This is a rare kind of post for me – I usually write about creationism or skepticism as applied to science, not religion and atheism. This is probably because I’m not one of those atheists that reads the Bible to refute it, or delves deeply into apologetics arguments in order to deconstruct them. Nothing against you guys that do that, I love what you do, but I’m just not one of those people who does that.
However, once in a while I come across a piece of Internet work that I feel I can handle: something that nobody else has touched on (to my knowledge), something I feel people who read this blog could get a kick out of. Of course, I’ve been reading the blog of William Dembski recently, which you can tell by looking at my previous post, a deconstruction of Walter ReMine’s series of posts about his “Message Theory” which was posted there. Now, Dembski is not one of those ID proponents that actively tries to hide their religiosity, and Uncommon Descent (which is the name of his blog) often has its front page filled with posts written about some aspect of theology or another. The post I am dissecting today is no exception.
It’s called “Is Belief in God Reasonable?”, and while the top of the post indicates that it is written by Barry Arlington, it’s mostly not. It’s actually a comment made by a registered commenter on the site called vjtorley, placed into a post by Barry with a brief comment to put it all in context. Barry seemed to think that it was “a nice cogent summary of the grounds for believing in a personal God”, so, like the good skeptic I pretend to be, I have to investigate this claim with an air of atheistic intrigue.
Hart presumably considers the non-contingent ground of being to be the Christian God. This in itself seems to be an unwarranted assumption. Why must existence be underwritten by a god at all, much less the specific personal God of the Christians?
This is the comment, made by a commenter called Beelzebub, that vjtorley is responding to. Puts the whole thing in context, eh?
I take it that by “god” you mean a personal being of some sort. Very briefly (and please remember this is just a bare-bones outline), the main lines of argument that have been adduced for believing in a personal God are as follows:
And so follows vjtorley‘s main response. I will try to cover and comment on as much of the material as possible. But, remember, I’m not a hardcore counter-apologetics master, so take everything I say with a grain of salt, and if symptoms persist, see your local Matt Dillahunty.
1. Chance, Necessity or Agency?
There are only three general ways of explaining any given state of affairs: we can explain it as the outcome of chance, necessity or agency (or some combination of the above).
To explain the cosmos in terms of pure chance (e.g. the universe just popped into existence out of the blue) won’t work; pure chance explains nothing, and no-one accepts it as an explanation of anything. Even random events turn out to have some underlying explanation. For instance, the phenomenon in which subatomic virtual particles pop in and out of existence can be explained in terms of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which permits minor energy fluctuations to occur, provided that they are extremely brief.
Necessity alone cannot explain the cosmos either, for if it did, the cosmos would itself be necessary – which it is manifestly not.
Whoa, hang on. What’s all this talk about necessity? Why can’t the cosmos be necessary? vjtorley does not explain either what he means by “necessary” or why the cosmos cannot be “necessary”. It would be helpful if he did, then we could have some sort of idea about what the hell he was talking about.
Necessity plus chance won’t do the job either. For that to work, we’d have to imagine a necessary being which possesses certain probabilistic characteristics by nature – e.g. once every trillion years, it belches out a universe. The problem with this view is that probabilistic attributes are not the kind of traits that a necessary being could possess – or it wouldn’t be necessary.
Eh? Are you as confused as I am? Thought so. But there is a problem with his example: before the Universe existed, there was no time, so there’s no point in saying that a Universe is created every trillion years if time did not exist.
Plus, why are we talking in “beings” Why does this cause of the Universe have to be a being? He’s not given evidence for this. He has also not ruled out the possibility of a natural event producing the Universe, just in another Universe. For those who are thinking “That’s stupid”, then what do you presume God is? And where is God anyway? Why can’t a natural event take the place of God? Why can’t the cause be non-sentient?
That leaves agency. The universe arises from a Necessary Being, but it is neither a necessary by-product of this Being nor a fortuitous spin-off. Rather, it is the free creation of an intelligent agent – and as such, contingent, but here for a purpose. And since the Necessary Being that creates our universe possesses personal attributes, we may call it God.
Ah, there we are, the assertion that the “Necessary Being” (ie. God) is intelligent. No evidence is given for this. I don’t know why theists such as vjtorley think they can get away with jumping straight to an intelligence without justification, but they seem to do it a lot, in my experience.
Without intelligence in this “Necessary Being”, there can be no personal God, so I’m just going to say it right here: vjtorley has failed in convincing me, at this point, that a personal God exists. He might do it later on, but that seems like bad planning on his part, because he’s assumed that I’ll wait for him to explain why the Being is intelligent before he does so, after he mentions it without justification. Poor show.
2. Argument from the Immateriality of the Necessary Being
Anything material is contingent: whatever traits it has could be otherwise. Consequently, the necessary Being is immaterial.
Anything immaterial is intelligent, because its properties – and hence its modus operandi – are purely formal and not material. To be intelligent is the same as having a purely formal modus operandi (think of something performing logical or mathematical operations).
