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.

25 thoughts on “Why Would You Expect to See a Painter in His Painting?”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Gary,
    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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Gary,

    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.

  7. 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.…

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. This is an obvious
    adaptation of the watch maker analogy.

    This has been debunked
    for a long time.

    It argues that a watch
    is too complex to be natural and there for infers a watch maker.

    Even if you have never
    met a watch maker, he must exist for the watch to exist.

    The Universe is vastly
    more complex than a watch so there must be a universe maker.

    The flaw in this
    argument is in the question of design.

    We can all agree the
    watch(or the painting) was designed, but how do we come to that

    The watchmaker arguer
    goes to complexity and form following function as proof of design,
    but simplicity is the hallmark of design not complexity. If you
    design something more complex than it needs to be you are a bad
    designer and sometimes function follows form. In the campground at Mt
    Arapiles there is a see-saw. Is it designed? It has moving parts that
    work together to do a task, these parts seem to fit together to full
    fill this allotted task. Sounds like it was designed to me. But no it
    is simply two oddly shaped branches that have fallen in such a way to
    create a natural sea saw. No design needed. Function following form.

    Where this argument
    differs is that the Original Poster has added an extra layer with the
    painting of people and the straw-man “Skeptic” not understanding
    the difference between having a painter in the painting and needing a
    painter to paint it. This is poor analogy being used to attack
    methodological naturalism that forms the basis of the scientific

    You see we know a
    painting has a painter, a watch has a watchmaker and a building has a
    builder by:

    Contrasting them with
    nature. We have galleries all over the world filled with paintings
    and not one of them formed on it’s own, never in recorded history has
    a building grown up out of the ground naturally and we have beaches
    filled with naturally formed pebbles so as you walk along the watch
    stands out.

    Investigating their
    beginnings. Going to a studio and watching new painting being
    created, walk past a construction sight in a short skirt and you’ll
    know there’s a builder, travel to Switzerland and see a master
    craftsman create a watch(or Taiwan and see an 8yo kid do it).

    And finding clues left
    in the work it’s self. Painters leave brush strokes and usualy sign
    their work, buildings have commemorative plaques and plans in the
    city’s records office and watch makers have a maker’s mark.

    We are not external
    observers looking at one painting that can be compared to millions of
    others and we ourselves are capable of creating. We are inside the
    one and only universe we know to exist with nothing else to compare
    it to.

    The Commenter seems to
    get a bit confused with his final quote and paragraph. The Original
    Poster is saying that the arguments whether for or against god are
    metaphysical(what is outside the painting) as opposed to being based
    in natural science(what’s inside the painting) but the commentator
    only addresses the metaphysics of the “Skeptic” and not his own.

    Neither the Original
    Poster or the Commentator seem to understand Atheism as it is formed
    around methodological naturalism and the scientific method. This does
    not require metaphysics, in fact it is the rejection al all things
    metaphysical. The scientific method requires you to reject all claims
    unless they are supported by evidence, otherwise you could end up
    believing two mutually exclusive things and methodological naturalism
    says that we can only get evidence for things from the natural world.
    If you follow these two ideas to there natural end then you will only
    ever arrive at athism.

    Atheism at it’s
    simplest is not the assertion that no gods exist but the rejection of
    the claim that a god or gods do exist.

    We can all agree that
    there are only two options(ignoring all the different gods) either a
    god or gods exist or no god or gods exist. One statement must be true
    and the other must be false. Lets compare this to a jar of M&Ms
    there must be either an odd or even number of M&Ms in the jar.
    Once again one option is try and the other is false. I want you to
    bet $5 on which one it is but you’re not allowed to look in the
    jar(because you cant see outside the universe).

