Coyne: Another breathtaking example of creationist Egnorance

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7 posts were split to a new topic: Comments on Egnorance Post by Coyne

Egnor: God is not a physical thing. It is only physical things that can be sensed by sense organs. If God could be sensed via an organ, He would not be God. What would be sensed would be a part of creation, not the Creator. God is not in nature. He is prior to nature. He is the Source of nature.

I find this argument by Egnor to be difficult to swallow.

Coyne: There are many problems here. First of all, even if God is not a physical thing, nearly all Christians—the theistic ones—think that God interacts with the world in a physical way. After all, God sent his son/alter ego down to Earth as a scapegoat to be killed for our sins, thereby expiating us. IDers believe that God The Intelligent Designer either brought new species into being or made the requisite mutations to promote their appearance. Indeed, the very concept of Intelligent Design presupposes that empirical evidence—science and observation itself—inevitably brings us to the concept of an Intelligent Designer. And that evidence is “sensed by sense organs.”

I have many disagreements with Coyne, but also many agreements. I think he has a point here. Egnor’s point doesn’t really make sense to me, especially because he is a Christian. What do you think @dga471.

That is NOT to say we need some special biological structure to sense God and God alone. I’m just not sure I can understand Egnor’s reasoning above. This, on the other hand makes more sense (though I don’t think this is the full answer):

Egnor: Reason is our divine “sense organ.” It is perfectly adapted to its task — it allows us to know and love our Creator. In this sense we are created in His image: we have the capacity to know immaterial reality and to act on our knowledge.

Though I’m getting confused here. Reason is not an “organ”. It is more like a capacity. Right?


As I answered here, I think I can somewhat understand what Egnor is getting at. God is not a physical being - he is spirit. God is also not just any sort of spirit. God is invisible; he is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:15-17). God not only created the universe, he sustains it in existence at every moment in time. Therefore, in normal conditions, one cannot expect to sense God like sensing a rock, dog, human.

To take an analogy, God is not just a super-powerful character in the game. He is the Game Designer who created the game, sets its rules, in fact allows it to exist by continuously providing the computer with electricity. As a character in the game, you wouldn’t expect to be able to directly “sense” the Game Designer like you could sense other characters using your regular organs. Does this make sense?

But there are ways to interact with the Game Designer. First, as Coyne mentions, he could choose to use his creation to reveal himself in special ways. We see this with Moses and the burning bush. The bush is not part of God. Rather, God intervened in nature, causing the bush to behave in a special, unexpected way that imparts some information about him. However, this is not a normal occurrence in the game. In fact, the reason it works is precisely because it is an unusual, non-repeatable event.

(This is actually why the Incarnation is so incredible and one of the greatest mysteries of all time. Jesus is not just a man used to manifest God, like the burning bush. Jesus is God, the same God that is before all things and created the world, yet Jesus is also man! How could this happen? It is almost unfathomable. This is really one the most radical ideas of Christianity.)

A second way to “interact” with God is to use our reason to deduce things about him. This is what Egnor likely means by reason as an “organ.” To take our game analogy, while we cannot (under normal conditions) talk with the Game Designer directly, we can deduce things about the Designer from thinking about the general principles of the game that we discover. We find it odd that the game and its world can exist at all, and that it contains incredible order and variety. Even when the Game Designer doesn’t intervene specially, he still has set up the rules of the Game to accomplish his will.

Of course, as you pointed out, “reason” isn’t exactly the same as other organs like our heart, tongue, skin, or nose. I think Egnor must have been speaking metaphorically here. That being said, reason most likely has some physical component. No matter how reason works, it is possible to form philosophical arguments for the existence of God using our reason. That is how we “sense” God. It is not an immediate, intuitive sensing but an indirect one.


Now to answer some of Coyne’s arguments.

In other words, ID itself refutes Egnor’s claim that God The Intelligent Designer cannot be sensed via an organ. The stupidity here (and I’m not pulling punches given that Egnor engages in name-calling) is to assume that a deity who is nonphysical cannot be apprehended through sense organs. If you’re a theist, that’s palpably ridiculous.

I think Coyne here is reading Egnor uncharitably and taking him too literally in a popular level article. Egnor, as an ID advocate, likely thinks that one can “sense” God from science. As a Christian, he likely agrees that one could have sensed Jesus like any human being when he walked on Earth, and that miracles like the burning bush and the parting of the Red Sea happened. But these are special occurrences, and even so, you’re not really sensing God (except for the case of Jesus) - you’re sensing his creation, his works. When one sees the Mona Lisa, has one really “sensed” da Vinci himself? While something about da Vinci could be learned by looking at the Mona Lisa, surely there is something different in having met and interacted with da Vinci directly “in the flesh” when he lived.

As for God giving us our “capacity for reason” specifically so we can know Him (do chimps know Him, too, since they have a capacity to reason?), that’s also ridiculous. If our capacity for reason gives us the “capacity to know immaterial reality and act on our knowledge”, then how come every religion has a different conception of immaterial reality? Egnor is a Christian; does he reject the Muslim belief that Jesus wasn’t the son of God but merely a prophet, and that Muhammad was given the true religion by Allah through Gabriel? Does he reject Hindu pantheism, or the animism of some tribes? Does he reject the thetans and Xenu-beliefs of Scientology?

I think Coyne is overlooking something important here, which is that many of the world’s major religions have some great commonalities. Islam, Judaism, Christianity all agree in the existence of the Creator God. Despite their disagreement about Jesus, a Muslim would likely agree with a Christian that “God is before all things, and in him all things hold together”. Even in polytheistic Hinduism, there is the idea of Brahman, the cause of all that exists, including all the lesser gods. Almost all of the world’s religions are based on a similar intuition or reasoning that our present reality is not self-explanatory. Science only explains things in the world by appealing to other things in the world. It does not explain the existence of the world itself.

