Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?

Do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?

This particular catchphrase has spread like wildfire in atheist and sceptical corners throughout the Internet. It is easy to see why – at first glance, it has a certain plausibility to it. 

But in practice, it is often used as a rhetorical club rather than as a method to find truth. 

For example, David Deming has called attention to the misuse of the ECREE principle in science. While he is not against any use of the principle, he argues that its misuse can make science too conservative. He writes: 

ECREE is frequently invoked to discredit research dealing with scientific anomalies or any claim that falls outside the mainstream. The statement is usually made without justification or explanation, as if the mere invocation were enough to stifle debate and disqualify any legitimate opposition.

Many principles that seem plausible at first glance collapse on further investigation. So let’s examine this and see what we find.

The first hurdle: what does “extraordinary” mean here? Usually it remains undefined. Let’s go through some possible definitions:

  1. Rare. This seems to make sense: if something rarely or never happens in our experience, we are more likely to be sceptical of it. We are sceptical of Bigfoot claims, but this would not hold if we encountered bigfoots every week. However, while individual rare things are rare, as a set rare things happen frequently. Donald Bradman had a rare talent, for example. Additionally, all things are rare if described in enough detail. While I have written plenty of blog posts, none of them have had the same number of words as this one.
  2. Unprecedented. If something is not known to ever have happened, we might be sceptical of new claims for it. But of course, new things do happen regularly. No one had landed on the moon prior to 1969; nevertheless, it still happened.
  3. Outside of the normal capacity of the cause of the effect. For example: the claim that “Julius Caesar killed someone by firing lightning from his fingers” would be an extraordinary claim, because human beings do not have such capacities. However, this definition would not include acts of God, for if God exists, he is perfectly capable of performing miracles.
  4. Completely unexpected, given our background knowledge. This would cover miracles, and also such things as the reappearance of long-extinct animals. This does make “extraordinary” entirely subjective, though. The moon landing would be extraordinary to a lost Amazonian tribe. Additionally, one could argue that claiming background knowledge of places and times distant to ourselves is an unjustified extrapolation.

The next question: what counts as extraordinary evidence? Here are three possible definitions of that:

1. Quantity. The same kind of evidence, except more of it.

2. Thoroughness. In some circumstances, one might do only a cursory check to satisfy ones curiosity, in others one might use a fine tooth comb.

3. More spectacular. So if investigating whether Jesus rose from the dead, one might want evidence as miraculous as the claim. God might write ones name in the stars, for example. But this notion of extraordinary evidence is deeply problematic. Firstly, evidence for any large or complex claim usually takes the form of many small pieces of evidence, rather than one spectacular atom-bomb. Secondly, if you really do see God write your name in the stars, that’s only evidence that you should be in the nuthouse. And thirdly, there is a weird sense of entitlement involved. Who expects God to perform magic tricks for them?

How do we know things, anyway?

Think through your life, from your childhood, through school, talking with your parents, friends, reading books and newspapers. Throughout that time, how many claims have you heard? Many thousands. How many have you actually checked? A very small percentage, no doubt.

We are social animals. As Westerners, we think of evidence-gathering as a solitary, individual pursuit. But in reality, much of what we know we know via authority. As individuals we don’t see the evidence, and for anything specialised, we wouldn’t understand it even if we did.

In addition, many of our beliefs cannot be tested by evidence, yet we cannot do without them. These include the adequacy of the human mind, the reality of causation, human agency and so on.

In short: for most claims, the normal amount of evidence we get as individuals is zero evidence.

To what extent does extraordinariness guide our decisions to look for evidence?

Ordinary claims are not interesting enough to check. Nor do we usually check claims just because they’re bizarre. Usually we dismiss them as crackpot and move on. If bizarre claims are held by people we respect, we are more inclined to respect them, although more often we might only raise an eyebrow.

The decision to investigate a claim, and the amount of evidence one might seek, is mostly goal-driven. For example, a claim like “I ate eggs for breakfast” you would take or leave, without checking. But if a suspect in a murder trial used “I ate eggs for breakfast” as an alibi, the police might spend a lot of time testing that claim, despite its ordinariness.

Apart from that, we are driven by cultural biases. It never occurred to me to check claims I heard in English class, history, mathematics or physics etc. But I did check my religion. Why? My culture told me to. It doesn’t tell agnostics they should consider getting religion, so by and large they don’t.

How much evidence should we look for?

With the previous considerations in mind, how to decide how much evidence to look for?

1. The first and most decisive consideration is: how much evidence would there be if the claim was true? This will differ from claim to claim. Evidence for “are there any Tasmanian tigers left” will be far less than the evidence for the theory of evolution, for example, no matter how thorough the investigation. Claims for which repeated experiments can be done will have much more evidence than one-off historical events.

