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In our species, this offshoot desire to answer the Burning Questions has resulted in what Daniel Dennett calls ‘premature curiosity satisfaction’. Like other premature events, it is actually undesirable. The more philosophically minded believers realized the need to create arguments to buttress their presupposition that God exists. This is not an admirable methodology. Certainly, in my vocation, such a procedure where the conclusion is the starting point rather than the end point is more than just frowned upon. It leads to rationalization, which becomes quite apparent in the many philosophical arguments.

I am a metaphysical naturalist. I used to consider myself a methodological naturalist, but I came to realize that admitting the possibility of something outside of a naturalist universe in the utter absence of any indication that such is the case is intellectually dishonest. So I have taken the plunge and gone all the way. This does not mean that if extraordinary evidence that there is some phenomena which can only be explained outside of naturalism that I would not change my position. But in the complete paucity of extraordinary evidence to the contrary, to consider anything outside of naturalism in order to explain phenomena is a complete waste of time.

As such, I am no fan of philosophical arguments unsupported by empirical evidence. Science has a habit of squashing them like grapes in a winery. Nicholas Everitt, when writing a book on arguments for the existence of God, gave up and just titled the book The Non-existence of God. As he describes, there are simply no good philosophical arguments for the existence of deities.

On the net I’ve come across many Believers who petition atheists to believe in God because there is nothing to lose. If atheists like me are wrong, we will end up in damnation and hellfire, while on the flip side if believers are wrong then they have lost nothing. This is in their various guises, of course, Blaise Pascal’s existentialist argument better known as Pascal’s Wager. Pascal approached the problem from the point of view that neither the existence nor the non-existence of God was provable, since ‘He is infinitely incomprehensible’. The Wager immediately runs into a problem with this base premise since ‘infinitely incomprehensible’ and ‘non-existent’ are identical in effect. Ockham’s Razor (ironically, William of Ockham was a friar) suggests provisionally accepting the latter as it is (by definition, far and away) the simplest of the two.

It runs into more problems when one considers which of the many versions of God one should believe in to hedge your bet. The Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary places the number of Christian denominations (and hence the number of versions of the Christian God alone) at 38,000. When one extrapolates this to the number of major religions in the world currently and the sects within each, this number becomes completely unmanageable. And we are considering only current religions and not those which have died out over the course of human history. Picking one version of God from amongst this sea of Beliefs amounts to nothing more than playing the lottery. Not to mention that it is a choice made purely for purposes of personal gain.

Nor do I agree that the Believer loses nothing if wrong. I can’t think of a tragedy greater than someone living their whole life based on a lie. It is little wonder that individuals that extricate themselves from under the thumb of blind belief systems which have changed little since the Bronze Age often feel rage against the dogmatic system which held their intellect hostage for so long.

And what would I do if I am wrong? Betrand Russell said it best when asked the same thing –

‘Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!’

I have yet to meet an argument for the existence of God which isn’t either absurd or does not at some point reduce to a ‘God of the gaps’ argument. An example of the former is the ontological argument so beloved by Descartes:

  1. Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be contained in the idea of something is true of that thing.
  2. I clearly and distinctly perceive that necessary existence is contained in the idea of God.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

This is an absurd argument. Why would Descartes have any reason that an idea must have a basis in reality, or to cause it to become reality? It even smacks of heresy, since it implies that God is Man’s creation, not the other way round. Regardless, this absurd argument falls on its face. Descartes is taking his ‘I think therefore I am’ from internal to something external to himself, which is simply not logical. It is even easier to see the absurdity of the argument by substitution – simply replace the word ‘God’ with anything else – pink unicorns, one-eyed one-horned flying purple people eater, Flying Spaghetti Monster– Well, you get the idea.

An example of the latter would be the Kalam Cosmological argument, which states:

  1. An actual infinite cannot exist.
  2. A beginningless series of events is an actual infinite.
  3. Therefore, the universe cannot have existed infinitely in the past, as that would be a beginningless series of events.

 
Why is an actual infinite impossible? If it is because of the philosopher’s failure to grasp the infinite, that is a failing of the philosopher, not of Nature. There is also a contradiction in the argument in that if the universe had a beginning, what of the nature of the cause? The cause, presumably God, must also have a beginning. An infinite regress is unavoidable. To say that God has always existed and not the universe is pointless, not to mention itself violating the argument. Why arbitrarily declare God immune to the need to itself be created and not the universe? To say the rules don’t apply to God is changing the rules of the game just to suit the arguer’s fancy.