So why are there so many disagreements among different religions if they all are based on the same fundamental reasoning? A large part of Muslim and Christian disagreement is over the specifics of special revelation - the special occurrences when God reveals himself more directly instead of being sense only through reason. Was Muhammad a prophet, or a mere man? Did Jesus rise from the dead? Is the Book of Mormon is a special revelation from God or merely a fallible human-authored book? This shows the difficulty of litigating the specifics of special revelation. However, in terms of general revelation, there are some striking similarities.

Yes, if God gave us reason to know the truth about Him, how come the “truths” that “reason” tells believers are so disparate? Our divine sense organs must be defective in some way.

Christianity has a ready answer to that: because we are affected by sin, we are unable to fully sense God with our reason as it was originally meant to.


I would if the Game Designer wanted to be sensed. Surely God could have given us the right kind of sense organ that would give us reasonably reliable information about his presence, as our other organs do with physical things?

It may be possible that God wants us to use our reason, but it’s clear that reason leads people to a variety of different conclusions on these matters.


This sounds more like Deism than Christianity. From my understanding of Christian theology, God is in nature contrary to Egnor’s claims. In the Old Testament we read that God resided in the Holy of Holies, and that would be in nature.

That sounds like Deism to me.

Egnor claims that God can not interact with nature in that way because if God did then He wouldn’t be God.

That statement seems to be absolute. It doesn’t say that sometimes God can be sensed via an organ. The way it reads is that if anyone at anytime were able to sense God via a human sense organ then God is not God.

One could make the same argument for many parts of science, such as quantum mechanics. We don’t directly interact with quarks, but we can deduce the rules of the game that govern their action. I would doubt that Attenborough would consider God and quantum mechanics equally accessible to human senses.

No, God could have manifested or appeared more specially and visibly in the Holy of Holies (Leviticus 16:2), but God is also present everywhere else in space. He is not localized to a specific area, even if his manifestations could be. Let me quote Acts 17:22-26:

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.

Note that when Paul was preaching this, the Second Temple in Jerusalem was still standing.

Let me quote Colossians 1:15-17 directly:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Are you going to accuse the Bible of teaching deism? No, this is simply classical theism - held by Christian theologians across history such as Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, and all the early Protestant Reformers. It is also a conception of God shared by great Muslim philosophers such as Averroes and Avicenna. It is only in the 20th century that some theologians have started experimenting with theistic personalism and open theism, which reduces God to a merely super-powerful being, like a boss character in the Game. If that’s all what the Christian God is, then he is no different than Zeus, Thor, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Egnor is a Catholic, so he must believe in miracles and the Incarnation at the least.

I would in fact agree that our modern willingness to believe in quarks and neutrinos despite not being able to see them directly should make the concept of believing in the invisible God a less far-fetched proposition. There is still a difference, however: God is personal, and prior to physical matter. He is not subject to specific human tests, except for very specialized circumstances (where you negotiate with him directly for the test, such as Gideon in Judges 6:36-40).

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What is the difference between manifesting in nature and being in nature? More importantly, it would seem that we could sense God if God can manifest in nature.

Not at all. In fact, quite the opposite. I don’t think the Bible does teach deism, but I think Egnor is pushing deism.

That makes it all the more confusing that Egnor would be saying these things.

Generalizations are fine. We all use them. However, it would help if these generalizations were a bit more nuanced. For example, God is not subject to human tests . . . except when He is. I understand that mysteries exist within theology, but it would help if it wasn’t framed in absolutes.

Take the Game Designer analogy again. There’s a difference between the Designer communicating to the in-game characters via signposts that he implants in the world of the game and the Designer actually being a character in the game. The signposts are not God, or even part of him. (That would be a form of pantheism.)

If so, then how would you interpret the biblical passages that I quoted? They say similar things to what Egnor said.

If you are a Catholic, then you have to both believe in miracles and classical theism as I outlined above (which you said sounds like deism). To deny that would mean falling into heresy.

I think the difference is that God can be subject to human tests only if he consents to do so. Otherwise your test just isn’t indicative of much. To get God’s consent you have to communicate directly with him in some way. God doesn’t always reply back to our attempts at communication in the way we want. That’s the hard part.

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Wasn’t Jesus a player in the game?

The verse describes God as being an active part of the creation, interacting with it. The Bible states that God gives people breath.

That’s the rub.

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Yes, which is why (as I noted above), Jesus is a very special case, because it is almost unfathomable that the God of the universe could empty himself and become a mere human being (Phil. 2:6-11). It’s important to realize Jesus is in a different category compared to the burning bush, the Holy of Holies, or the parting of the Red Sea. Jesus is fully God, fully man - not only a human body that was possessed by God. But even Jesus isn’t on earth anymore, so he cannot be sensed directly like other human beings.

While I would disagree that God is an active part of creation (that would again be pantheism), I’m not denying that God interacts with creation. My point is that even as God does interact with creation through special revelation, the majority of his “interactions” are of a more general, meta-level sort of interaction.

The Game Designer analogy, while perhaps sounding like deism to some people, has some truth to describing God’s metaphysical relationship to the world. Also don’t necessarily think of it as an absent Designer who made the rules in the beginning and then keeps the game running in the closet without interacting with it at all. The Designer could still be actively tinkering and interacting with the game world and its inhabitants, sometimes using the already established rules, while breaking them at other times.

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