2. A more thorough search for evidence is entirely appropriate for claims with important ramifications. But this will have limits. To expect more evidence than a thorough investigation of the claim can give is self-defeating.

3. Finally, we need to be aware of cultural biases and act to mitigate these in the course of any investigation. Unfortunately, the “extraordinary claims” test is often used to entrench our Western cultural biases rather than come to an objective assessment of the truth, which must be the aim of any rational enquiry.


1. Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence?, by David Deming

2. Extraordinary Claims And Cumulative Case Reasoning, by Tim McGrew (video, semi-technical) – A look at the “extraordinary evidence” test and Bayesian methodology

The Magical Hairless Ape

In a parallel universe, before any new species can evolve, it must be pre-ordered via an Evolution Procurement Office.

It was a quiet morning at the Evolution Procurement Office. Charles the EPO Officer was manning the office by himself, thinking about stealing a quick tea break, when a briefcase-wielding man in a charcoal suit walked through the door.

Said the client: “Good morning, I have a new species of animal to order.”

Charles the EPO Officer: “OK, let me get the forms.”

Putting on his spectacles, he rummaged through a foot-high pile of documents on his desk.

“Right. Well, you’ve come to the right place. I have some questions to ask you, after which we can discuss costs and delivery times. First of all – this new species, where will it live? For example: in nests, in caves, up in trees, etc?”

“Well, I would say, anything.”

“Anything? What do you mean, anything?”

“I envision that usually they will build houses for themselves.”

“Houses made of what?”

“Anything. Wood, bricks, concrete, grass, whatever works.”

“Okay. And when not in houses?”

“They might live in caves, on ships, igloos, whatever works.”

“Whatever works?”

“Yes, whatever works. They will have the creativity and rational powers to freely adapt to any situation they encounter and deal with it.”

“Riiiiight” – more shuffling of papers – “And whereabouts will they live? Deserts, rainforests, grasslands?”



“Yes, anywhere. They should be able to adapt to most environments on Planet Earth.”

“I dare say that sounds ambitious. Now, what will they eat?”




“Are they going to eat rocks?”

“Well – maybe not rocks. But meat of all kinds, vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, dairy, you name it.”

At this point, the client imagined he saw a smirk emerge on the EPO’s face.

“Any other points to make about the their diet?”, Charles continued.

“Oh, yes. They should have almost unlimited creativity, so rather than just eat food as they find it, they can experiment with different combinations of foods and different cooking methods.”

“So not only any food, but any combination of foods, eaten with any kind of preparation methods?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Quite the free-wheeling mavericks, this new species.”

“I suppose so.”

“Okay, what’s next here, ah – How will they communicate with each other?”

“Spoken language.”

“And what will they talk about?”


“I’m sensing a theme here. Anything. So, they will talk about anything at all.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Ok, so they should have a language.”

“Oh no, you can’t just hard-code a language.”


“They should be able to create any new words they want. Also, any new language they want. With any kind of grammatical structure they want.”

“Oh good, we are finally getting into specifics.”


“Never mind. What kind of brainpower will this species have? They will be smart, I take it?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Please continue.”

The client sensed that something was awry, but pressed on.

“As I envision it, this species will be able to think about anything.”

“Again, anything! Fantastic! Can you give me some examples, or more detail? We like details here.”

“Sure. So for example, they will be able to think about any topic, for example, mathematics, religion, philosophy, science, as well as everyday life. They will be able to conduct investigations, talk about them using language, and pass on knowledge to the next generation.”

“You mentioned earlier they will be very creative.”

“Oh yes. When it comes to creative arts, they will be able to create anything – write poetry, novels, plays, music, paint paintings, create sculptures and so on. Plus they will have traditions and rituals of all kinds to mark what they think is important.”

“Remarkable! Now, we really must talk about what these super-smart, super-creative uber-animals will look like. Although I must warn you, if you start telling me they will have any number of legs, any number of wings or have any height whatsoever, depending on what they feel like, I shall have to hurt you. So what’s our starting point here? What are these animals evolving from?”


“Primates? As in, apes, chimpanzees, monkeys and so on?”

“Yes, except hairless. No fur.”

“Hairless apes. You want super-intelligent hairless apes.”

“That’s right.”

“Super. Intelligent. Hairless. Apes.”

At which point the EPO officer pushed aside the forms, gave a loud groan and buried his face inside his hands.

An awkward silence ensued.

After about 30 seconds, the client nervously asked “Is everything alright?”

The EPO officer took a deep breath, placed his hands on the desk, and gave the client a fixed stare.