This is simply a flavor variety of the First Cause Argument, which goes thus:

  1. Everything that happens has a cause.
  2. At one point, something came from nothing, the universe came into existence.
  3. The universe must have had a cause.
  4. Since no matter existed at that moment, the cause must have been God.

 
Again, we have the claim that everything must have a cause. For God not to have a cause the First Cause Argument must be violated. Nor does a First Cause get one any nearer a deity. Presuming there is a First Cause (far from proven), nothing about the nature of the Cause can be known. Calling it God is like calling it ‘mashed potatoes’ and with as much (or little) meaning. Moving from there to any particular version of deity is an exercise in gap-jumping in arbitrary directions without a net. Nor do we know that the universe came into existence from nothing. The argument is mental garbage making implicit assumptions which the arguer has no business making.

As with all purely philosophical arguments, without any empirical evidence in support are simply idle musings. Nature does what it does and it is up to us to peek behind the curtains and find out what it is up to. What we think how it ought to work need have no relation to how the universe does work. Philosophy without empiricism is simply a guessing game. That’s what makes Science so amazing. It’s an endless journey of discovery, like opening Christmas presents forever. I pity those that spew the banal explanation of ‘God did it’. It’s a total downer, like looking at the Pyramids of Giza and saying glibly that they are ‘nice’.

Faith is Faith, right? A believer should not need anything more – not even philosophizing, which can only serve as confirmation bias. And yet they certainly seem to need more. Is it because they need tools with which to convert nonbelievers? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I think it’s more than that. Believers like Descartes weren’t into conversion. I think that they themselves needed to buttress their beliefs. I think that in the backs of their minds they were troubled by the lack of empirical evidence and that they needed to find another way reinforce their beliefs. There is simply no reason for developing any philosophical argument at all other than to engage in confirmation bias and silencing the nagging doubts created by a subconscious awareness of their cognitive dissonance. Certainly, there is absolutely no other explanation for why many believers have a nearly pathological need to have others agree with them on this subject.

The need of thinking believers to confirm the presupposition of God’s existence results in a rationalization with maneuvering reminiscent of contortionists in the Cirque de Soleil. All of these arguments leave me feeling that they are empty. When I read Paul Davies’ Cosmic Jackpot, the early part of the book describing cosmology and physics was riveting. The last half of the book was dedicated to why Davies himself believes in an Ultimate Designer. I was expecting a powerful reason why he is a pantheist, but what was presented seemed utterly empty and I felt cheated out of a challenge to my beliefs.

Why was the first half of the book so good and the last half so weak? The reason is something which pervades all attempts to justify the existence of a Creator. The first half of the book dealt with what is known from positive evidence. That is, empirical evidence in support of our models in physics and cosmology. Positive evidence is strong stuff. The more evidence in support of a model or hypothesis, the greater our confidence in the original hypothesis and the less likely it is incorrect.

The second half of the book was about his views on current hypotheses on current cosmological theories of the origins of the universe. And it was simply that- his opinion that they were all wrong and the only explanation that Davies can contrive is that the universe was designed. Whether or not this is true, it is negative evidence. That is, if there is no available satisfactory hypothesis, then his pet idea must be so. And that’s the problem: it’s a ‘just so’ story. Davies has no evidence in support of an Ultimate Designer other than his ‘I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-butter’ attitude. That we do not have a satisfactory explanation for the origin of the universe can only lead to one conclusion about it. Not to where Davies goes, but to the following: We don’t know. That’s as far as you can go. This is not a dichotomy. We do not have two and only two possible explanations here. There may (and assuredly is) a naturalistic explanation waiting to be found. But without any solid evidence pointing to the mechanism of the origin of the universe, one can say nothing about it at all.

Yet again Bertrand Russell had something to say on the matter of believing something on the basis of negative evidence:

‘If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.’

The same problem exists for the teleological arguments. How did the universe come to be so fine-tuned for life? There is a built-in misconception here: If what originated the universe was not a random juggling of parameters it must have been designed. The problem with this is that not all natural processes are random. In fact, the vast majority are not. Even those which appear to be random have underlying non-randomness. Early in his illustrious career Einstein gave a mathematical description of Brownian motion, which on the face of it appears quite random. Just particles bumping into other particles and changing the trajectory of bacteria and other small flotsam, but it follows very nonrandom principles. Natural selection is by its very nature nonrandom. Gravity has direction. Light propagates by taking the path of least resistance. Why does a naturalistic explanation have to be one based on randomness? The answer is there is no reason other than some people’s confusion of ‘blind process’ with ‘random’.

