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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:

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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:

Dear Rod,

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 

Readers’ comments

Jeff H.
Try asking the question, "How would you know a "god"?" The answer is that a "god" can do things outside of the constraints of the physical "laws". Thus, saying that a god must be subject to the physical laws is the same as saying "a god is not a god"--his statement is self-contradictory.
Ryan D.
My area of employment helps me understand to some degree God's position relative to the universe and how He interacts with it. It also illustrates the absurdity of claiming God must be subject to the laws of physics.

I'm a computer programer and I do make video games for the company I work for. In those games I completely define all the laws of the worlds and how people interact with that world. I can do what I want in them including violating those laws, rewriting the laws, and inserting any kind of special exception I want. Similar to the universe the laws of those game worlds are unchanging and can't be violated unless the creator of the program interferes.

Anyone making the claim the creator of a computer program is subject to the same laws of the program or it's special pleading would be laughed out of the room. The complexity of a computer program is insignificant compared to the complexity of the universe. How much more absurd is it to suggest the creator of the universe must be subject to it's laws?
H. D.
Examples of law-givers being above the law are to be found throughout this world. All state lawmakers hold themselves above the law as entities - they make a law saying the ordinary citizen may not kill, but they can say when to make war. they say you cannot eavesdrop on your neighbour, but they can decide to do so (in the national interest, of course), just as example. So, for somebody to use special pleading to argue against God being able to be above physical laws He created is by itself a double standard.
Richard L.
Hi Rod, please put all the previous discussion into a formalized biblical axiomatic base for natural law. This action will delineate the arbitrariness of your friend’s objection.

The core of that base (thanks, Henry Morris, and CMI and others since then) is Heb. 1:3 and Col. 1:17. Jesus continually upholds the creation by the word of his power, the created things continuing to “cohere”.

Implications: (1) God has total sovereignty over how he formats the creation, moment by moment. (2) Liking order (and allowing us to stay alive), God chooses a standard format most of the time, miracles being localized exceptions. (3) Interesting features within the standard format are examined and labeled “natural laws”. (4) The laws of nature, like nature itself, do not have independent existence. (5) The laws of nature, thus, don’t have a jurisdiction for miracles to “violate”. As previously noted (and after Morris), natural laws are descriptive, not prescriptive.

If your friend is fair-minded, he will acknowledge: (1) that this axiomatic base has tight internal-logic coherency, (2) it adequately explains empirical evidence, and (3) it hasn’t been disproven yet. As long as you stay within this base in your argumentation, he shouldn’t complain.

IF HE INSISTS ON FURTHER RESTRICTION, he is the one doing ‘special pleading’. He is now exposed as having his own axiomatic base—held by faith. (His base is also exposed by its inability to explain the presence of information and logic-laws. Our base can do so.)

This approach also exposes his fear-mongering, “a supernatural entity that breaks ALL physical laws”, as another form of HIS ‘special pleading’. We instead have a biblical thirst to examine background cause-effect and discover “natural laws” with God’s standard format.
Mitch C.
This skeptic assumes the laws of physics as his ultimate authority and assumes that God must be subject to those laws. The Bible assumes God is the ultimate authority, and that the laws of physics are subject to his authority. That is the basic difference between the two positions. The skeptic's presuppositions are different from the Christian's presuppositions. When you begin with the truth of the Bible as your presupposition, then you can easily explain the origin of the laws of physics as being the way that the all-wise, eternal God of the universe normally operates the universe. On the other hand, the skeptic has no explanation why there should be laws of physics, or how they came to be, or why they are what they are. If the universe burst into existence out of nothing, then why would there be any consistent, unchanging laws at all? It makes no sense. The only view that makes sense is an eternal, unchanging God who created the universe with wisdom and purpose.
Andrew P.
I think our internet opponent here needs to look up the definition of "special pleading", as he is conveniently omitting a key part of the definition. According to Wikipedia: "Special pleading is a form of fallacious argument that involves an attempt to cite something as an exception to a generally accepted rule, principle, etc. WITHOUT JUSTIFYING THE EXCEPTION (emphasis added)." This last clause renders his entire point moot.