“Let me ask you a question. Imagine you are an architect. Someone asks you to build a house. You ask “How many bedrooms?” They say “Any number – something between 1 and 100, the design should be flexible.” You ask what type of floor. They want all types – carpet and wood and slate and concrete, to switch between when needed. It goes on. Any number of kitchens. Any number of bathrooms of any size and any number of showers. A basement, except it could be on the roof if needed, and views and no views simultaneously from every room. You would say to them – what exactly?”

The client shuffled his feet but said nothing.

“I mean, you must have noticed at some point, when thinking through this proposal, that of all the 10 million living species and 5 billion extinct ones, not one of them is anything like this?”

“Sure, but you are always saying how flexible this evolution thing is.”

“Flexible yes, but not infinitely so. We have a good system here, but it is still a system and this implies limits. It is not an Anything System. There could never be an Anything System. Even the idea of an Anything System is nonsense.”

“Right, but surely -“

“Take for example the language thing. You want your hairless apes to talk about anything. Using a completely general-purpose language. But there isn’t anything like that. Bees do a dance but it has a single purpose – to communicate where the food is. Meerkats have different calls to warn of different predators, but again this is only a single purpose. Meerkats can’t start talking about philosophy or the meaning of life. You see what I mean? Single purpose yes, general-purpose no.”

Charles continued: “As regards creativity, it is a similar picture. A bower bird will create a display to attract a mate, but it is always the same type of display, and only for a single purpose. The bower bird does not have general-purpose creativity. No animal does. So you won’t get an Anything Language let alone Anything Grammar, Anything Thought or Anything Creativity.”

“Just because there aren’t any animals like this and there have never been, doesn’t mean it can’t be done.” the client replied.

“You think the failure of evolution to produce anything like this thus far – after 10 billion species – is, what, a massive coincidence?”

Charles let the point hang in the air for a few seconds before continuing.

“But there’s more – how do we know that the physical is causally determined?”

“Uhh – because we see regularities? The same causes are followed by the same effects?”

“Exactly. So when you drop a rock and it falls to the ground, then drop another rock and the same thing happens, you know there is some sort of causal regularity taking place. That’s the mark of physical causation – predictable, monotonous regularity.”

“Now, think about what you are asking me to do” said Charles. “A hairless ape with Anything Language, Anything Thought, Anything Creativity. Unlimited thought and unlimited creativity are precisely the opposite of predictable, monotonous regularity. Do you think I have magical powers? I don’t.”

“So, you’re not going to do it?”

“And – a hairless ape. For God’s sake. Can you imagine it? Hideous! Then you give it the ability to think – it will know that it’s hideous. I can imagine it now – “Why are we so ugly?” they will say to each other. What cruelty. Even if I could make such a thing, I wouldn’t.”

The client sighed and threw up his hands.

“Fine. Can you at least make me a hairless ape?”

“I suppose so. But as for the rest of it, you’ll have to take it up with someone else.”


