Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sagan's Dragon, Russell's Teapot, and God's Existence

What would you think if someone claimed that an invisible dragon lived in his garage? What about someone who claimed that an invisible teapot orbited somewhere between Earth and Mars?

The following are two great analogies, one about invisible dragons, and the other about an orbiting teapot, that I often think about when people make remarkable claims without any evidence.

The first is "Carl Sagan's Dragon" analogy, from his book The Demon-Haunted World, in which he imagines himself having a conversation with the reader following his remarkable announcement that a fire-breathing dragon lives in his garage:

"Show me," you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle - but no dragon.
"Where's the dragon?" you ask.
"Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely. "I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon."
You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.
"Good idea," I say, "but this dragon floats in the air."
Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.
"Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless."
You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.
"Good idea, except she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint  won't stick." 

And here is Bertrand Russell's "Orbiting Teapot" analogy:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of the skeptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in a elliptical orbit, no one 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 would be intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

What are we to make of such arguments?

1. The fact that we cannot disprove the invisible dragon and orbiting teapot, does not mean that it's reasonable to think they exist. To say, "Well, you can't show me any evidence that it DOESN'T exist," is not a convincing argument that it does. Remember, it's impossible to disprove nonexistent things include Loch Ness Monsters, fairies, and invisible pink unicorns. But that is no reason to suppose they exist.

2. The fact that we cannot disprove the invisible dragon or orbiting teapot, does NOT make it UNREASONABLE to believe that they DON'T exist. It is reasonable to measure out belief according to the level of evidence.

3. Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, makes the point that even though we cannot disprove Russell's orbiting teapot (or Sagan's dragon), this does not make their existence and nonexistence equiprobable. Or in other words, it's unreasonable to think there's a 50:50 chance of invisible dragons existing. The probability of such a dragon or teapot existing is much, much less than the probability that they do exist.

4. Finally, Bertrand Russell makes a crucial point: The onus is on the claimant to support their claim with good evidence. William Kingdon Clifford made the point (perhaps a bit too strongly) that "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." Perhaps Clifford used too many superlatives, but the point is that we should have good evidence for what we purport to be true. In these examples, the initial assumption, or null hypothesis, is that the dragon or teapot do NOT exist. In order to disprove the null hypothesis (that invisible dragons and teapots don't exist), evidence needs to be found to support the notion that they DO exist. Without such evidence, we fall back to where we started: with no reason to suppose an invisible dragon exists or that a teapot is orbiting somewhere between Earth and Mars.

The relevance of these analogies to God's existence is not difficult to figure out. However, some will argue that the analog is not a good one. Belief in God, they say, is not like belief in invisible dragons or orbiting teapots since God created the universe, God gives life purpose and meaning, God is responsible for morality, or that life without belief in God is painful and pointless.

However, these justifications are not evidences for God at all. Saying that I really, really, really need to believe in God - for whatever reason - is not evidence, but merely opinion; sincere opinion to be sure, but misguided opinion since many many people find purpose and value in life, rational explanations for the universe's origins, and reasons to live moral and fulfilling lives without God (even though they might at one time really believed that it was impossible not to). These are simply assumptions, and that which is freely assumed can be freely denied.

In summary, the God hypothesis, to be considered a viable hypothesis, needs evidence to support it. God is just as invisible as both the dragon and teapot, nobody has seen God (at least there has been no sightings that can be verified for accuracy), we never hear from him, we can never touch him as it is written the Doubting Thomas did, nor can we observe anything God has made that cannot also be explained in natural ways more parsimoniously.

It is either as Nietzsche wrote that "God is dead," or else he was never around to begin with, but is just an invention of the human mind. Either way, we are alone on his pale blue dot; orbiting a medium size Sun; in just one of billions of galaxies; with nobody except for ourselves, our families, our communities, and other human beings to take care of ourselves.

And that's just fine with me. 