Since the necessary Being is immaterial and hence intelligent, it may be described as personal – and may thus be called God.
Ah, there we are, the explanation for the intelligence. And what a crap explanation it is, if I do say so myself. “Anything immaterial is intelligent”? What?
The justification given here is that because something is non-physical, it must be based purely on logic. Anything based purely on logic, it is assumed here, is by definition intelligent. Wrong. Everything is based on logic. For example, a rock follows all the rules of logic: it is not not itself, it cannot be both itself and not itself at the same time, etc. But is it intelligent? No. To be intelligent is to be able to react to and judge situations. Being based purely on logic does not mean in any sense that you can react to and judge situations. If it does, vjtorley doesn’t show or explain it.
3. The Argument from Design
Not only is the Universe contingent; it also possesses certain properties (e.g. fine-tuning; functional complex specified information) which make it overwhelmingly probable that it is the creation of an Intelligent Designer. An Intelligent Designer of the cosmos could also be called God.
I swear, that’s the whole argument right there. I guess he wasn’t lying when he said it would be a bare-bones outline.
Fine-tuning of the cosmos is a common argument put out by theists and creationists a proof that a God created and designed the Universe. They say that the physical attributes of the Universe are exactly valued so that life, specfically human life, can survive.
There are many problems with this argument. One, it assumes that the physical constants are randomly generated: in truth, we know nothing about this. The Universe may have had no choice in being the way it is, we simply don’t know. However, this point is negated by the second problem with this argument: you’re looking at the outcome after the event.
You shouldn’t be shocked when, if you throw a pack of playing cards on the ground, a certain combination of cards lands face up. The odds against the combination were extremely low, astronomically low, in fact. It must have been designed, right? Wrong. When an event happens in which there are a large amount of random variables taking part takes place, any outcome is going to have an extremely low probability of occuring. However, an event is going to occur, so any one that occurs is going to have a low probability.
Therefore, saying that the Universe is fine-tuned for life is like saying that I won this poker round because I was dealt a Royal Flush, but there was only ever one poker hand, and if I never got a Royal Flush I never would have existed to worry about losing the hand. We should not be surprised to find ourselves in a Universe in which we can exist, because we couldn’t be in any other Universe and still be there observing our existence!
The functional complex specified information argument can be easily dismissed too. Supposedly, certain types of information cannot form through natural processes and an intelligence is needed to explain their existence. An example always given out is the DNA code. This is demonstrably false, to anyone with an understanding of evolution and origin of life research like the RNA World. It is possible, through the action of self-replicating ribozymes, to theoretically build up a metabolic framework in which a DNA code can slowly evolve over time to code for the various proteins that it does today in every living thing. The assertion that it needs a supernatural explanation is clearly not justified in the least.
4. The Argument from the Intelligibility of the Cosmos
Paraphrasing Einstein, the most peculiar thing about the cosmos is that is it comprehensible. Actually, there is a two-fold wonder here: the fact that reality is intelligible; and the fact that we possess minds that can grasp it. (In fact, I would go so far as to say that nothing in the cosmos appears to be beyond our ken.) In the absence of a personal God, these two facts should strike us as unbelievable good luck, and as states of affairs that we have no right to count on. But if the cosmos is the creation of a Divine Mind which wants to be known by the intelligent beings in the world it has created, then we would expect these facts to be true.
Putting it another way: an Intelligence is the only thing that can guarantee that the cosmos will remain intelligible, no matter what.
This argument made me laugh, for two reasons.
One reason was, a God does not have to exist for us to be able to understand the cosmos, it would just be convenient if one did. As such, this is not an argument at all, at least not a rational one. It’s purely an argument from final consequences: “If God doesn’t exist, then we won’t be able to understand the whole cosmos [Not technically true]. I want to be able to understand the whole cosmos, therefore God exists.”
The second reason was, what happened to “God works in mysterious ways”? What happened to miracles, unexplained events created by God? Of course, if God does exist, then these explainable-only-through-God events can only be explained through God and God is needed to explain the whole cosmos, but if he doesn’t exist, they don’t exist either. Therefore, we can understand the whole cosmos with or without God existing. Weak argument.
5. The Argument from the Reliability of Thought
This line of argument seeks to show that a personal God is the only kind of entity that explain why I can trust the workings of my own mind. The review article by Darek Barefoot, which I linked to in #43 [of the Quote of the Day post], spells out the argument properly.
Again, this is another argument from final consequences: “If God doesn’t exist, then I can’t trust my own mind. I want to be able to trust my own mind, therefore God exists.” Can I hear ya’ll say “Logical fallacy”?
And that’s the whole post. Kinda weak, eh? If this is the only stuff that theists have keeping themselves from disbelieving in God (which I know it is most definitely not), then theism is based on such a weak foundation that it seems laughable (which it is, of course).
Are you a theist? Think you have some good arguments for the existence of God that you would like to try on me? I’m open to evidence and good arguments. Just lay them out in the comments underneath this post.