Too many questions …

  1. Imagine that there was a robot, that behaved just like a normal human. It asks you to explain something – it doesn’t understand your answer. It asks for clarification. “Ah, now I understand”. What happened?
  2. Could the robot claim to believe something, then later say “I thought I believed that, but now I see I really didn’t”?
  3. In what sense can the robot believe something?
  4. Can the robot be said to think?
  5. The robot decides to buy a house – “I did the calculations. I can afford it.” Did the robot buy the house because it could afford it?
  6. Did the robot buy the house because of its programming?
  7. Can the robot do something for a reason? 
  8. Could the robot make morally dubious choices? Could the robot commit a murder and rationalise to itself that it wasn’t really murder, that “they had it coming”?
  9. Could you look at the robot and get a sense of its character? “It has kind eyes” or perhaps “Looking into its eyes was chilling, like staring into an abyss”?
  10. Can the robot reason to a conclusion but, in some way unclear to itself, engage in motivated reasoning? If a robot believed in God, would this be because it wanted to believe? (Would it make a difference if the robot was an atheist?)
  11. Could the robot want to believe something?
  12. Imagine two such robots. You argue with them. One is convinced by what you say, the other is not. What is happening here?
  13. If the robot said something racist, would you be offended? Should you be?
  14. If the robot borrowed money from you and refused to pay it back, would you be angry?
  15. If the robot became angry, would you tell it to hold its breath and count to 10?
  16. Can the robot choose? Does it have agency? Free will? 
  17. Would the robot have moral obligations?
  18. Imagine you told the robot it had no feelings and it said “It hurts my feelings being told I have no feelings.” Would you be convinced?
  19. Could the robot feel pain?
  20. What would convince you that the robot is conscious?
  21. Consider the word “cat”. Is possible to analyse the meaning of “cat” solely in terms of its physical qualities – the pixels on the screen in this case?
  22. Does a computer know what the pixels on the screen mean, when it displays the word “cat” or the picture of a cat?
  23. What is it that makes the pixels on the screen mean anything? Is it anything in the computer itself?
  24. Consider your responses to the above. Does it make sense to say that the mind is a computer? Or that people are meat robots? If so, to what extent does the analogy hold?
  25. How do you know other people are conscious? 
  26. Are animals conscious? Plants? Rocks?
  27. Why do you think that consciousness is physical? (Assuming you do.) Is it because other people and other animals act as though they are conscious like you are?
  28. Did consciousness evolve? How do you know? 
  29. Imagine two species of rabbits. Both species eat, run, reproduce and in all respects look and behave the same way. Now, imagine that one species has consciousness and the other are meat robots. Do the conscious rabbits have any advantage?
  30. Is rationality physical? (The ability to reason from premises to conclusion.) How do you know?
  31. If you answered “Yes” – is it the same way you know that consciousness is physical? (Assuming you do.)
  32. Consider a simple fact of mathematics: “3 > -3”, say. Are facts like this physical? If not, are they just useful fictions?
  33. How to define “physical” here? Does physical mean what science says physical means? If that’s the case, and science is not complete, how to decide if something is physical or not?
  34. The definition of rationality above – “the ability to reason from premises to conclusion”. Is it possible to think without abstractions? (Try it sometime.)
  35. Do we create logical truths or discover them? If we discover them, doesn’t that make them real (in some sense)?
  36. If we discover them, and rationality evolved, does that mean that the evolution of the mind was a process of better and better discovery of logical truths?
  37. If we create them, and rationality evolved, does that mean we created more useful logical truths as we evolved?
  38. Should we continue to evolve, and if while doing so get better at creating or discovering logical truths, does that mean we could arrive at an understanding of logical truths that contradicts that which we have now?
  39. Could a better-evolved humanity believe that 2+2=5?
  40. Can science give us complete knowledge of everything that exists? (If so, we should thank reality for conforming to our chosen methods.)
  41. Can science give us complete knowledge of the physical? 
  42. Could science one day tell us that abstract objects are real? (Whatever “real” means here.)
  43. Given that physics is a mathematical science expressed entirely in equations, and physics is the most fundamental science, if science gives us complete knowledge of the physical, doesn’t that imply that the physical can be described entirely using mathematics?
  44. How do we know that the physical can be described entirely using mathematics?
  45. If so, and if mathematics is abstract, does it follow that only the abstract exists? 
  46. If physics can only give us abstractions, and the concrete exists, does it follow that physics can only tell us about that part of the physical that can be abstracted, but that it can give us no knowledge of the concrete?
  47. If the abstract is not real, and physics only gives us abstractions, what does that mean for physics?
  48. If the abstract is not real, and all human thinking uses abstractions, what then is human knowledge?
  49. How many different species of animals are rational? (Compare: how many species of animals are conscious?)
  50. How many times has rationality evolved? (Compare: how many times has hearing, seeing evolved?)
  51. If you think that abstract objects are in some sense real, does it make a difference what type of abstract objects we’re talking about?
  52. Do these exist: a) “3 > -3”, b) the State Of Victoria, c) the value of money, d) human nature, e) numbers, f) redness, g) the idea of unicorns (as opposed to actual unicorns), h) chessboardness (ie. what it is to be a chess board), i) truth, j) existence itself?
  53. Now you must decide whether to keep reading these questions or not. If you’re on a smartphone, hover your finger over the Back button as you choose. Is your choice to press Back or not predetermined? If so, how long ago was it predetermined? An hour ago? At the Big Bang? How do you know?
  54. Pick up an apple and hold it in front of your face. Convince yourself that whether or not you eat that apple is entirely predetermined. Can you do it?
  55. If there is no free will, is there such a thing as choosing because of a reason? Choosing because of the evidence?
  56. Should free will be defined as choosing based on reasons or as the ability to do otherwise?
  57. If determinism is true, what does “based on reasons” mean?
  58. If God acts according to his own nature, and God’s nature can not change, does that mean God doesn’t have free will?
  59. Is there such a thing as the universe? (By this I mean: over and above the things in the universe.)
  60. When we say “did the universe have a cause” (before the Big Bang) would it be better to say “did the first thing in the universe have a cause”?
  61. Likewise, when people talk about “something coming from nothing” would it be better to say “something coming from not anything”?
  62. Imagine that the first thing in the universe had a cause, and that cause is outside of time. From the perspective of this first cause, what is the difference between the “first thing” and the second (and all the others)?
  63. Can you think of any context where people doubt truisms such as “everything that has a beginning has a cause” or “everything that could have been otherwise has a cause”, apart from God arguments?
  64. Imagine a policeman coming across a dead body with a knife its back. He says “Just because this state of affairs had a beginning, and could have been otherwise, doesn’t mean it had a cause. Explanations have to stop somewhere. It’s just there, there’s nothing to explain, and I won’t open an investigation!” – how would you respond?
  65. Imagine a Number 4 Sceptic. This sceptic is happy to accept any mathematics except when it adds up to 4. He insists that 2+2 could equal 5. When pressed on this, he says “The number 4 is a matter of faith. It is a mystery how 2+2=5, but one day science will solve this for us.” How would you respond?
  66. Assume that God is outside time. Can God act more than once? 
  67. Could God decide to do something and then do it?
  68. If we have eternal souls that can exist without bodies – why would an eternal soul that didn’t need a body have one?
  69. Imagine that someone invents a machine that can measure the strength of arguments, so if you have an argument with someone, the machine can give you a completely objective account of whose argument is stronger. Who gets to calibrate the machine?