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Religious Explanations of Evil (Theodicies)

In my last post I discussed the "Problem of Evil." The existence of evil is a serious challenge to the God hypothesis, which claims that an all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing God designed the world we inhabit. However, this world has an incredible amount of evil (both natural and human-caused) worked into its design. Evil causes an incredible amount of suffering for all sentient life on earth. So the question believers struggle with is: "Why would God design the world in this way?" Theodicies are attempts by theologians to answer this very question. So, do their answers get God off the hook? I'll examine some of their theodicies in this post.

Some of the attempts to justify evil, that I feel are very weak (and others might too because they are not very popular) are the following:

1. There is no such thing as evil, so God is off the hook. What we think is evil simply doesn't exist. Events in this world are, as Voltaire's Pangloss says in Candide, "all for the best in the best of all possible worlds." Because this world, created by God, is the best of all possible worlds, then evil cannot exist in it. If it did, then it would NOT be the best of all possible worlds. Human understanding is limited; what we might think is evil, actually isn't.

This idea is ridiculous on the face of it if you have EVER watched the 6 o'clock evening news, or looked at ANY "Year in Review." Here's a photo review of 2011.  If someone can still say evil doesn't exist after looking at this (be sure to see all three parts), then maybe it would be better if there really was a hell for that person to rot in.

2. Evil is a matter of logical necessity, and hence evil is nobodies fault. Just as there is no such thing as a mountain without a corresponding valley, there is no such thing as good if there were no such thing as evil. Evil and good are simply polar opposites that exist out of necessity. Therefore, nobody is at fault.

However, are good and evil really as opposite as mountains and valleys, or black and white? Why couldn't God have designed an all good world, or at least a world without so much contrast in how people experience gratuitous amounts of evil?  And more to the point, if God is off the hook for designing a world with evil because evil is a logical necessity, then humans can't be held responsible either for acts of evil. If this were true, then nobody (God or humans) is responsible for their actions. But that excuse doesn't sit well at all with the idea of free will, moral responsibility, and eternal judgement.

3. Evil does not come from God, so it's not his fault. Evil comes from Satan, or from humans who are tempted by Satan and his minions, or because Adam and Eve ate the fruit. Therefore God is off the hook. However, in LDS theology, God is the father of Satan and his fallen angels. If God was all knowing, then He knew that Satan would fall, and the misery he would cause on the world, and allowed it all to unfold anyway. It's similar to someone letting their child have a play date at the house of a known child molester. If that child was subsequently molested, would anybody seriously maintain that the irresponsible parent is not at fault? Therefore, despite the attempt to blame the devil, the buck still stops with God for creating a world where Satan is free to roam.

Here's a justification (which is very popular) that seems to be a bit more sensible than the previous theodicies. Therefore it will take a bit more space to evaluate:

4. Evil is necessary to achieve some greater purpose. Therefore, evil can be traced back to God, but there is a good reason for it.

Perhaps evil serves to humble people so that they will believe in God. This just seems a bit manipulative and cruel. Why wouldn't God just give us better evidence of his existence instead of inflicting pain on us?

Perhaps, evil occurs so that people can be held accountable for their actions, and punished severely by God. This is the explanation given in the Book of Mormon for why Alma and Amulek couldn't use God's power to stop those wicked people of Ammonihah as they were burning women and children alive. God stopped Alma from saving innocent people so that God could punish the wicked people of Ammonihah (who were later slaughtered by Lamanites). Even in my most faithful of days, I was always uncomfortable with that justification.

Perhaps evil occurs so that we might be purified and improved by it. This is the analogy that C.S. Lewis uses when he  compares us to a block of granite that is being chiseled and molded by the masters hand into a beautiful sculpture. Another popular analogy is that of raw metals being refined and purified through the application of heat. This idea works well for analogies (diamonds are another one that comes to mind) but does it work with people? Do people become better when we torture or hurt them? If that logic were true, then why wouldn't I be justified for causing evil on others willfully? If I decided to start shooting people in the knee caps, and was later arrested for my crime, what would a judge think if I told them I was simply capping people's knees so that they would have trials in order to turn them towards God? I'd say that 20 to 30 years without parole would be appropriate. But why is God let off the hook for designing a world in which evil purposefully (or randomly) inflicts pain and suffering on people in order to purify them?

