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:
- Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be contained in the idea of something is true of that thing.
- I clearly and distinctly perceive that necessary existence is contained in the idea of God.
- 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:
- An actual infinite cannot exist.
- A beginningless series of events is an actual infinite.
- 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:
- Everything that happens has a cause.
- At one point, something came from nothing, the universe came into existence.
- The universe must have had a cause.
- 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.