Sound arguments or special pleading?
Published: 14 March 2015 (GMT+10)
A supporter was accused of special pleading while engaged in an online discussion into which he introduced a point from one of our articles. Part of the discussion follows along with how Dr Carl Wieland answered the reader’s concerns. Rod R. wrote:
Hello, I read this article If God created the universe, then who created God? by Dr. Sarfati on your website. I used Sarfati’s argument in [an online] discussion forum. The person I was discussing promptly accused me of using ‘Special Pleading’. Excerpts of our conversation are posted below. I read the whole article and looked at a few more articles but couldn’t find a suitable answer. What should I tell him?
Him: I’m sorry, but this is a fallacious argument known as ‘special pleading’. You accept the laws of physics when you think they support your argument. You reject the laws of physics when they do not. In this particular instance, you demand that the universe obey physical laws but accept as an alternative explanation a supernatural entity that breaks all physical laws. You either accept that the laws are unbreakable or you do not. You can’t say they are unbreakable for my argument but breakable for yours. Otherwise I can insist that the laws we currently recognise came into existence, along with time itself, at the start of the big bang. We don’t know that they haven’t, do we.
Me: I said the difference is that God is eternal or has no beginning, while the universe, according to the laws of thermodynamics, does have a beginning. Regarding your other charge of special pleading, I would say that God is not subject to these laws because he is eternal.
Him: = special pleading. Your god is either subject to the laws or he isn’t. Make your choice, then apply that choice to the alternative. Otherwise it is special pleading.
Dr Wieland replies:
Your opponent’s argument seems less than impressive, and in fact smacks of the very thing he decries. He seems to be insisting that while he accepts universal laws of science, there can be no lawgiver ‘higher than’ those laws. It seems he adopts an axiom of his choosing, namely that there are absolute, universally applicable laws, but no lawgiver behind them. Which must mean they somehow appeared, which he mentions in passing. How this can be anything other than an arbitrary choice escapes me.
The more reasonable axiom is built on the commonsense proposition that laws demand a Lawgiver. This in turn implies that the Lawgiver is ‘greater than’ those laws.
Your opponent seems to be engaging in the very thing that he decries, and is defining the rules of the debate to suit himself. For a related argument, see The rules of the game.
That is not to say that one is arbitrarily changing the rules to suit oneself, i.e. adopting when convenient a supernatural explanation, like a ‘God of the gaps’ (see Whose god? The theological response to the god-of-the-gaps).
One of the very reasons why science itself is now widely regarded as having arisen out of a post-Reformation biblical worldview (see The biblical roots of modern science) is that the God of the Bible reveals Himself as unchanging and not deceptive nor capricious.
Which means that though He is capable of overriding (best said as adding to—see Miracles and science) the laws at any time (Jesus walking on water, e.g.) this will be the exception, not the rule.
The miracles in Scripture are clearly not capricious, or at some ‘whim’, or ‘abracadabra’ in type, but are rare events (seen overall in the timespan of history) of very special significance. E.g. Jesus’ miracles of healing are specifically stated to be fulfilling a particular Old Testament prophecy (Matthew 8:17).
Accordingly, virtually all the fathers of modern science, as biblical creationists, understood that a supernatural origin by special creation, or the miracle of the Resurrection, in no way contradicted the general principle of the universal, unchanging nature of the laws of science. And that no special pleading is involved. Dead people normally stay dead; complex biological systems normally run down, not create themselves (despite evolutionary belief systems).
They would have all accepted the obvious corollary of this position, namely that it would be an absurdity to insist that the Creator is bound by the laws He created. For example, the idea which seems to be inherent in your opponent’s position is that, because the Second Law of Thermodynamics is universally applicable, and thus the universe as a whole is wearing out and running down (for a detailed—and I trust very readable—layman’s exposition, see my book World Winding Down), so must God Himself. Hebrews 1:10–12 is pertinent, quoting Psalm 102:
“And, ‘You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.’ ”
Dr Carl Wieland