as, in some ways, a starting point for reflecting on God, since a ‘creation’ reflects the creator. Moreover, since I take rationalism in this theistic sense to be the commitment to 1) the external world existing mind independently, and 2) the human mind being capable in principle of correctly model-ing that world or re-cognizing it, the second commitment seems to imply that the external world is such as will allow for induction. Theism implies induction in such a necessary way that there is no logically possible world in which Theism is true, and induction fails to hold – Therefore induction is justified on theism in a strong sense.

From here the discussion seemed to involve a new flavor. Collins referred to God as that which acts as an ‘ultimate explanation’. Since this is the function of the idea in a broadly theistic worldview, the argument from fine tuning doesn’t involve an inference to some ad hoc stipulation of theism, but rather considers theism as one among many hypotheses. What most interested me about this discussion was that it seemed to highlight a fundamental difference in method between Michael and Ben on the one hand, and Collins on the other hand. I will end with my thoughts on exploring this final point. Since Michael and Ben are both, it seems, stipulating some form of model dependent realism, it seems that they don’t do much to get away from the arguments Dr. Collins presents (except by appealing to the underlying problem with theism in general, as that which transcends the world but which therefore cannot be spoken about by analogy from the world). This represents, to my mind, a fundamental difference in method and approach to the entire project of philosophy. I take it that since, as Collins says, this ‘ultimate explanation’ is also somehow a personal explanation, that it is this ‘ultimate explanation’ is serves as the final cause of philosophy itself (and for Theism, it’s formal cause as well). Indeed, if one is to define a subject based on it’s subject or object, philosophy has as its object the ultimate happiness of man which requires the realization of this ultimate explanation, and its subject at least involves ultimate explanation. Thus, wherever somebody proceeds to do philosophy without these ends in mind, they are not doing what the Christian will recognize to be philosophy at all. Philosophy’s formal and final causes are simply God. However, their use of philosophy implies that it is, for them, a technology rather than a science. I think this makes way for a conversation about the very nature of philosophy, and what a theist might want to respond is that one’s most basic values (for instance the value of finding an ultimate explanation) will help to determine one’s approach to philosophy, and their philosophical conclusions (what they find most reasonable).

The whole conversation inspired me to want to read Dr. Collins carefully in his contribution to the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, where he presents a very condensed version of his teleological argument. Also worth reading is Ben’s blog, which is linked at the bottom of this page with the other blogs I try to read, in which he has recently posted about Robin Collins and the Restricted Principle of Indifference.


~ Enjoy.

About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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