Perhaps, as philosopher John Hick argues, this life is a process of "soul-making." If we did not experience evil in the world, or the choice between good and evil, then we could not develop God-like virtues. This is particularly popular in the LDS world, since a core idea of LDS theology is that we are here on earth to be tested and tried. If we are found worthy, then we can continue our eternal progression in the afterlife in becoming a God or Goddess. The idea that we grow as we are challenged has merit because as we rise to life's challenges, we can develop virtues like bravery, hard-work, humility, patience, etc, etc. But why the gratuitous level of evil inflicted on people in Africa, the Middle East, Haiti, and North Korea? Why do they suffer so much more evil than the average middle-class suburbanite here in the US? And what about those who are killed in the process? Sometimes evil kills people (many times actually). Does this help anyone? How about the natural evil that kills millions irrespective of free-will or choice? Does being swallowed up by a tsunami help anyone? Does dying in childbirth help anyone? Does suffering starvation in the Horn of Africa enlarge anybodies soul?

Finally, what about the free-will theodicy? According to the free-will theodicy, evil exists because people couldn't choose to do good unless they were also free to choose evil. The potential for evil is therefore necessary in a world that is has maximal good in it. If we couldn't choose between good and evil, the alternative is that we would be robots who were forced to choose good (Satan's plan in LDS theology). The opportunity to choose evil is real only if people sometimes do choose evil. There can be no highest good without freedom, and freedom can't exist unless we can also choose evil.

I see two problems with the free-will theodicy. First, the people who suffer at the hands of those who exercise their "free-will" are usually innocent. One of the strongest replies to the free-will theodicy comes from Fyodor Dostoevsky's book "The Brothers Karamazov" where the irreligious Ivan Karamazov has a discussion with his brother Alyosha (who is about to become a monk) about why God would allow innocent children to suffer. Ivan recounts a story about a little girl who is abused, beat, and tortured by her parents until “her whole body was nothing but bruises”. The child, a five-year old, has a bathroom accident in the middle of the night, so her cruel parents make her eat her own excrement, smear it in her face, and then lock her in the outhouse in the cold Russian night. Ivan then says “Can you understand what a small creature, who cannot even comprehend what is being done to her, in a vile place, in the dark and cold, beats herself on her strained little chest with her tiny fist and weeps with her anguished, gentle, meek tears for ‘dear God’ to protect her - can you understand . . . why this nonsense is needed and created? Without it, they say, man could not even have lived on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Who wants to know this damned good and evil at such as price? The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to ‘dear God.’”  If suffering is the ticket needed by God for our salvation, Ivan says he would “most respectfully return him the ticket.” To this blasphemy, Alyosha accuses Ivan of rebellion against God. 

Ivan’s reply to this accusation is to ask Alyosha to “imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fists . . . would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?” To which Alyosha answers softly “No, I would not agree.” 

But the real destroyer of the free-will defense is the fact that much suffering, if not most, has nothing to do with people exercising their free-agency. It simply ignores the fact that natural evil (suffering caused by disease, birth-defects, natural disasters) have nothing to do with people exercising their freedom of choice. Also ignored, is the fact that sentient animals (who feel pain and fear just as much as humans do) experience an incredible amount of suffering and pain. For sentient animals, including our closest evolutionary relatives such as chimpanzees, this evil serves no purpose at all. Animals do not have free will, they do not develop "souls" by choosing between good and evil, nor are they held accountable for eating each other alive, infanticide, or torture (such as the parasitic wasp that lays its eggs inside a paralyzed, but alive, caterpillar that dies only when the wasp larvae hatch and then eat it alive from the inside out.) 

