Is Belief in God Reasonable? – or – Deity Defense on Uncommon Descent

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.

Beelzebub writes:

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?

vjtorley responds:

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.

9 thoughts on “Is Belief in God Reasonable? – or – Deity Defense on Uncommon Descent”

  1. I am not here to answer your call for a Theist to step on up ,,, after all you know upon which side of the debate I reside. But, not so much in defence of the post you have dissected, but more in an attempt at empathy for its authors: the arguments put forward by your antagonist strike me as a tragic inability to comprehend the possibility of just how alien and unrecognisble the cosmos would be if it were any other way than it is. That is not to mention just how frighteningly unfathomable the nature of the one we have is! I can wholeheartedly appreciate this struggle; but unlike the author I am quite capable of appreciate being alive without resorting to having to bend reason and science to fit into a comforting, less frightening, world view.

  2. Hey Jack Scanlan. You seem to have wandered into my neck of the woods (which is physics and math). I'd love to debate you on fine-tuning and the beginning of the universe sometime soon (this week??). We can lay out our arguments and have a blog exchange on the existence of God.

    1. Hey, facilis.

      As you know, my area of expertise is NOT physics and maths, and that's why I don't usually touch on the subject of the origin of the Universe and cosmology. But if you would like to lay out your arguments in favour of a God, be them cosmological or biological, for me to comment on and discuss with you, sure.

      I don't think starting with me plotting out my evidence for the non-existence of God is a good idea, if not simply because all my arguments are not about the non-existence of God, but are responses to specific arguments theists make regarding the nature of their deity – hence furthering my disbelief in God, not my active belief that one does not exist.

      1. The fine tuned argument is not so much a physics and maths one, but rather rests on first cause or TAG premises.

        If we are to account for the existence of the attributes of the universe is such a "fined tuned" manner (which we freely cannot to my knowledge), then why aren't theists required to account for the attributes of god? Why does god has the properties and qualities that he does? Why does he not have other qualities? If these are left unexplained, then why are we required to explain the properties and attributes of the physical universe?

        Just my 2 cents worth.

  3. vjorley seems to be using terms like "necessity" in an odd fashion. I assume he is trying to use it the way Demski does in sense like "law of nature".
    Oh and I second that nomination of Richard Swinburne (he is a retired Oxford philosophy professor) and was one of the most influential modern Christian philosophers.

  4. I ended up here after doing a search asking if is reasonable to believe in God and I am afraid that I have more questions than answers.

    Something that I have been working on for a while is that I am wondering if there is something about human psychology and belief in that greater than self, God, or whatever one may call it as it seems to be a constant in about every human culture that I have read about. We all arrive here through the birth process as basically helpless and dependent on parents and others for survival. Is it possible that we as humans have a built in psychological need which later manifests as a belief in a greater power, God, or what ever people want to call it?

    I hope this does not sound too silly, but I have deep questions and enjoy the reading and study trying to understand some things.

    1. It is not about human psychology. It is about rational ontology. There are individual things in the world. The tree in your backyard, your dog, your house, your mother, your wife, your car, etc. etc. seemingly without end. One thing after another. These individuals, however, ALL have associated with them a UNIVERSALITY conferred upon them by means of our inherent reason, which we express through language.The nature of all rational ideas or concepts is that they consist of three aspects: universal, particular and individual.

      For example, the apple on your table is a particular fruit. It is also an individual object in the world. So are all apples in the world particular fruits. But what is the universal "fruit" by which all apples are identified as particular instantiations of that universal? Any instance of fruit, is what it is by dint of its 'participation' [as Plato called it] in the universal Idea of fruit. Why do you call a tree, a tree? You do not name every tree you observe by a different name…t1, t2, t3, x78m etc. You call them all trees despite the fact that they are all different from one another. They all bear the same essential form or nature of "tree-ness," i.e. we can unmistakably know a tree when we see one from that essential idea of tree that constitutes the reason we call trees by the same name.

      So what is the relation between universal, particular and individual – that are the inseparable aspects of every idea or concept?

      First: The universal is what is most general. It doesn't have any differentiation within it. By considering the universal "tree" we don't get any sense of how big or small it is, whether it is maple or oak, or if it has needles or leaves, etc. The universal is thus called general or in this case, tree in general. It is basically indeterminate, i.e. without any differentiation.

      Second: The individual is what we experience. The actual thing in the world. It contains the universal implicitly within it. It is that which makes the individual what it is.The word 'individual' by itself means 'what is un-dividable.' In other words, it implies it is a whole. It is a whole thing that derives its essential identity from the universality that it is part of, and that inhabits it. The universal is both immanent (that is in it, or essential to it) and transcendental (the individual is part of that which is greater than it, and encompasses or comprehends it).

      Third: The particular is that which distinguishes one individual from another under the same universality. Thus, if tree is the universal, then the individual tree in your yard may be an oak, while the one in front of your house may be a maple. So the two individuals differ by their particularities, while still being classified under the same universality.

      In the case of persons, each person identifies himself as "I." This ego or "I" is individuality. Yet everyone identifies themselves as an "i." This means that "I" is not only individual but also universal. It is the same essence of "I"-ness, found in every instance of a rational person. Thus "I" is as mcuh a it is individual. Furthermore, each "I" is also particular or different from every other "I" is some particular idiosyncratic way.

      The question is: what is that universal "I" or that Universal Person of which all individuals are instances or instantiations? This has been called God in different names and languages throughout the world. It is an inherent part of reason, so it is an inherent part of human nature to think of God because of this.

      This is the way we think. It is intrinsic to reason to understand things in this way. Genesis, from which the word 'genus' derives, implies that there is a universal from which all individuals and particulars come. This universal must contain all the properties of that which derives from it, and more than any individual can possess. This is rational. If individuals have personality, so too must the universal have that capacity within itself. If an individual is impersonal, that too must exist within the universal. All contradictions will exist there, harmonized.

      It is quite natural to think of God because it is built into rationality itself. So we find religion in different forms, according to the particularity of a people, widespread throughout different cultures in the world. The atheists also have a place, but they are always a small minority. A human being is supposed to be a rational animal. Those who are human in form but lack properly developed reason are called atheists. That also exists in the Universal or God. There is a gradation in reason extending to even the unrational like matter and irrational or insane. They are all part of God, and are therefore to be treated in accordance with that knowledge.

      1. Thank you Will, I have some new things to think about. It has been a long time since I was in graduate school and philosophy classes, but it brings me up on a second thing I am reading and considering.

        I have been reading and watching interviews about Richard Dawkins. He and some other scientists conclude that life on this planet was 'seeded', as it were, from space (Panspermia) unlike Charles Darwin who postulated that life somehow originated here.

        I am not sure what to think about the Panspermia hypothesis, but if true, there may be all kinds of life 'out there' in the universe.

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