The end of democracy

Lately I’ve been reading Plato’s The Republic. Part of this is an analysis of different types of government. Here are three points Plato made on democracy:

– In a democracy freedom is paramount, and the people will want greater and greater freedom. Any constraint on freedom becomes unbearable to them.

– In a democracy people will not accept that some pleasures should be encouraged while others are bad and should be subdued – instead they say that all pleasures are equal.

– An excess of freedom brings about the end of the democracy and the beginning of tyranny.

That second point. Am I describing Plato or todays newspaper?

So why is it that people in a democracy would see all pleasures as equal?

Here are a few thoughts amounting to a partial explanation. In the beginning of Western democracy, a number of groups had their own ideas about what was true. They all agreed there was such a thing as objective reality, that there was an order in nature that we ought to submit to, and an objective morality based on this, but they couldn’t agree on the details. Because of this they decided that the government would be neutral on this point. There would be no official ideology. (Separation of church and state.)

But in some strange way, people take their cues on how to think about the order of things partly from the system of government that surrounds them. So if you live in a monarchy, most likely you will conceive of the world as objectively real, and authority as objectively real, and all representing an order in nature that ought to be respected and submitted to.

In a democracy, people think differently. If the government is neutral between different ideas about the natural order of things, decisions are made without reference to any natural order of things. From there, “there is no such thing as a natural order of things” follows, and from this, to no truly objective morality – there are only individual wants and preferences.

But since the idea of objective reality is tied to the idea of a natural order of things, and the idea of a natural order is tied to the idea of objective morality, the rejection of an objective morality and a natural order of things upholding it will naturally lead to a rejection of objective reality itself. All is subjective, all that matters is my wants and needs and desires.

But if all is subjective and all that matters is my own desires and wants and needs, anyone who says that there truly is an objective order of things, and we ought to submit to it – that person becomes an enemy.

The end of democracy

Now, how might democracy end in tyranny? Western decay is advanced enough I think we can make some educated guesses here. Here are some dangers to our democracy:

1. Propaganda 

Imagine you are a media mogul with a large reach over the population. Now, imagine you and the other moguls want a certain policy changed. If your reach is large enough you can control:

– That your topic is discussed 

– What options are discussed

– How each side is framed

– How people should feel about each side 

The methods of emotional manipulation are well understood. So if you hit the right buttons for long enough, your side will win with certainty, as humans have almost no defences against propaganda.

Who will stop you, given that we have freedom of the press?

In a democracy, people will agitate for changes that they think are right. With the right propaganda, you can brainwash the public, and they will campaign as if it was their idea all along.

Democracy requires open debate. Freedom of speech is useless without freedom from propaganda.

2. The Maverick

Let’s say our media mogul from point 1 gets power-drunk. Instead of asking what the people need to happen, he drenches public debate with his own ideas, one after the other.

Although the mogul’s ideas win support, the people become resentful that their own needs are being ignored. But they can’t elect any ordinary politician to meet their needs – such politicians are too busy servicing the mogul.

So they elect a complete outsider.

The competence and sanity of the outsider is a roll of the dice.

(Helloooo Donald Trump.)

3. An Official Ideology

If the mogul and his successors go far enough, they may be able to install an official ideology – by that I mean a way of thinking installed into the system so that it is difficult or impossible to change by democratic means. Using their media access, they persuade the population that rights must be restricted against their opponents, whom they have presented as evil.

At this point, the democracy has changed to some sort of ideological quasi-democratic nation-state, with many important questions off-limits.

Since the mogul’s propaganda is now official, and freedom of speech restricted, even to think against the ideology becomes difficult. The mogul’s successors become more convinced of their righteousness in their self-made echo chamber. They introduce more and more rules to reinforce the ideology and restrict the remaining opposition.

(Helloooo Soviet Union.)

4. New Management 

Alternatively, someone wins power who sees the mogul for what he is and determines to bring him down.

By nationalising the press.

Now the state controls the press. 

