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Why Would You Expect to See a Painter in His Painting?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

A common complaint of religious skeptics is that they don’t have enough evidence that God exists. If God created the world, then we should be able to see him clearly and unequivocally with our eyes, and hear him with our ears, and touch him with our hands, etc.

This demand has never made sense to me, given who the God of Christianity is. Philosopher Ed Feser gives an apt analogy of the situation in this blog post:

Suppose you’re looking at a painting of a crowd of people, and you remark upon the painter’s intentions in producing the work. Someone standing next to you looking at the same painting — let’s call him Skeptic — begins to scoff. “Painter? Oh please, there’s no evidence of any painter! I’ve been studying this canvas for years. I’ve gone over every square inch. I’ve studied each figure in detail — facial expressions, posture, clothing, etc. I’ve found plumbers, doctors, dancers, hot dog vendors, dogs, cats, birds, lamp posts, and all kinds of other things. But I’ve never found this painter of yours anywhere in it. No doubt you’ll tell me that I need to look again until I find him. But really, how long do we have to keep looking without success until people like you finally admit that there just is no painter?”

Feser then comments on why Skeptic has completely missed the boat:

Needless to say, Skeptic, despite his brash confidence, will have entirely misunderstood the nature of the dispute between you and him. He would be making the crudest of category mistakes. He fundamentally misunderstands both what it means to say that there is a painter, and fundamentally misunderstands the reasons for saying there is one.

What are the mistakes that Skeptic is making?

[H]e’s treating the painter as if he were essentially some part of the picture, albeit a part that is hard to see directly. . . . [H]e’s supposing that settling the question of whether the painter exists has something to do with focusing on unusual or complex or hard-to-see elements of the painting — when, of course, that has nothing essentially to do with it at all.

In fact, of course, even the most trivial, plain, and simple painting would require a painter just as much as a complicated picture of a crowd of people would.  And in fact, the painter is not himself a part of the picture, and therefore, looking obsessively within the picture itself at various minute details of it is precisely where you won’t find him.

Why can’t we definitively find God with scientific observation? Why can’t we settle the question of God once and for all with our scientific instruments and methods?

Although scientific observation can certainly point us toward God, and even strongly toward a very powerful and intelligent Creator, at the end of the day, one has to do metaphysics to close the deal. Feser summarizes:

It is not a question of natural science — which, given the methods that define it in the modern period, can in principle only ever get you from one part of the world to another part of it, and never outside the world — but rather a question for metaphysics, which is not limited by its methods to the this-worldly.

This is why I have explained to my skeptical friends over and over and over again that their skepticism is usually rooted in their metaphysics, and they need to start there before bothering with anything else.

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  • Gary

    Very interesting post, but it contains a very big assumption: there are only two choices…the existence of the Christian God or his non-existence as asserted by atheists. What if both sides are wrong?
    I believe that there most likely is a Creator due to several factors, including the complexity of the universe and the fixed laws of physics. However, this Creator cannot be the Christian God, in my opinion. Why do I say this?
    Five months ago I was a devote conservative Christian. Today I am an agnostic, possibly a deist. Why the change? I did some research on the evidence for Christianity as was shocked by what I found:
    1. We have no idea who wrote the Gospels. They were written by anonymous authors 30-40 years after the alleged resurrection. Therefore we have NO verifiable eyewitness testimony to the Resurrection.
    2. If you examine Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road you will find that he never saw a body. He only saw a bright light and heard a voice. Most damning is that Paul himself states in Acts 26 that his experience was a “vision”. Many people have claimed to have had very vivid visions of Jesus, with Jesus having a conversation with them, yet Christians do not claim that these thousands of people really saw a resurrected body. Emperor Constantine’s claim of his vision of Jesus is just one example.
    3. Archaeologist have found zero evidence of the Exodus, Forty years in the Sinai, the Conquest of Canaan, nor the great kingdoms of David and Solomon.
    Therefore Jesus believed himself to be the fulfillment of events that never happened, and the descendent of kings who never existed. If you examine the evidence with an open mind, Christianity is nothing more than a house of cards, built on superstition, legend, and fables.
    I fought the truth for four months to hold onto my faith. However, the evidence is overwhelming. The god of the Old Testament is nothing more than the superstitious imaginations of ancient, middle eastern, goat-herders. It is all false. Jesus really existed but he is dead. He can no more save me than any other dead man. Sad but true.

