God as “Hyper-Disney”: Peter Van Iwagen at the “Dio Oggi” Conference in Rome

Thank God for Sandro Magister. Without him – and the hardworking Matthew Sherry of Ballwin, Missouri – we would not have access to many highlights of the Italio-phone Catholic world.

But we do. And so we have his short by excellent summary of the events of the “Dio Oggi” conference in Rome (full title in English = “today. With him or without him, that changes everything”) at the beginning of December.

Still, without the full presentations in English, it is sometimes hard to grasp the full argument of some of the presenters, for instance, Robert Spaemann’s “proof” for the existence of God based on the grammatical existence of the future perfect.

But I think I can grasp the main point of Peter Van Iwagen’s presentation as Magister has reported it. Van Iwagen is from the University of Notre Dame, so perhaps his presentation may be available in English one day. According to Magister, Van Iwagen

began with an analogy. Let’s imagine, he said, that “God is to the physical world as Walt Disney is to the world represented on the screen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Even more, let’s imagine that “the events of the animated cartoon are really the history of the whole world,” and let’s call their creator “Hyper-Disney.”

So then, from the perspective of the inhabitants of the world, this Hyper-Disney is nowhere to be found, but in another sense he is present everywhere.

And so it is with the God of our real world: “If he exists, he cannot be found in it anymore than Hyper-Disney can be found in his world; and nonetheless he is not far from its inhabitants.” Moreover, it can be conjectured that the inhabitants of the world might come to believe that it is the result of creation on the part of an intelligent and omnipresent being.

Okay, I follow that. It is not a new thing to compare God to a Divine Animator of an animated movie. The point, however, is that there is no evidence within the movie itself of the existence of the Divine Animator – none whatsoever apart from the existence of the movie itself. And so, if the characters of the movie were able to reflect upon their existence, they could equally well come up with some version of “the argument from design” or the exact opposite, ie. that the lack of any appearance of the Divine Animator in the movie himself makes the hypothesis unlikely or even unneccesary. This, Van Iwagen argues, is just as it is in our “real” world. Magister again:

Van Inwagen then continued:

“There are, in fact, people – scientists among them – who have contended that there are good scientific arguments for the existence of an intelligence responsible for the existence of the physical universe. And there are other people – scientists among them – who have contended that there are good scientific arguments for the non-existence of a designer.”

Both of these theses “are unscientific and mistaken.” But the second, which denies a creator God on the basis of the Darwinian theory of evolution, has become a widespread opinion.

And it is against the proponents of this opinion that Van Inwagen formulated his concluding statement, asserting the impossibility of using scientific arguments to deny the existence of a creator God:

“You believe that the actual world is a Darwinian world – that is, a world in which Darwin’s theory is true. But actuality implies possibility: anything that is actual is possible. And God, if he exists, is by definition omnipotent. And an omnipotent being can create any possible object – even if that object is a whole universe or cosmos. Well, this Darwinian earth of ours (as you believe it to be) is a possible object – since it exists. Therefore, an omnipotent being could create it – and could create the whole physical universe of which it is a part. And if an omnipotent being could create a Darwinian world, then why should someone who thinks that the actual world is a Darwinian world regard that feature of the actual world as demonstrating that – as having even any tendency to show that – the universe was not created by an omnipotent being?”

Well, that makes perfect sense. The “Hyper-Disney”, if he existed, could only make a “possible animated world”. Since “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” exists, it must be possible, and therefore it could have been created by an Animator who left no empirical trace of himself within the movie as an active character.

Or, to put it another way: the Dawkins’s of this world may claim that there is no necessity for the “God Hypothesis” to explain the world, but this empirical lack of necessity (from our limited point of view, anyway) does not preclude the real possibility that an all powerful Divine Being could have created just such a world. The “lack of necessity” of the hypothesis in no way disproves the hypothesis. Grumpy and Doc may get together and conclude that there is nothing in their world that necessitates a Disney, but this would be no argument against the existence of Disney.



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7 responses to “God as “Hyper-Disney”: Peter Van Iwagen at the “Dio Oggi” Conference in Rome

  1. Paul

    David, I’m glad you mentioned Richard Dawkins – did you see his interview by Andrew Denton in the “Elders” series?

    I thought it was an interesting insight into RD. Denton asked several open-ended, but personal questions (like…”what is sucess?”, “what do you see when you look in the mirror?”, “when do you laugh at yourself?”)

    Most people would either have played the game and given a personal reflection, or they would have just laughed it off with a facetious remark. Dawkins seemed unable to do either and appeared very uncomfortable.

    I don’t think this reflects either well or badly on Dawkins, it is just an interesting observation. He seems to be the real, nerdy scientist who is only comfortable with objective information and not with speculation about reasons for our existence. Questions about why physical laws are the way they are, and what happened before the Big Bang are handled by Dawkins by saying “scientists are working on this, but I don’t understand it myself”. He recognised in this interview that this goes dangerously close to a faith.

    I have read unkind comments that this interview showed Dawkins to be slightly autistic. I don’t really know what autistic means, but I think he just has to lighten up a little. For example, he should have the wit and humour to handle something like Denton’s last question (“what is your star sign?”) a little less ponderously than he actually did.

  2. I didn’t watch it, but my mother did, and she said it was very disappointing and not very enjoyable.


    This argument of Van Iwagen is but a slightly watered-down version of Anselm’s famous ontological argument – claiming that God means “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”, and that this definition necessarily implies God’s existence (since a hypothetical but imaginary deity would be lesser than a real and existent one), nay, establishes that God must exist, being necessary rather than contingent – God must exist always, whereas all else may exist.

    Van Iwagen proposes a weaker version of this: he claims that God is that which may exist, and cannot be disproved. That’s how I read it, half-remembering my classes on the Philosophy of God! (The old word was “theodicy” – a lovely word, sounding a lot like “idiocy”, unfortunately.)

    • The other aspect that Van Iwagen introduces is that just because (as we believe) God is creator of the world, we should not expect to be able to prove or disprove this from evidence within the created world itself any more than the Seven Dwarves could prove the existence of Walt Disney from within their created world.

      • Kiran

        I don’t like this idea. I mean there are intimations of God’s being in the world, or if you like, necessary explanatory gaps in the world. Sure they do not prove the existence of God, and in some sense, without His self-revelation, all we have is a set of question-marks. But those question-marks do exist. I use necessary, of course, because there are explanatory gaps which are temporary as well. At the end of the day, an assumption that the world is coherent, or that it is real (that for instance, it is governed by a two-valued logic), are in some way an assumption of something beyond the world itself.

        Rather like that Daffy Duck cartoon!

        One must also consider the Plantigians are on to something in their attack on foundationalism though. The idea that the beginnings of our rational processes are based upon observation, or are founded, can be shown to be incoherent. If this is true, then “what can be shown” is itself not empirically necessary. Indeed, one’s common sense view of the world, just is that, a particular view of the world that helps us survive. And likewise (though less) for biology, or physics, or whatever.

  3. I don’t like the idea that reasonable men can’t come to knowledge of a Creator without Revelation either – Vatican I would disagree, and so does the Apostle:

    “Because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God hath manifested it unto them. For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they [sinners] are inexcusable.” (Romans i, 19-20)

  4. That said, there is a distinction between reasonable deduction, and absolute proof – if we had certain proof, we’d have no need for faith.