Finally, it is not at all clear whether we have "free-will" to begin with. If everything in the universe operates deterministically, according to natural law, then why do we think that our choices are the only thing that operates free of the laws of determinism? Just because we feel free to choose, does not necessarily mean that we are. Just consider how much of our decisions hinge upon our environment (beyond our control) and genes (also beyond our control). If environment and genes influence our choices so heavily, then how can we be fully responsible for the "choices" we make? If our actions are beyond our control, then we should not be held fully responsible for them. This is why we hold children and the mentally ill to a lower standard when they commit a crime. They simply are not viewed as responsible as you or I. But if our own actions are determined largely by our environment and genes, then how responsible are we? Can God really hold us accountable if we don't actually have free-will? 

Therefore, none of the theodicies put forward by theologians completely resolves the "Problem of Evil." And since the problem of evil is not adequately justified by any theodicies, the atheist argument against God's existence still stands. God appears incapable of being simultaneously all-good, all-wise, and all-knowing. And, as I discussed previously, the God of ethical monotheism is the only God worthy of worship. However, if this God cannot exist, then whatever force, power, or being that might have made us (assuming it did) is not worthy of our worship or consideration. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Problem with Evil (If You Believe in God)

In the last few posts, I've talked about some of the main reasons theists will give as arguments for the existence of God. However, these arguments have major flaws, and therefore do not prove the existence of God. 

However, we haven't examined any atheist arguments AGAINST the existence of God. Can atheists prove the God of ethical monotheism doesn't exist? 

One of the most powerful arguments against God begins with the observation that the world is full of evil. By evil, I am referring to both natural evil (destructive natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, tornados, droughts, as well as disease, natural predator vs. prey relationships, birth defects, etc, etc) as well as human evil (suffering caused by war, rape, genocide, murder, abuse, slavery, torture, etc, etc). Both kinds of evil occur ubiquitously, indiscriminately, and gratuitously in a world supposedly designed by God. 

Now, if we start (as the theist does) with the idea that this world is designed, then the occurrence of evil is a huge problem for God. Why? Well, if the world is designed by a perfect God, then his designs should't have flaws in them. Flawed designs indicate flawed designers. If design flaws exist (and it's impossible to argue they don't), then God is not perfect. An all-perfect God would WANT to avoid introducing design flaws into his creation that would cause us pain, an all-knowing God would KNOW HOW to design a world that did not have such gratuitous suffering in it, and an all-powerful God would BE POWERFUL enough to design it. But, for some reason, there is a vast amount of human suffering and natural evil in the world that, according to theists, God designed. 

And remember from my previous post, that a non-perfect, less than all-knowing, less than all-powerful God does not deserve to be worshiped. Evil in the world appears to be a major flaw in a perfect God's design. Therefore, even if the world WAS designed by something, it does not deserve to be worshiped, and therefore doesn't deserve our concern, obedience, or admiration. Perhaps this designer was a powerful E.T. alien, or a novice God, or a God who was less than all-powerful, all-knowing, or all-good. Maybe it was an evil God who wants to hurt any sentient life that it creates. But it appears that whatever this designer was, it cannot be the all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing God of ethical monotheism worshiped by billions of people. 

If, on the other hand, we take a natural view of life, then the existence of evil (both natural and human) have purely natural explanations. The fact that evil has natural explanations does not excuse the naturalist from trying to ameliorate its effects if possible (and plenty of humanitarian work is done by secular humanists and atheists). However, the implications of evil's existence don't shake the worldview of the humanist, as it does the theists. We don't have to invent dubious explanations about why natural disasters occur, or why humans do bad things to eachother. We just accept the natural explanation, and do all we can to minimize the effects of evil in this world. 

