How many times have we seen this argument on the internet? Those that use this argument are often frustrated because they think that those they are trying to convince don’t get it. The problem is, we get it just fine – we know that it is a bad argument. And that’s why those of us that don’t accept this as an argument are ourselves frustrated with it.
The argument usually goes like this:
Question: How does one explain ‘X’?
Expected answer: I don’t know.
Conclusion: Then there must be a god.
It sounds ridiculous when written that way, yet that is pretty much the typical usage.
What do people who make use of this argument use as ‘X’? Anything they perceive (and are often wrong) that Science has yet to explain. ‘X’ can be the origin of life (abiogenesis), development of moral behavior, the origin of the universe, etc. ‘X’ can even be an illusion, like ‘X’ = the fine-tuning of the universe to support life. But it is life that was shaped to the universe it found itself in. Those that claim that the universe is somehow life-friendly haven’t yet heard of the ways in which the universe is trying its hardest to kill us! It’s nothing personal – it’s just that the universes is anything buyt hospitable to life as we know it.
The argument has several fatal flaws and I will deal with each in turn.
Failure on the basis of its spurious nature
This whole argument is spurious. It starts from a knowledge of uncertainty and ignorance (the “I-don’t-know” part) about the origin of ‘X’. Instead of stopping there, as we should if we are truly lacking in knowledge as to the origin of ‘X’, proponents of this argument move to a position of false certainty (“I-don’t-know-so-it-must-be-god.”). The problem with this move is that in general we are not within a true dichotomy – it is not an either/or proposition. There could be many possible naturalistic explanations for the origin of ‘X’, or one which we have not yet conceived.
Even hundreds of years ago the source of lightning was mysterious. Many people thought, through their ignorance, that it must be a demonstration of the anger of gods. But we now know that lightning is an electrical discharge across a very large spark gap of a static charge built up by friction. The logic of the modern day usage of this argument is no less spurious and is only apparent to the user when such an example is given to them. But many are blind to the spurious nature of this argument. They think that because the origin of ‘X’ is unknown that this time the argument is valid.
Nonsense. It’s no more valid now than it was when we thought Neptune was causing storms at sea. What should be the difference between then and now is that such an argument is unacceptable to a technological society. Wishful thinking, I suppose.
Failure on the basis of a priori knowledge
Often the proponent of this argument is ignorant that explanations for ‘X’ already exist. Each of the three examples I gave above already have at least the framework for working explanations. Abiogenesis is an active area of research on a very difficult problem. Even so, Jack Szostak is tantalizingly close to creating the first protolife. The framework for how life could have arisen (not necessarily exactly how it did arise – note the distinction) is already there. There are those detractors which will hedge their argument by saying that Szostak and others are creating the life in the lab and are acting in lieu of a ‘designer’, but this is bunk. It would be impossible to replicate what happened in nature (and I have no doubt that it did) over millions of years in a lab. Certainly, no research funds would ever be granted for such a ridiculous experiment. The researcher speeds things up in a controlled environment. The real question is whether the conditions in nature could have replicated what is seen in the lab. The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. There is nothing special the researcher is doing that could not have occurred naturally. Thus the hypotheses that abiogenesis researchers are working upon are consistent with what would have been possible some 3.6 billion years ago.
For C.S. Lewis, his inability to explain the existence of morality caused him to become a Christian (why a Christian and not a Jain? or a Muslim? I have no idea…). In other words, he was a sucker for this bad argument. The study of the development of morality is another science in its infancy, yet it has already produced some very good hypotheses. We can see the progression of protomoral behavior as the time at which the last common ancestor we have had other mammals moves forward in time. That is, there are some behaviors of social mammals like rats which we can describe as moral and as we move forward in time to chimpanzees we can see almost all of the same behaviors. See Franz deWaal’s Your Inner Ape for a really good lay discussion of the subject.
Failure on the basis of induction
I know the problem of induction has been (at least to this point) insoluble. David Hume gleefully brought it up 300 years ago and it has been the bane of Science ever since. But I don’t have a problem with induction. If you drop something repeatedly, every time you will see it move in a downward motion to the ground in a way described very well by Newton. Such observation, experiment and repetition allows us to build models of how phenomena occur. This in turn allows us to make testable hypotheses built upon this model which can then be tested by further experiment. Science is a wonderfully self-correcting system of rigorous knowledge gathering and model building. It hasn’t failed yet. I consider this ‘good induction’. When induction does become a problem, I’ll worry about it then. To this point, however, it hasn’t been any sort of problem and if it had, there are no good alternatives. Gnosticism or revelation are bunk. How can one verify that knowledge from these forms of epistemology are indeed knowledge at all? The answer is that you can’t. It is impossible to tell the difference between what was revealed in Revelations from the rantings of a mad man. Since revelation requires a more complicated hypothesis, parsimony strongly suggests the latter.
The origin of the universe is indeed a mystery. Quantum mechanics deals with the small and light extremely well (perhaps the most accurately predicting theory we have) and Relativity handles the large and massive. But try as we might, we have not yet been able to marry the two without the results becoming complete garbage. What does it mean for a probability to become infinite? This is one of many nonsensical answers that such a melding supplies when applied to the small and massive. Our current mathematics can only take us back to the Plank epoch, about 10-43 s after the Big Bang occurred. At this point Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are both needed and the whole model breaks down.