Now we have a “managed democracy”. 

But if this is skilfully done, the new leader will learn from the mogul’s mistakes and won’t overplay his hand.

(Helloooo Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.)

5. Game Over

But a sufficiently ruthless leader will learn a different lesson from the mogul’s demise. The mogul’s mistake? He didn’t eliminate elections. He didn’t shoot anyone. By manipulating the system this ruthless leader will slowly but surely remove the constraints that remain. 

Finally, a democratic change of power will be impossible and we will have a tyranny.

(Helloooo Josef Stalin.)

Cosmological Argument and stuff

The famous cosmological or first cause argument for God’s existence is well known, at least in the basics: it purports that the world around us requires a cause and that cause is God. The argument is associated with Plato, Aristotle , Aquinas and many other thinkers. Consider this post a half-arsed reconstruction of the argument.

It is built on a few basic ideas about causation.

Firstly: There is no such thing as something that could have a cause but doesn’t. So everything either requires a cause and must have one, or could not possibly have a cause and doesn’t.

Secondly: What does have a cause?

– Anything with a beginning

– Anything with parts (as something had to join the parts together)

– Anything that has changed (as something had to make it like it is now)

– Anything that could possibly not exist (as something had to make it exist)

Now, since anything with one or more of these qualities must have a cause, one of two results follows: either an infinity of stuff, as cause follows cause follows cause follows cause etc, or we arrive at a first cause that could not possibly have a cause itself.

Let’s assume for the moment that the universe does have a beginning. (I’ll deal with an eternal universe later.) Of course it might not, but it does look like it. Is it true that it therefore requires a cause?

Certainly that would be a commonsensical conclusion. If you were eating dinner, minding your own business, when an apple seemingly popped out of nowhere, you would ask yourself: where did that come from? In other words, assuming a cause.

But some argue here that if the Big Bang is the beginning of time as well as space, it can’t have a cause since causes must happen before their effects and there is no time before. So the rule becomes: anything with a beginning has a cause, except if there is no time before the beginning. Does this make sense?

I’m not sure that it does. Let’s go back to the apple example. Naturally you assume that an apple that appears seemingly out of nowhere has a cause, even if you don’t know what the cause is. Now, what if someone told you that the apple is Just There for no reason, because it is in its own spacetime continuum running parallel to this one, and in that spacetime continuum it is the First Apple and there was nothing before it?

Why can the first physical thing appear causelessly but not the second or third? Since they are all physical things, there must be a physical property that allows the first thing to appear without a cause but not the others. But what could such a property be? Why was this property only there once? Why doesn’t science know about it? The whole idea seems absurd.

To my mind, a universe that is just there for no reason is no better than an apple that is just there for no reason – it doesn’t make sense to talk about physical things in this way.

It seems to me that the atheist cannot accept a beginning for the universe; their position locks them in to an eternal universe.

An eternal universe

Now, presently all the evidence points to the Big Bang as the beginning of the universe, but this could change. So now I will consider the possibility of an eternal universe.

There is a second type of cosmological argument that operates here and now. This argument questions an assumption that is very rarely questioned – the assumption that the physical world keeps going or could keep going by itself. 

Look at your arm – it is made of muscles (among other things) – these are made of cells, which are made of molecules, which are made of proteins, and atoms, and quarks etc. Whatever the bottom level of physical stuff is, does that require something else beneath it holding it together?

The things that must have a cause in point 2: only one of them mentions time.Can they apply here and now, as well as in the past?

Some more detail may be required to make sense of this. It’s most well-known proponent, Aquinas, had no less than three here-and-now cosmological arguments. The first of these was based on this principle: Anything that changes is changed by something else, which is based on Aristotle’s metaphysics of change. 

In brief, Aristotle makes a distinction between potentiality and actuality. Your coffee is hot, but potentially cold. Your dog is potentially on fire, but right now it isn’t. Change, then, is movement from potential to actual. Since something that is potential cannot do anything, any agent of change must be actual, and nothing can change itself.

The most obvious retort here is that animals can change themselves, but that would be a misunderstanding, for the animal has many parts working together. Think of how a cell in your body is changed by another cell, and how each part of that cell changes as its atoms are changed by its subatomic particles and so on. So for example, if the quarks or quantum fields – whatever the bottom level of physicality turns out to be – if they also change, there must be something else changing them. To avoid an infinite regress, they require a first cause here and now. A first cause that can change other things but is itself incapable of change. Even in an eternal universe.

But what does this cause look like? What could we compare it to? It is not like the first domino that topples the others. Rather, it’d be like holding a pile of sand in your hands. If ever you stop holding it, it will fall to the floor and fall apart. In other words, a sustaining cause.

Back to the beginning

What is a first cause at the beginning of the universe like?