The existence of evil is simply inconsistent with the idea of an all-loving, all-powerful, and all- knowing God who knew such suffering would occur, who could have prevented it if it wanted to, but chose not to.  Therefore, the God of ethical monotheism appears to be severely challenged (to the point of nonexistence) by this argument unless the theist has a good rebuttal.  

These rebuttals, called theodicies, will be evaluated in my next post.  

Saturday, December 31, 2011

I Don't Need Reasons To Believe in God: I've Experienced God

There are lots of other reasons people give for the existence of God besides the cosmological or teleological arguments. However, these two arguments (or variations of them, that I have covered in my last two posts) are the big ones that I wanted to address. I hope I've demonstrated that the arguments have major problems with them, and therefore do not constitute valid arguments for God's existence. But just because these arguments are not valid, does NOT mean I've convinced anybody that God doesn't exist. I may have knocked down two bad arguments for God's existence, but I haven't proved God's nonexistence.

What I'm getting at is the fact that people still believe in God without rational arguments to support that belief. That's why every argument for God's existence could be swatted down (and they have been by others besides myself), and still, belief would persist. It's naive for people to believe, as some "New Atheists" do, that belief in God will cease because we have disproved all theistic arguments. Belief in God will live on even if all rational arguments for God are dead.

So why does belief persist without evidence? There are many reasons for belief beyond reason: belief in God is natural for humans because of our human nature, belief is comforting and reassuring, belief helps us belong to social groups by reaffirming social bonds, belief helps us cope with tragedy or uncertainty, etc. The list of reasons is long. But notice that these reasons for belief have nothing to do with logic or rationality. They are emotional, psychological, and sociological reasons rather than rational and empirically based reasons. Evidence just isn't that necessary for belief.  Rather, the believers world is infused with meaning, purpose, and spiritual experience that only makes sense with God in the middle of it all. Take God away, and life seems devoid of something vital and necessary. Therefore, God doesn't go away even if good reasons for God's existence do. Other reasons are found, beliefs are modified (but persist), and belief survives.

After all rational reasons for God's existence are depleted, the believer usually falls back on a few fail-safe answers for the hope within them. No evidence or argument to the contrary are convincing against these reasons. They are beyond reason because they are NOT rational; that is why rational arguments can't effect them; which is all the betterAnd these reasons, safe from all evidence to the contrary, are religious experiences and faith.

Religious Experiences:

When rational arguments for belief fail, believers will fall back on their personal religious experiences. These experiences come in a variety of forms such as answers to prayer, spiritual impressions, a sense of peace that God is present or aware of the individual, a conviction that your religious leaders are speaking the truth, or that your scriptures are God's word. Whatever it is, these religious experiences are powerful, very convincing, and difficult to dislodge once interpreted for meaning. Joseph Smith, for example, was convinced of the reality of his "First Vision" despite an apparent multitude of naysayers: "I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it." It sounds as if nothing could dissuade him from his belief. That is probably true of most people who have had religious experience.

Therefore, I know I'm probably not going to convince anyone to the contrary. However, there is a major problem with religious experiences that should make them less convincing that believers might think:

Believers of different faiths all have spiritual experiences that convince them of of the truth of their different faiths.

Same religious experiences; different conclusions. Same powerful, personal, emotional, subjective religious experience resulting in vastly different interpretations. Religious experiences, regardless of your religion, are all described in the same language, and are probably experiences in largely the same manner, and yet they interpret them in vastly different (and mutually exclusive) ways.  A Catholic nun sees a vision of Jesus, a Buddhist monk feels transcendence, a Muslim feels the presence of Allah or that the Koran is Allah's word, a Mormon thinks God is confirming to them the Book of Mormon is true. The problem is that not all these interpretations can be correct. And if not all of them can be correct, then how likely is it that any one of them is? Maybe people are just interpreting these religious experiences incorrectly?