  • sean

    You have a good analogy with paintings, I think, but I also think there is evidence of the painter in paintings. Every art historian alive agrees with me. Analyzing paintings is a great way to figure out who painted it.

  • Bill Pratt

    It seems like you didn’t look very hard for answers to your questions, because there are hundreds of blogs and books that address the very “problems” you think you’ve discovered.

    If you are actually interested in hearing the arguments and evidence, I would be glad to point you to some resources. Just tell me which issue you would like to start with and we’ll go from there.

  • Gary

    Ok. Why is there zero archaeological evidence of two million Hebrews living in Egypt as slaves for several hundred years; evidence of massive devastation to the Egyptian economy by the Ten Plagues; evidence of the Exodus; the complete destruction of Pharaoh’s army in a Sea; the 40 years in the Sinai; the skeletons of 1,999,998 Hebrews in the Sinai; the Conquest of Canaan; the great kingdoms of David and Solomon.

  • Gary

    I will save you some time, Bill. I have already looked at the Christian claims of archaeological evidence for these events and found them terribly weak. The assertions are always filled with comments such as “this MIGHT be”, “this COULD be”, etc. If 2 million people existed in Egypt and the Sinai, there should be more evidence than “might be” and “could be”.

    The damning truth is this: If there is any group of people on earth who would want to provide evidence of the Exodus and the Conquest of Canaan it would be the state of Israel. Such evidence would bolster the Israeli claim to the land of Palestine. However, the premier university of Israel, has emphatically stated that these stories are fabrications. They did not happen. So these are not findings presented by God-hating atheists. It is archaeological fact, and the argument that “well, they just haven’t yet found the evidence” does not hold up if we are talking about 2 million people.

    —Israel Finkelstein, chairman of the Archaeology Department at Tel Aviv University, with archaeology historian Neil Asher Silberman, has just published a book called “The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Text.”:

    “The Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land [of Canaan] in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the twelve tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united kingdom of David and Solomon, described in the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom.”—

    —Israeli archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog, provides the current consensus view on the historicity of the Exodus:

    “The Israelites never were in Egypt. They never came from abroad. This whole chain is broken. It is not a historical one. It is a later legendary reconstruction – made in the seventh century [BCE] – of a history that never happened.”

    —William Dever, an archaeologist normally associated with the more conservative end of Syro-Palestinian archaeology, has labeled the question of historicity of Exodus “dead.”

    Now, don’t you think that if the research provided by the University of Tel Aviv was shaky/unreliable, the Israeli government would rush to discredit them? After all, any proof that ancient Hebrews occupied the land of Canaan in the 12th or 13th centuries B.C. would be in the national interest of the state of Israel in their dispute with the Palestinians. But the Israeli government did not discredit this research.

    And the bombshell for orthodox Christianity is this: if the Exodus did not happen…Jesus CANNOT be God…because Jesus believed that the Exodus was a real event, and that he was the fulfillment of the Exodus Passover.

    It is all a fable, my friends. The evidence is in. There is no need to debate the historicity of the Resurrection, the harmonization of the six Resurrection accounts, whether Judas or the Pharisees bought the Potter’s Field, whether Paul really saw Jesus on the Damascus Road, etc. etc.

    All that doesn’t matter anymore. It doesn’t matter because THE EXODUS DID NOT HAPPEN. And if the Exodus did not happen, Jesus could not have been God, because according to the inerrant Bible, God doesn’t make mistakes…and Jesus made a whopper.

  • Bill Pratt


    1. You don’t understand archaeology. You can never disprove that an event occurred using archaeology. All you can say is that we haven’t found evidence for something. These are two different things.

    2. I can find plenty of archaeologists who contradict the ones you quoted. So your short list of quotes is less than impressive. Even if we count heads and your heads are more numerous than mine, we have to remember that drawing any conclusions about events that occurred 4,000 years ago based on meager archaeological finds is a highly contentious and controversial process. Archaeologists are notorious for arguing about how to interpret evidence.