Here is my MS Paint style rendering of what we think when we think of the First Cause argument:


The red is the physical world and the blue is the first cause doing it’s thing.

Does this picture work? Since this cause is not itself in time, the mode of causation here is not that of something kicking off the universe, like the first domino in a row of dominoes. The first cause, whatever it is, caused the first physical thing. But the first cause is outside of time. From the position of something outside of time, does it matter if one thing comes later in time than another? The answer must be: no it doesn’t. To an atemporal cause, time is of no importance. Similarly, since the first cause is not in space, spacial differences do not affect it.

From the perspective of the first cause, the picture must look a little like this:


Given that the first cause is not separate from the first physical thing in time and space, it will not be separate from the others either. Also, things of the same type will have the same types of causal relations, unless we have some reason to suppose otherwise. So if the first physical thing requires an atemporal cause, doesn’t this show that other physical things do also?

This leads us to a model like the following:

MS Paint proves God exists
We see that regardless of whether the universe has a beginning or not, we are led to the same place – that the universe has a sustaining cause, not just a cause at the beginning.

Next question: is the first cause intelligent? Since we know that the first cause causes everything else, we can answer this question from it’s effects. Is the universe stable and orderly? Do its parts work together? Or is it a chaotic disorderly mess? The answer is clear: it is stable and orderly. Therefore the first cause is intelligent.

So now we come to a conclusion: The universe has a first cause. It does not have a beginning. It is not divisible into parts. It cannot change. It could not possibly not exist. It is not physical. It is intelligent. It holds everything else in existence from moment to moment. I think it is clear why many conclude that the first cause is God.

The demise of modern morality

The most influential moral philosophies to emerge in modern times are Kant’s deontological ethics and consequentialism. Both moral philosophies have been greatly influential not only in the academy but in society at large. But what are they and how well do they work?


This is probably the most popular way of looking at morality in Western society. But although it has a surface plausibility to it, a consequences-only view of morality quickly leads to absurdities.

Consider the following variant on the trolley problem: a child is tied to the railway tracks. On a branch line is an expensive Ferrari. Should I pull the lever, diverting the train onto the branch line, thus saving the child? No doubt most of us would. But hang on a minute: if we refuse to pull the lever and let the child die, we could sell the Ferrari and save the lives of many children in Africa. So according to consequentialism, that’s what we should do.

Or how about this: at a hospital are three patients. One needs a heart transplant, one a lung transplant and one a liver transplant. All are life and death situations. A healthy young woman comes in for a checkup. Should we kill this woman and save the lives of the three? According to consequentialism, absolutely we should.

Let’s leave aside the contrived thought experiments for a moment, for this is not the only problem with consequentialism. For a decision of any complexity, the consequences will be difficult if not impossible to predict, thus rendering consequentialism useless in practice; arguably this is consequentialism’s biggest problem.

In my view, consequentialism is by far the worst basis for morality of the major options available. Unfortunately, it is the one most influential in wider Western society.

Kant’s Deolontological Ethics

According to Kant, the only intrinsically good thing is a good will. Other things such as money and intelligence can be used for evil and therefore are only good when used with a good will. Consequences are explicitly denied here: if you save someone’s life because you want money or fame, that is not a moral action because of your bad motive. A good will acts only out of moral duty and not out of any other motive.

To act morally is to act freely. If we act according to our animal instincts is to be a slave to those instincts; to act rationally and thus morally is to be free, even though we have a duty to act morally. So paradoxically, being free and having moral duties go together.

Kant’s morality is a law-based morality, but law requires authority. Who or what is the authority? According to Kant, each individual is autonomous and therefore a self-legislator.

But how to make moral decisions? According to the Categorical Imperative: to act only according to maxims by which you could rationally will a universal law.

Example: Promise keeping. Should I break a promise? The maxim I am following is “I should break promises if it benefits me”. But if this became a universal law, no one would be able to trust promises at all. Contracts would be impossible. No one would be able to trust anyone else, and since society needs people to work together, after a time the system would collapse. We would all live in ruins, and carry clubs to fend off bears. Therefore I have a duty to keep my promises.

The demise of modern moral philosophy

Kant’s position does have its strengths, but it has been the target of a number of criticisms. Elizabeth Anscombe called the “self-legislator” idea “absurd on its face” – a legislator without authority makes no sense, and since no law-based system of morality can survive the death of its legislator, Kant’s system crumbles.

In 1958, Elizabeth Anscombe published the essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” which demolished both consequentialism and Kantian ethics. After this Alisdair Macintyre’s “After Virtue” precipitated a revival within academia of Aristotelian virtue ethics.