    Which do you pick odd
    or even? You could double your money. Or you could loose it. It’s
    50/50. What about the third option? Just don’t make the bet. If you
    don’t have enough evidence to make an informed decision then abstain
    from making one. This is why any honest scientist will tell you
    science has no comment on the existence of god one way or the other
    and why most atheists don’t assert there is no god but state there is
    not enough evidence to support the claim that a god exists. Just as
    there is not enough evidence to support that unicorns or leprechauns

  16. Firstly I want to point out I didn’t say anything about my own beliefs. They’re pretty much irrelevant. I’m just pointing out a poorly formed argument.
    I only used the word metaphysics because the OP used the word, but it basicly means ‘what is beyond physics’. Now in this instance I would think it means all of physics not just our current understanding of physics.
    I don’t like to put words in other people’s mouths but I get the feeling the OP was trying to avoid a connection with the word supernatural as this word is utterly rejected by athiests.
    If something metaphysical did exist there would be no way to prove or disprove it’s existence because it is beyond any physical test we can perform.
    The only consistent rational way to proceed is under the assumption that it doesn’t exist because if you are consistent in believing claims until you have evedence they are wrong you will end up believing mutually exclusive things.
    If you only believe things you have good evedence for you may miss out on being right some of the time but you’ll avoid be wrong a lot more.

  17. Hi Greg,
    Your definition of metaphysics as “what is beyond physics” is incomplete. You also seem to believe that metaphysics is the study of things for which there is no evidence, but that is simply not true.

    If you type the word “metaphysics” in the search bar of the blog home page, you will see plenty of blog posts that explain what I and other Christians mean by the word. I would start with this post:


  18. “Nature contemplated insofar as it is sensible is physical science. Nature
    studied insofar as it is quantifiable is mathematics. Nature or reality studied insofar as it is real is metaphysics. Metaphysics, then, is the study of the real as real or being insofar as it is

    So by your own argument, Metaphysics is insensible and unquantifiable.

    Sorry that was a low blow. I don’t mean to sound rude but I have a full time job, a family, community commitments and an attempted social life. This discussion is going to be very slow if I’m going to read a 5 part and 3 part post just to get a better understanding of your usage of 1 word out of my 850 word response.

    Ultimately this is a red herring(that I don’t believe is intentional) that distracts from the rest of the argument. A painting is a bad analogy
    for the universe for all the reasons mentioned and that if you are going to believe something without good evidence or until you have good evidence to the contrary and you are consistent, you will end up believing in mutually exclusive things.

    You have also not addressed my comments about your final paragraphs. You say “Although scientific observation can certainly point us toward God, and even strongly toward a very powerful and intelligent Creator”. Your words echo the OP’s ‘Believer’ arguing that god(the painter)”were essentially some part of the picture, albeit a part that is hard to see directly.” Missing the point that these arguments in the OP’s opinion are just as trite as the ‘Skeptic’s’ and as I have stated above, if followed consistently will leave you with contradictory beliefs.

  19. I’m guessing by the fact that you haven’t responded that you think I wanted to end the convocation. I’m sorry if I gave that impression. I do genuinely want to here you’re views on my last 2 points.

  20. Greg,
    The reason I asked you to read about “metaphysics” is because the whole blog post revolves around that word. If you don’t understand what the word means, then there is simply no way you can understand the point of the blog post.

    If you think that the point of the blog post is, “You can’t find God by looking empirically at the world we live in, but only by looking beyond this world in some mystical, non-empirical, non-evidential, non-rational way,” then you have completely misunderstood the post.

    Metaphysics is the study of what is real, and you can’t study what is real without using your five senses and observing the world around you. All metaphysical principles are derived from empirical observations coupled with logical reasoning from those observations. There is no hocus-pocus or voodoo involved. Metaphysics is not transcendental meditation.

    The findings of metaphysics have been developed over centuries by brilliant thinkers who have observed the world and then thought really hard about what fundamental principles can explain everything they see.

    The point of the post is that the skeptic who thinks he can just skip the conclusions of metaphysics and jump to the conclusion of the non-existence of God is sadly mistaken. God is not a being who can be directly measured by a lab instrument, so God cannot be simply found by taking measurements of the world around us.