So we don’t know what happened to cause the inflation of the universe into what we see today. And that’s all the Big Bang theory is – a model for the inflation of the universe, not its origin. We don’t know what the origin of the universe is, or even if it had an origin. This is something people like William Lane Craig don’t seem to understand. They don’t get the physics right to begin with. Craig uses the Kalam Cosmological Argument like a light-sabre, but it’s one without a power cell. The first part of the argument is a premise that no actual infinite can exist. As far as I can tell, the only argument that is given for this is that Craig himself can’t get his head around infinity. There is nothing in physics which suggests that an infinite can not exist. And this is the only source that matters. I find Craig rather egotistical in thinking he can dictate how nature should be without bothering to check his conclusions with reality.
In The Non-existence of God, Nicholas Everitt writes
It is true that a number of writers have tried to show that there is something vicious in the idea of an infinite regress, focusing more on a regression of past times rather than a regress of past causes. But typically their remarks wrongly assume that innocuous consequences of the concept are somehow logically vicious. [Emphasis mine.]
That says it all. Just because a philosopher is unable to get his mind around the concept of infinity is no reason to reject it. The fault lies with the philosopher, not nature. Everitt then zeros in Craig’s arguments and demolishes them in a fashion too detailed to go into here (but I do recommend it to those interested). Besides, it is not central to the discussion at hand.
Nor does the argument logically lead to god even if I grant the remainder of the points. It just leads to a ’cause’ without giving any insight whatsoever as to the nature of the cause. You can equally get to ‘mashed potatoes’ as a cause. The argument is simply trivial, even in the absence of its fatal flaws.
I personally do think that even though the origin of the cosmos has been intractable that there is no reason to think that it will always be so. This is the third failure of the argument “How do you explain ‘X’ without god?” – it suffers from a bad application of induction. If there is one thing Science has done, it has shown that such an application of inductive reasoning is dead wrong. It’s history of explaining phenomena is unparalleled by any other methodology and there is no reason to think that this success will end. This is a good application of induction. It may be wrong, but the odds are with its continuing success. Implying that since we do not know the origin of ‘X’ we will never know is a bad application of induction. Why? Because Science has a history of doing the exact opposite.
The reader might claim that I have a lot of faith in the continued success of naturalism, but I have good historical reasons in which to base it. Just as we explained lightning on the basis of naturalism through observation and experimentation, in effect rejecting the ignorance that supernatural ‘explanations’ (if one could ever call the supernatural an explanation at all – I strongly dispute this) represents, there is no sign that naturalism is at an end. If anything, naturalism is accelerating our explanation of naturally-occurring phenomena. And I would put it to the reader that the describing phenomena as ‘naturally-occurring’ is superfluous.
Aside from the historical basis for my faith in our being one day able to understand just what caused the inflation of the universe, I also secure in the knowledge that we have a number of avenues of scientific exploration that are actively (nay, rigorously) being pursued. Many theoretical physicists are making progress towards combining Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. This will create a framework from which we can move the limits of our understanding to perhaps even the point of expansion. String Theory is another promising field which will have a good deal to say on how we model the universe, or even universes. And I think my optimism is well-founded, if based on induction. I have a hard time believing that this will not produce a great deal of insight into the actual cause of the expansion, one not deeply-rooted mere philosophy. One thing the cosmos has taught us is that the universe is far weirder than anything our minds can dream up about it.
Where does this nonsensical argument itself originate?
From two places: our irrational nature and our (almost pathological) need to know. We have to be honest with ourselves as a species – we are simply not rational most of the time. Are emotions rational? Is our belief in the supernatural rational? No. We have to fight tooth-and-claw to change our behavior and we do so by creating a protocol for rational thought. It is not at all instinctual to be rational. For instance, the fight-or-flight response is not rational, but if you have to think rationally to choose which one is the most appropriate action it is quite probably that you would already be dead. That’s a pretty strong evolutionary pressure to not be rational.
This is not to say that we can not be rational some of the time. We can be. The brain is a complicated thing and there are many competing pathways from which it concludes which is the best coarse of action. Because of this, I think most of the time our thinking is spent in limbo somewhere between rational and irrational. I agree with Bill Maher on his stance towards religion. I also think his stance towards vaccination is ridiculous and harmful. The science that I use to anchor my thought strongly suggests that vaccination for measles, etc. works and does not lead to Alzheimer’s or autism.
So we are not rational most of the time. Is this pessimistic? No. It is realistic. Recognition that we are far more irrational than rational leads to ways to be more rational. Divesting oneself of dogmatic principles is the key. It’s work. Hard work. No one likes hard work, but we have a responsibility, each and every one of us, to do it. That’s not to say that we should be rational in all areas of our lives. Some forms of irrationality we find quite enjoyable, such as love and romance.
This recognition of irrationality leads me to the second point, that we have a pathological need to know why something happens. In the absence of evidence-based knowledge we tend to leap to irrational reasons like the supernatural. This is something that Daniel Dennett calls ‘premature curiosity satisfaction.’ Everybody does it. The key to fighting this is to ask oneself whether there is any good reason to draw that conclusion.
And therein lies the rub. Humans despise not knowing answers. This hatred of not understanding something is so deep-seated that it is often very difficult to recognize. It goes to the very core of our being. We see the admission that we do not know something as a failing in ourselves. But with this realization comes our salvation – that there is nothing wrong with not knowing how and why something happens. When we do not know something, we should proudly proclaim “I don’t know!” Say it to yourself in a mirror if you think that will help. Logically, the real shame should come not from “I don’t know” at all but from when the false explanation is added. But that would be rational when we are in essence irrational beings. A deeper look at “I don’t know” followed by “therefor god” quite clearly shows that the latter is simply a restatement of the former. It is no explanation at all since it does not give us any insight into how a god caused the origin of ‘X’. In essence, “god did it” is epistomologically empty. “I don’t know” is intellectually honest, whereas “therefor god is the cause” is not.