My second issue to the question of why the universe is fine-tuned for life is, ‘Is it?’ The universe is, on the whole, actually quite hostile to life. It can be difficult to see this, since we live on a planet which has become a safe haven of sorts for humans and similar life forms. But the early Earth bore no resemblance to today’s version. It was barren of atmosphere containing oxygen, ultraviolet radiation destroyed complex molecules as quickly as they formed, comets and meteorites rained down on the surface placing early life in constant peril. The vast majority of the volume of space is not at all hospitable to life.

That there are such safe havens in a non-homogeneous universe is no surprise. Local order is quite possible even with the specter of Thermodynamics’ Second Law hanging about. Which brings me to my third issue with the fine-tuning argument: The question itself is backwards. Life originated after the universe formed, not before. Thus it is life itself which became fine-tuned to this universe. We do not know what other possible universes life could sprout (if any), since we only know about this one. Who knows what the possibilities are?

I’m reminded of Douglas Adams’ ‘Puddle Thinking’ in the Eulogy read by Richard Dawkins at his funeral:

‘. . . imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.’

The simple answer is that we do not know enough about the origin of the universe to state what the origin is. A disappointing answer I know, but anything else is premature curiosity satisfaction. In essence, Davies falls into the same ego trap Newton did: can’t figure it out, must be God. God is once again born of our ignorance. How banal. The truth, when we find it, will be far more interesting.

There are many other arguments for the existence of God, each of which comes in a variety of flavors. But they all have one thing in common: their utter lack of convincing power (especially to an empiricist). Mathematician John Allen Paulos recently wrote a book on the subject called Irreligion. It’s physically small and disappears in its place between The God Delusion and God is Not Great. But its small size is deceiving and Paulos quickly gets to the heart of why each of the major philosophical arguments is fatally flawed without getting bogged down in philosophical jargon. For those that wish to get into the nuts-and-bolts reasons why every possible philosophical argument is really mere sophistry, I suggest Nicholas Everitt’s The Non-existence of God.

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2 Comments

  1. – their utter lack of unconvincing power (especially to an empiricist).

    I would take it then that you meant lack of convincing power but regardless as an empiricist you acknowledge there are vast areas where you “do not know” or can’t know because of empiricist demand that it be empirical before you accept it. This is a self limiting box you have for yourself so there is no wonder that you find apologetic argumentation so easily refutable.
    I sense that the confirmation bias for you is so empirical as to keep out any idea that God loves you and gave you your creative mind as the “image of God.” For you to be correct in your non-existence of God is to make some changes to the world I view. Now I know that you are locked into your empiricist box and yet I would suspect you don’t think anything wrong with this or see the limitation but try to entertain what your world view would mean if a globally accepted absolute regarding the existence of God.

    It would mean that the Moral argumentation for God is refuted to mean there are no morals unless subjective morals. And you know that subjective morals are about as good as no morals at all. So while mankind is drying up in the pond so Divinely shaped for us to fit in we are free from any morals we don’t accept. All the world under a subjective context of any meaning to life. You have to make your own meaning as there are no unalienable rights endowed to you by a Creator. This subjective context robs God from up in the heavens and makes us all gods of our own solipsist objectives. He who has the gun to your head is now one among your now earthly gods commanding you to obey. No God in heaven means no ultimate justice for crimes you or I commit and then take to the grave. One effect of this godless reality would be for people like Stalin or a mall shooter to take the power of life in there own hands and then kill so that you can kill yourself in a blaze of glory. No worries about death because you escape justice once you are dead.
    Note that this is not an argument for God but rather a human nature reality once all notion of God has been removed from the public. Morally unhinged and volitionally unzippeperd we can all demand as much for ourselves and not care for others unless you place a subjective value on such things. All the world full of subjective petty gods all affirming there subjective ideal of what a godless society should be.
    This godless society would have an entropic effect. Why be good if you have no justice even after death? Why follow any subjective rules set by others if there is not God and moral authority to tie moral absolutes to.

    This is the atheist confirmation bias. The idea that once free from any idea of being judged for what you do in life does have a liberating appeal. You can also see the entropic danger.

    Not every one understands science or the limiting empiricist confines of what is demanded as sufficient evidence for God. Many find meaning and significants only because there is a religious context to attract one to follow God’s commandment to love everyone as you love yourself.