Religious experiences require interpretation. People interpret their experiences in vastly different ways because they are very powerful, yet VERY VAGUE AND NONSPECIFIC also. And the conclusions people reach are colored by the expectations they have. People who have religious experiences are taught before hand (or during the experience) what they mean. I taught this to investigators on my mission, I taught missionaries how to "identify the spirit" when I taught at the MTC, I taught missionaries how to tell investigators what their spiritual experiences meant. Pretty manipulative.

Therefore, while I do not deny that people have "spiritual experience" (I've had them too), I do content that these experiences require interpretation, and that frequently, the meaning we apply to them aren't justified.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Teleological Argument for God's Existence

The other day at work, a friend and I were engaged in a lighthearted discussion about our religious differences (he's Jewish, I'm atheist). In jest, he accused me of knowing with absolute certainty that God did not exist. I disagreed that was the case, but asked him what reasons he had for believing in God. He said "You can't honestly think that the universe, the world, and everything in it just happened. It couldn't have just sprang into existence by mere chance. It's all just too complex. Therefore, God must have designed it." An interesting discussion then ensued. But what my friend was appealing to is one of the most common rational justifications of God's existence: the teleological argument.

The teleological argument is similar to the cosmological argument, in that it tries to infer the existence of God from the world around us. But whereas the cosmological argument tries to infer God's existence due to the fact that the universe exists, and therefore must be caused by God, the teleological argument infers God's existence because of the way things in the world appear to be designed. It is because of the apparent design of everything in the world, especially complex biologic life, that we can infer a God who designed us.

The teleological is a popular contemporary argument in the Mormon church. This is from the current website:

We can look up at the sky at night and see a never-ending universe. There are millions of stars and planets, all in perfect order. They did not get there by chance. We can see the work of God in the heavens and on the earth. The beautiful plants, the variety of animals, the mountains, the rivers, the clouds that bring us rain and snow—all these testify to us that there is a God. An ancient prophet  wrote, “All things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” 
modern prophet (current prophet, seer, and revelator Thomas S. Monson) said: “If there is a design in this world in which we live, there must be a Designer. Who can behold the many wonders of the universe without believing that there is a design for all mankind? Who can doubt that there is a Designer?”

So if you believe that God inspires prophets and scripture, then the teleological argument is one of the reasons God uses to convince us that He exists. If you believe that the Book of Mormon is a product of Joseph Smith's imagination as I do, then it is likely that he had Alma voice the argument William Paley popularized about 30 years before Joseph wrote it.

William Paley popularized the argument in his 1802 book Natural Theology. Joseph Smith was a consumer of the religious ideas of his time, and it is undoubtedly true that he was familiar with Paley's teleological argument.

Paley starts his argument by assuming that we have the ability to tell the difference between designed things (such as a watch that we found on a beach) and undesigned things (such as a rock). Paley then goes on to list a number of other designed things even more complex than watches (such as noses that point down instead of up, thumbs, and eyes). Paley argues that just as we are compelled to infer a watchmaker from the example of a watch found on the beach, we are compelled to infer an eye maker from the occurrence of eyes. But while a watchmaker could be a finite but clever and powerful person, the designer of eyes, thumbs, and noses (Paley was particularly impressed that our noses point down, and thus protect us from rainfall) must be infinitely wise and powerful (ie. God).

The teleological argument from design (or argument from "apparent design") is still very contemporary, and comes in many forms. Intelligent Design advocates argue that there are many examples of "irreducible complexity" in biologic life forms that are too improbable to have happened by naturalistic means (ie. evolution by natural selection). Today, however, the teleological argument is extremely vulnerable to attack because natural explanations of biologic complexity (evolution by natural selection) do a better job of explaining apparent design than appeals to a supernatural designer God. In order to avoid such attacks, many apologists cite the complexity of an apparently "fine tuned universe," with its improbable cosmological constants, as evidence of a supreme designer. At least Darwin's ideas don't explain cosmological constants.