For example, if a country passed a law that said, "Every person in the kingdom must pay taxes to the King, except the King himself, since it is pointless for the King to pay taxes to himself." According to our debater, this is "special pleading" since, "Either everyone has to pay taxes to the King, including the King, or else no one has to." But in truth it isn't special pleading at all, since, (Rule): "Everyone pays taxes"; (Exemption): "Except the King; (Justification for the exemption): "It is pointless for the King to pay taxes to himself." It's actually perfectly logical.

In the debate above, we can say (Rule): "The universe must obey physical laws"; (Exemption): "God is not bound by those laws"; (Justification): "Because God is the creator of the very universe he is applying laws to. The laws need not apply to Himself." This is, again, perfectly logical. To call it "special pleading" is to misunderstand what "special pleading" actually means.
Joseph M.
“Demand[ing] that the universe obey physical laws but accept as an alternative explanation a supernatural entity that breaks all physical laws” is only an example of special pleading if God only existed within the confines of this universe. Since God also exists outside this universe the special pleading allegation is false. This is because God can introduce new laws that may exist outside the universe that can alter or nullify current physical laws within this universe without breaking this universe’s physical laws.

God cannot be subject to the physical laws in the universe because God can destroy these physical laws and create new ones. It’s an irrational atheistic concept to think otherwise because God would destroy Himself, so never creating a new heaven and earth! We know this illogical concept is false because God will be in a new heaven and earth. Revelation 21:1-3 “1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more … 3 and God himself will be with them as their God”

The statement “God is either subject to the laws or he isn’t” is a bifurcation fallacy i.e. claiming there are only two mutually exclusive possibilities, when there is actually other options. A third option is that God can introduce new laws that may exist outside the universe that can alter or nullify current physical laws without breaking them.
michael S.

Yes, special pleading fallacy only applies if there is a true double standard. So for example if I were to say to you, "it's one law for me and another law for you because after all look at all of the things I have done for the law!", that would be special pleading because there is no genuine reason to treat that person with special treatment. But if the two people or parties involved were not truly equal then it is not necessarily special-pleading.

For example, in the above example, imagine if I argued that Ted was above the law, this would NOT be special pleading if Ted was a dog.

In the same way, God and His creation are two fundamentally different things so the fallacy isn't actually committed. For the fallacy to be committed, your god would have to be some sort of pantheist god, whereby all of the rules and laws of the universe would also apply to that god.
Jon Stephan E.
I would say that you are not appealing to a supernatural being to overcome the laws of physics, but because the God of the Bible is our axiom. Then in turn on can see if the laws of physics correspond with which worldview. Of course, the opponent wont see it like that, but even IF one were to appeal to a supernatural being because of something like this it doesn't even violate the laws of physics. One actually acknowledge them and sees that they cannot produce the universe and a supernatural cause is then demanded. So I would think at least.
Israel S.
It might also be pertinent to point out that the ‘laws’ of physics are not laws in the sense of rules that are unbreakable. Laws are descriptive, rather than causative. Think of the laws as lines on the map. They are a description of the shape of the coastline, rather than the thing that causes the coastline to have that shape.

This article should have more info: Is evolution allowed by scientific laws? Fox and dog speciation.
Marc K.
While "laws" are not material objects, the person does seem to appear to be disingenuously using "laws" as a substitute for his materialist worldview.

(i) So in that case one could ask him what is so logically offensive about a non-material Creator being the creator of such physical laws.

(ii) You could point out the implicit circularity to his argument, namely, all events can(?must) be explained by naturalism/materialism, the creation of the universe is no exception, therefore all events can be explained by naturalism/materialism. (Of course, as a deductive syllogism, there isn't much in the conclusion that wasn't already contained in the premisses)

(iii) C.S. Lewis points out somewhere that one can perfectly describe by the laws of physics a shot in billiards. The laws of physics would be completely adequate to describe a white ball striking another, and this second bouncing off and hitting another into a pocket. What the laws wouldn't be able to account for is if a bystander picked up one of the balls in motion and interrupted the shot.

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