According to Macintyre, there are only two ways to ground morality. One of these is an Aristotelian conception of “the good”. The other is divine law. Since modern moral thinking has rejected both of these, it floats in midair, being not based on anything else. Therefore thinking about morality has degenerated into a shallow emotionalism; something is wrong if it feels wrong. Moral discourse has thus become shrill and incoherent.

Free Will (or: Are You A Meat Robot?)

Free will has been confidently declared an illusion by some; a relic from a dusty age of lord and serf, monk and priest. But is this really so? Do we have free will and does it matter?

It would seem we don’t have free will, given the predictable nature of the world around us. Pick up a ball and set it on top of a slope. The ball rolls down. Put it back on top. Down it goes again. Drop a cat off the Eiffel Tower. It lands on its feet. Etc.

If the physical world is so set in its ways, why not us? Aren’t our choices an illusion? Case closed?

Let’s look at what no free will would mean.

Morality: If no free will, no morality, as we are not truly responsible for choices we aren’t making. Seems obvious. Let’s move on.

Daily Life: That annoying punk that bumped into you while crossing the street had no choice. The kind man who held open the door for you is a meat robot. You are at an ice-cream stand with no control over what flavour you will buy. You feel like you have a choice – but you don’t. It’s like God has your mind in a vice, as you point at the vanilla or the caramel.

If what you are doing right now is inevitable, how long ago did it become inevitable? An hour ago? At the Big Bang?

While there are any number of self-declared free will sceptics, all of them act as though their own choices matter. Like meat robots agonising over their algorithms. There are no true free will sceptics.

Rationality: If we never truly make choices, we never choose to believe anything, for good reasons or bad. We never choose to follow the evidence. We never choose to reach a conclusion; we are just following a script. Our lives are like a movie being played back; we no more make intelligent decisions than the frames of a movie make “decisions” for the actors. If no free will, no rationality and no intelligence – the scientist is no more rational than the sea slug or the tree stump. Thus, to claim that science says we have no free will is to cut the legs from under science itself, and all human knowledge with it.

I don’t think free will can be denied; indeed, it would be a catastrophe if we had to deny it. No free will? No human agency; all human experience would be nonsense. No free will has such far-reaching consequences, it is like arguing that everything is illusory and The Matrix is real. Worse, there is no red pill. 

Surely we must have free will in some sense, even if we can’t understand it. 

But what about the science experiments that show we don’t have free will? Most famously, the Libet experiments found activity in the brain before the choice was registered in the consciousness. But the decisions made in those experiments were extremely simple reflex actions and what (if anything) they say about free will is heavily disputed. Crucially, it was found that there was still an opportunity to veto the decision after the conscious awareness of it. Libet himself didn’t think his experiments undermined free will.

Some appeal to quantum physics as a way out. Quantum physics is famously not deterministic, but it is hard to see how random choices would be any more free than deterministic ones.

Some would say that questions of our notions of will and human agency are just different types of questions to the mathematical models found in science. Our notions of voluntary and involuntary and willpower are not scientific concepts, so it makes no sense to treat them as though they were; they are simply ways to talk about how we act. While there is much truth to this, many would consider it an evasion rather than an answer.

Or this: free will should be understood as a capacity with limitations that has nothing to do with determinism, just like our other capacities. You wouldn’t ask if our arms can “really” throw if determinism is true. 

We must consider what the will actually is. When you decide something, what is it that decides? Is the will a body part? When you kick, is it your foot kicking or do you kick using your foot? In the same way, when you choose to do something it is you choosing to do it rather than your brain choosing. This might seem pedantic, but the point is that you as a person are not reducible to your body parts. While you hopefully do use your brain to make decisions, you are more than just the sum of your parts. 

How to make sense of you (as a whole) deciding and not one body part or another? One possibility: by rethinking causation along Aristotelian lines. 

What would this entail? Recall that for Aristotle, as well as efficient causation (what most think of as “causation”), there were three other types of causation. One of these is formal causation, which describes the way something behaves because of what it is. You could think of this as a type of top-down causation.

Now, in doing this we place “you” as a whole at the top of the causal chain of your actions. So the will reigns supreme. But is the will here free, in any sense? Will top-down causation in a wholly physical entity will be just as predetermined as any other model of causation? If so, to make sense of free will, perhaps we should adjust not only our model of causation, but also our metaphysics.

Again, Aristotle comes to the rescue here. Aristotle had a radically different philosophy of nature from us moderns – everything you see around you is not just matter, but matter organised according to a form, which can be considered as a blueprint of sorts and is explanatorily prior to matter. According to Aristotle, the will and intellect of a human being reside in its form, rather than in matter, and thus the problem of determinism is avoided – giving us a free will worth having.

In conclusion, we can be confident that we truly do have free will, but to understand how we must revisit our modern Western assumptions about the mind and perhaps about reality itself.