However, whatever form of the argument is invoked, it has at least four problems that I'll discuss below:

Objection 1: It is an Argument from Ignorance

The first flaw in the teleological argument, is the fallacy of "Arguing from Ignorance." In a sense, advocates of the teleological argument are arguing that they can't possibly imagine any way that the complexity and apparent design came about - except by invoking a great big supernatural designer to do it. But this is merely a failure of imagination and admission of ignorance. Scientists have succeeded in explaining many complex things that were once thought to be an unexplainable mystery. Once a natural explanation is available, it is no longer possible to remain willfully ignorant of it. This is simply an admission of lack of intellectual curiosity at best, or willful ignorance at worst.

Today, even though many people remain ignorant of it, evolution by natural selection elegantly explains the complexity of all biologic life on earth. It explains how complexity and diversity arose because of genetic variation within species, how environmental pressures and genetic variation gave certain individuals a better chance of passing on their genes (at the expense of others who did not possess advantageous genetic mutations), how these genes then became more prevalent within a population, and how, over time, this genetic variation led to new species.

While mysteries still exist, there is no reason to assume that scientists will not discover natural explanations of them.  Scientists are hard at work in finding answers to these questions, and there is no reason to assume they will suddenly stop finding them.

Objection 2: It Assumes More Than Is Necessary

The teleological argument does not exercise explanatory restraint dictated by Ockham's razor. It thereby commits "explanatory overkill" by assuming more than is necessary. For example, even if the argument works to show that a designer was necessary to design life on earth, do we need to assume this designer was the God of ethical monotheism? In other words, do we need to assume that this necessary designer was all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-benevolent? 

Instead of assuming the god of ethical monotheism, perhaps the universe was designed by committee of gods, or by several independent designers, or by a Deistic God, or by any number of the long extinct gods people once worshiped? What about an advanced alien life form with super advanced technology? Perhaps it was made by a very powerful evil God?  We can't rule any of these designers out, and therefore the teleological argument is guilty of explanatory overkill, or assuming more than is necessary. 

Objection 3: It's Guilty of Selection Bias

The most damaging flaw in the teleological argument is that it is guilty of ignoring vast amounts of data. It selectively pays attention to things in the world that are beautiful, amazing, wonderful, and dazzling (like sunsets, eyes, and the cosmological constants) but ignores the existence of suffering and evil in the world. If God truly designed everything within the universe, including all life on earth, then it is "explanatory underkill" to fail to give an account of what is disgusting, abhorrent, vile, and unthinkable. 

More to the point, the teleological argument claims that we can infer something about God (the cause) because of the effects we observe (the universe, life, complex eyes or flagella). Just as Paley claimed to be able to infer something about a watch maker from the existence of a watch, similarly we should be able to infer something about the universes designer by observing the universe. Therefore, what are we to infer about a designer that allows diseases and sickness to kill indiscriminately (usually the weak, the young, the frail)? What are we to infer about a designer who created the birth canal of a mother so small, and the head of a fetus so large, that prior to the recent invention of modern medicine, countless millions of mothers and children died in the process of giving birth? What are we to infer about a designer who created the universe so that asteroids sometimes crash into the earth with deadly consequences? 65 million years ago, one such asteroid crashed into the earth near the present day Yucatan peninsula, destroying over 90% of life on earth. A large asteroid could strike the earth again and there would be little we could do to stop the devastating destruction that would follow. 

What are we to make of a designer that allows so much suffering due to man's inhumanity to man? What are we to infer about a designer who allows natural disasters, floods, tidal waves, earthquakes, droughts and famine, hurricanes, tornados, etc. etc. etc., to kill thousand and thousands of people indiscriminately? Couldn't God have designed the earth a little better so that there weren't so many natural disasters? 