    As an empiricist you may not understand how social entropy will tear apart society that has no reason and purpose to there life other than some subjective opinion. Without God I don’t believe that we could have survived as long as we have. But since we have not made our-selfs extinct yet that does not mean that we will not have started to foul up our own nest.

    Yet the moral dilemma of what a godless society would mean is again not the interest of an empiricist atheist who does not care what there fellow humans might think or need to counter social entropy. Free from God is just another way to open up the broad highway to hell on earth.

  2. “I would take it then that you meant lack of convincing power but regardless as an empiricist you acknowledge there are vast areas where you “do not know” or can’t know because of empiricist demand that it be empirical before you accept it.” Absolutely. And as such, it is unknowable, therefor moot. That which can be understood by naturalistic means in all likelihood will be. The rest (if it even exists) will not be able to interact with anything in the universe and therefor may as well not exist.

    I mean, seriously – how on Earth are you able to just accept that which is indistinguishable from made-up nonsense? It is untestable and unverifiable. So is the existence of pink unicorns on Pluto, yet I think (at least I hope) that we would both reject such a notion because of the paucity of evidence in support. This is how people begin believing all sorts of nonsense: the existence of UFOs, chiropractic does more good beyond a massage, Q-Ray bracelets produce ‘results’ (whatever that means).

    Retreating to ‘revealed knowledge’ gets you no further, since such ‘knowledge’ can not be verified as being revealed nor can its source as god be confirmed. Without evidence in support you can have no confidence in ‘revealed knowledge’ as being knowledge at all. You either accept it or don’t. Since there is nothing compelling for me to accept it (and ample evidence from naturalism exists to refute it – see Vic Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis for just one of many analyses of the best available evidence), I do not. There’s open mindedness and then there is being so open minded as to have one’s brain spill out onto the floor.

    Do I demand evidence? Yes. Do I apologize for it? Not now, not previously and not ever in the future. All of what you said can be placed in one of two bins. This is the first bin: Special Pleading.

    On to the second bin, no more convincing than the first – Begging the question. You assert that religion is necessary to be moral without having first answered the question of whether it does.

    It’s hogwash, of course, and I have demonstrated why in another blog entry: The Source of My Disbelief – Religion is NOT a Moral Compass. While absolute morality is nonsense (I can come up with so many counter examples as to make the notion absurd), that does not mean it must be or is then subjective or relative. This is a false dichotomy arrived at by the misguided belief that morality is objective, that we actually consciously come to moral decisions. We most definitely do not, as empiricism yet again demonstrates (see Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good & Evil or Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds for an overview on the science of moral behavior).

    I deal with this argument in the blog entry linked to above, so I will not go over it in detail here. Suffice it to say morality continually changes both in time and with culture. Absolute morality, even with respect to something as extreme as the definition of ‘murder’, has changed significantly throughout history.

    The machinery required for moral calculus is innate, and moral boundaries are set mainly by culture. The concept of loving your neighbor as you would yourself does not have its source in god or religion. It was a codification of the principle of reciprocity – an evolutionary behavioral trait. Such traits evolved in order to better grease the wheels of living in tribes. We have ample empirical evidence for this from anthropology and primatology, and see this in many other social mammalian species as well.

    Your argument is predicated on the usefulness of religion, not on its veracity. I reject even its usefulness. Your concept of ‘social entropy’ is simply wrong. If this were true, why is it that atheists/agnostics represent about 15% of the population of the US yet only about 0.1% of penal populations? Why does the US, unarguably the most religious of western nations, have the highest rates of violent crime? Spousal abuse? Teen pregnancy? Teen STD transmission? Why are the happiest societies on the planet the least religious? Why is it that the more religious one is the more likely they are to accept torture as an intelligence gathering tool, rather reminiscent of the Inquisition?

    These are all known from empirical studies refuting this ‘social entropy’ effect you espouse. I’ll take empiricism over mere opinion every time, yet to solve the above problems (which I would argue are inevitably generated in an overly religious society) the religious will tell us that the solution is more religion. Yeek! If there is a road to damnation, that is it.

    PS I care a great deal about my fellow humans. Being an empiricist does not preclude also being a humanist (in particular, a secular humanist). I find that insinuation disturbing, but I will chalk it up to a dose ignorance and sprinkled with a bit of prejudice as to who atheists are and what they stand for. I’ll leave you with a quote from Nobel laureate Stephen Weinberg which I whole-heartedly agree with:

    Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.


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