    If this still doesn’t make sense, let me know.

  21. Please show me directly, how metaphysics in any from affects atheism in the form I have described above.

    If an atheist declares ‘There is no god’ then sure they are stepping into metaphysical territory. They are going beyond what is “quantifiable” and “sensible”, but to say ‘I don’t believe in anything I don’t have sufficient evidence for’ is a simple way of being logicically consistent.
    Do you believe in leprechauns and fairies? Can you truthfully tell me they don’t exist? Or do you simply not believe in them because there’s no good evidence?

    Please show me where “scientific observation can certainly point us toward God”, without playing “Where’s Wally?” as it is put in the OP.

  22. So your “Scientific” evidence for god is:
    1) (This post)A rewording of the watchmaker argument.
    2) (The Argument from Desire) I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and call it a ‘logical’ fallacy.
    3) (Can Atheists Avoid a Cause of the Universe?) the cosmological argument… really… You can just assert that the only thing that doesn’t need a cause is god
    4) (Why Do We See Causality All Around Us?) So at some point we developed the instinct to realise that rustling leaves could be either the wind or a lion trying to eat us … there for god.
    “Your mind is ready and even eager to identify agents, assign them personality traits and specific intentions, and view their actions as expressing individual propensities.” You know, atheist psychologists have argued that this is where gods have come from. After all we used to believe that lightning bolts were caused by Zeus and Thor.
    5) (How Do We Know the Universe Hasn’t Existed Eternally?” You start by misunderstanding of the big bang, continue with special pleading that everything needs a cause except god and finish with the unsupported assumption that the only cause can be an eternal god.
    You see it’s the universe ‘as we know it’ that started with the big bang. We don’t know and may never know how long, and in what form, the universe existed before the big bang. The whole concept of before the big bang is a misnomer because there was no time until after the big bang for there to be a before to exist in.
    (Assuming the universe needs a cause)So many things other than an eternal god could have caused it. For all we know, aliens in another universe were performing an experiment akin to the L.H.C., causing an explosion in the fabric of the multiverse triggering the creation of our universe. It’s even possible they don’t even know they’ve done it.
    6) (What Explains the Laws of Logic and Mathematics?) This is a thrilling combination of a false dichotomy and god of the gaps fallacy. Science can’t explain it. There for the Christian god.
    Good I was worried my explanations were going to keep getting bigger.
    7) (What Explains the Existence of the Physical Universe?) I’m so glad you have solved solipsism. Philosophers have been trying to do this for ages. So here we see the god of the gaps, the watchmaker and the cosmological argument all rolled into one. Wally where are you?
    8) (Are Knowing Facts about God Enough?) God won’t reveal himself to you unless you have a relationship with him. Not only is this unscientific you’re using it as a loophole to avoid genuine scientific inquiry.
    9) (Why Is the Polytheism of Mormonism False?) One of the other 30-40 000 denominations of Christianity is wrong. There for my denomination is correct. You have jumped over proving that god exists to arguing over attributes of god.
    10) (Does Science Disprove the Existence of God?) Congratulations, you finally posted something scientific. “the fact that science… tells us nothing about God has no bearing whatever on his existence or non-existence, as most scientists recognize.” Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The only problem is I had to take it out of context from a straw man argument.
    Science is limited to the physical world. Anything that is untestable, or unfalsifiable is not a valid hypothesis.

    OK, I’m sorry, but I’m not going any further than 10.

    What do all 10 of these posts have in common?
    None of them have ‘Scientific Evidence’ for god. They are all just philosophical rationalizations for god. The closest you came is that science can’t disprove god. I don’t even know what to say after that. These 10 words sum up everything that is wrong with your argument.
    I’ll finish this comment how i started my last:
    “Please show me directly, how metaphysics in any from affects atheism in the form I have described above.”

Comments are closed.