    3. I suggest you read the book On the Reliability of the Old Testament to balance out your biased reading of archaeologists.

    4. There are plenty of conservative Christians and Jews who don’t believe that 2 million Israelites lived in Egypt and left during the Exodus. You might want to read a blog post I just wrote a few weeks ago which discusses this very issue.

    5. Most of your argument seems to rely on the fact that 2 million Israelites left Egypt. If this number is closer to 30,000, then your arguments collapse. It would be extremely difficult to find much archaeological evidence left behind by a group of 30,000 people.

  • Gary

    I guess God miscounted:

    Exodus 12:36-40

    36and the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have their request. Thus they plundered the Egyptians. 37Now the sons of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children. 38A mixed multitude also went up with them, along with flocks and herds, a very large number of livestock.…

  • Gary

    Your comment about the “unreliability” of archaeology is EXACTLY the excuse that Mormons give me when I ask for evidence that ancient Hebrews colonized North America.

    GOD said that 600,000 men left Egypt along with children and a mixed multitude with them, so let’s be conservative. Let’s say that 1,000,000 Hebrews lived in Egypt for several hundred years, left Egypt all at once causing the Egypt economy to collapse, their God destroyed Pharaoh’s army in the Sea, they wandered in the small area of the Sinai for 40 years, they conquered Jericho and the rest of Canaan, slaughtering thousands, they established the large and powerful kingdoms of David and Solomon, AND built Solomon’s magnificent temple…but not one convincing shred of evidence of any of this had been found???

    And conservative Christians think that the Mormons are silly with their historical assertions!

    Zero evidence for a people of at least one million people over hundreds of years is extremely, extremely unlikely. You are being as illogical as are the Mormons, Bill.

  • Gary

    Another question, Bill.
    The archaeologists that you say believe that there is evidence for the Exodus…are any of them non-fundamentalist Jews or Christians?

    Good scientists do not have biases, or if they do, do not let them influence their research. Can a person who believes that the Bible MUST be true, really capable of honestly evaluating the evidence?

    Any scientist or archaeologist who allows bias to seep into his or her research immediately loses credibility…and research funding.

  • Gary

    And not only is there zero archaeological evidence of this in Egypt or in the Sinai. There is no historical evidence of these events in the writings of Egypt’s neighbors who would have delighted in the total destruction of Egypt’s army in the Red Sea, and the embarrassment to the proud Egyptians of being defeated by run-away slaves. But not one word of these events in Mesopotamia, Rome, Greece or anywhere else.

    And if King David and King Solomon’s kingdoms were as great as the Bible says that they were, why is there no mention of them in the writings of any of her neighbors??

    Answer: the never existed.

  • Bill Pratt

    You obviously did not read the blog post I linked to. Please do so.

  • Bill Pratt

    God never said that 600,000 men left Egypt. That is one possible translation, but there are other possible translations. Again, read the blog post I pointed you to.

  • Bill Pratt

    Read the blog post. Read the book. Then come back and talk to me. Your presentation of the archaeological evidence is about the most lopsided, biased, and unbalanced presentation I’ve ever seen.

    If anyone is a fundamentalist with an axe to grind, it would be you. Until you can show some semblance of balance and lack of prejudice in your discussions of Old Testament archaeology, I see no reason to continue this dialogue.

  • Gary

    Ok. I’ll read the other post and get back to you, Bill.

    FYI: If I had a dollar for every time a Christian pastor or apologist has told me in the last few months, since losing my faith, that the only way for me to believe that the Bible really is God’s Word and that the Resurrection really happened is to go and read _____ book…I’d be a rich man.

  • Bill Pratt

    Maybe the reason for that is because when you present your ironclad case that the Exodus never occurred, you are ignoring a large amount of scholarship on the topic.

    You are far too confident in what you think you’ve learned in the past several months, when it is clear from your comments that you have only read one side of a heated debate.

    I have been studying these kinds of issues for over a decade, and I don’t have the kind of off-the-charts confidence you do. I have had to change my positions many times on a wide range of topics.

    You have a lot of reading and learning to do. I pray that you’ll stick with it.

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