Not surprisingly, many believers think there are convincing “proofs” of the existence of god. These are almost without exception versions of arguments that have been advanced by theologians and philosophers for at least 2000 years.
It is unlikely that even religious believers are actually convinced by these arguments. They are much more influenced by moral arguments (to be dealt with in my next post), and other considerations having to do with the “feel good” side of religion. But this doesn’t stop religious theologians, philosophers and ordinary believers from trotting them out as though they are unassailable. My object here is to show that far from being unassailable, most (if not all) simply beg the question they are trying to prove (namely, the existence of god).
First, there are many versions of the “there must be a designer” argument – common to anyone who has looked at or thought about the “god question”.
If you are convinced by this, chances are you think Darwinian evolution is baloney. Because Darwinians clearly think that the evolutionary process can give rise to things that look like they have been “designed”, but that have in fact developed through the workings of a completely mechanistic, undirected biological process without any input whatsoever from a “designer”.
Darwinian theory is usually ridiculously over-simplified by its critics who seem to lack a grasp of the complexity and diversity of nature, and, in particular, of the vast stretches of time we are talking about. Many go further and simply deny archeological evidence – for instance by arguing that the universe is really only about 6000 years old – in their zeal to prop up their belief in the literal truth of the Bible. It is hard to find a better example of believing something for the wrong reasons.
In any case, most Christian and Jewish theologians I am aware of (I don’t know about Moslems, Buddhists or Hindus) have come to accept some form of evolutionary theory, but still have a soft spot for the idea of design.
These days it usually takes a subtler form – not so focused on the “intelligent design” of eyes, brains, fingers and beaks – but more on the way the universe itself is structured around certain fundamental “constants” that if they were even the tiniest bit altered would be completely different, and certainly would never have given rise to human life.
This is what we might call the “Infinitely-Tiny-Chance-that-the-universe-should-be-the-way-it-is,” or the ITC ( for Infinitely Tiny Chance). Personally I find the ITC like saying that there was an infinitely tiny chance that Willie Mays should have made his famous catch in centre field. Which suggests that either it was predetermined to happen by a totally predetermined string of events, or it didn’t actually happen the way it appears.
But of course it did happen. We have the film to prove it. Like all events, before it actually happened it was totally unlikely to happen as it did. After it happened the mystery of its totally unlikely occurrence is gone.
Think of the variables involved and the confluence of factors that had to come together for that catch to be successful. But surely, everything that happens or exists, involves an infinitely unlikely string of variables. And yet specific things happen.
The apparent conclusion is that the universe wasn’t created (or evolved) to accommodate creatures like us. It was we who have evolved to fit into this particular universe, because we are intimately attuned to its variables.
First Causes and Prime Movers
There are also arguments from “First Cause” or “Prime Mover”, usually boiling down to the claim (or assumption) that the universe could not have caused itself, or gotten itself going, or could not possibly have existed for all eternity.
The claim is that there must have been something that caused the universe – something which by its very nature did not require a cause – an “uncaused first cause”. And that something the proponents of this argument agree to call “god”.
The most obvious problem with this argument is that it simply substitutes an uncaused universe with an uncaused god. As the 6-year old might say when hearing this standard explanation: “So where did god come from?” This isn’t nearly as foolish a question as most religious people seem to think. Of course they will say “god has no cause. He/she/it just is.” But that begs the question. We were trying to prove god’s existence, and this argument does it by assuming it.
This argument also assumes a fairly naive view of causality. It is generally conceded that in the pre Big Bang period none of our current assumptions about natural laws could be assumed to have held. In particular, there could have been no space and no time. These things effectively came into existence in the first few nanoseconds after the Big Bang.
Who then can say that something could not have emerged from nothing? What does the term “nothing” even mean in this context? Even the attempt to understand things like quantum physics, Einsteinian relativity and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle should give us pause before assuming that simple classical causality is quite as straightforward as we might have thought.
In fact, in his book A Universe from Nothing, physicist Lawrence M. Krauss argues that given what we now seem to know about the universe it is entirely possible that something might have emerged from “nothing”. Watch the linked video and pay special attention to minute 46 and following, where Krauss discusses the way religious theologians and philosophers equivocate on the definition of “nothing”. As usual this equivocation boils down to simply defining “nothing” so that only god can make something from it – once again, begging the question about the purported role of god.
Defining God to Include Existence
The third variant of the god proof defines “god” so that his/her/its existence is tied up in the very concept of god. This is the theological equivalent of pulling a rabbit (god) out of a hat. As St. Anselm famously said more than a thousand years ago, because god is supremely great he must exist, since existing is greater than non-existing.
If this sounds like medieval nonsense to you there are modern versions of this argument that boil down to saying something similar. For instance, since many religious believers find it difficult to conceive of a universe without a “spiritual” core – whether you call it a life force, a universal consciousness, or even just the force of nature – that thing at the heart of all other things they agree to call “god”.
I think we are safe in saying that most people are not convinced by the classic ontological argument – the St. Anselmian argument. It just seems too question-begging – too simple – that we could define god in such a way that – abricadabra – god must exist.
The modern version of the argument is not quite so easy to dismiss. We might call it the “Sense of Universal Consciousness” (SUC) argument (a variant of the “religious experience” arguments discussed in my previous posts). Many of us are seduced by the beauty and mystery of life to assume “there must be something more”. We sense it and are moved to be in awe of it, even if we cannot be sure exactly what it is. As I suggested above, this takes us into the realm of “religious experience” dealt with in the two previous posts. There I argued that the skeptic’s response to this appeal to religious experience is that if it is worth paying attention to, then it can be examined in the same way that any other experience can be examined. Ergo, it is very unlikely that it can be used to prove anything supernatural or metaphysical.
Even if you think the SUC has wheels, this kind of argument doesn’t give the believer what he or she often thinks it does. As Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying, even if we agree that such a god-force must exist, the believer “has all his work ahead of him”. He has to somehow demonstrate that such an abstract god has the specific characteristics of Yahweh, Allah, Zeus, Thor or Poseidon. In other words, belief in an abstract god/life force cannot serve as a basis for belief in any specific god touted by any specific religion.
Next Up – the Argument from Moral Relativism
In my next post I will look at the very popular claim that without the existence of God there is no basis for “objective” morality – that we are thrown into an inescapable morass of moral relativism – that without god there is no right or wrong.