Or what about the eventual fate of our planet? If we don't destroy ourselves first, in a few billion years, the sun will run out of nuclear energy and will expand to engulf the earth, destroying all life on it in a fiery death. For those intelligent life forms living on other planets in other galaxies, who wont even notice our own planet get swallowed up by our sun, the universe will continue to expand until it dies a slow and cold death? Finally, what about the galaxies in the universe that are right now being eaten up by black holes, or are being destroyed because of galaxy cannibalism (what happens when galaxies bump into each other, and one galaxy "eats" up the other. Much destruction of entire planets and stars ensues in the process, and for any life in the neighborhood, it wouldn't be pleasant. 

Objection 4: It Fails to Explain Who Designed God

Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, does a good job explaining a final reason the teleological argument doesn't work. His explanation, that he calls the "The Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit" basically boils down to the fact that if everything that exists must be designed, then who designed God? If complex things (such as a Boeing 747) require an even more complex designer, then the most complex thing ever (God, or The Ultimate 747) must require something even more complex to have designed it. However, this leads us into an infinite regress, and so theists simply state that God doesn't need any designer. This is similar to the illogic used in the cosmological argument. However, instead of assuming that God terminates the infinite regress, why  not assume that the universe itself terminates the infinite regress? We have a natural explanation as to how the universe came into existence in the Big Bang. So why assume a supernatural explanation (that really is no explanation at all)? 

And there you have it. The teleological argument appears to make a lot of sense at first. I suspect it is convincing because it appeals to our human nature to see patterns and purpose and design in almost everything.  Indeed, it was convincing to me for many years. However, the argument has major flaws, and therefore is not a valid argument for the existence of God.  In short, it fails because it's an argument from ignorance, it assumes more than is necessary, it commits major selection bias, and it fails to explain who designed God, and we are left with a Scottish verdict: not proved. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Cosmological Argument

". . . be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear." 1 Peter 3:15  
"For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." Carl Sagan

When believers are asked how they know God exists, one of the most common answers given is some version of the cosmological argument.

The cosmological argument is usually credited to Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who was one of the first theologians to teach that God's existence could be proven through reason alone.  In his cosmological argument, Aquinas argues for the existence of God based on the fact that the universe exists, and every thing that exists must have a cause. For example, it doesn't make sense to assume that the table I am sitting at wasn't created by someone. Also, if we found someone that had been murdered, we wouldn't assume that it just happened. No, we would assume that someone killed this person, and we would call the police to try find the murderer. Similarly, the world exists, and it too must have a cause. Here is the cosmological argument in full:

(1) Everything that exists has a cause of its existence.
(2) The universe exists.
(3) The universe has a cause of its existence.
(4) If the universe has a cause of its existence, then that cause is God.
(5) God exists.

However, the argument itself is self-defeating; for if the first premise is true, then the conclusion must be false. Why? If God caused the universe, then who caused God? If everything that exists has to have a cause, then God must have a cause as well. You can't argue that everything must have a cause of its existence, but exclude God from the same requirement! This is a prime example of the Fallacy of Passing the Buck: invoking God to solve some problem, but then leaving unanswered that very same problem about God himself. No mystery has been explained by invoking one mystery to solve another. 

Bertrand Russell refuted premise (1) thus:
If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as god, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Indian's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject." The argument is really no better than that.

However, prominent theologians and philosophers try to avoid this objection by exempting God from premise (1). Basically, they argue that everything except God has a beginning, and therefore has a cause of its existence. Notice how William Lane Craig - who has popularized a more advanced version of the cosmological argument, called the Kalam cosmological argument - subtly changes Aquinas's  argument to avoid refutation:

(1) Everything that has a beginning of its existence has a cause of its existence.
(2) The universe has a beginning of its existence (the Big Bang).
(3) The universe has a cause of its existence.
(4) If the universe has a cause of its existence then that cause is God.
(5) God exists.

Unlike the first version of the argument, this argument is not self refuting since it implies that God does not have a cause. In defense of premise (1), Craig simply says that it's inconceivable that something could pop into existence. 
Now, with respect to premise (1), whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence, I'm not going to say very much in defense of this premise this evening. I really don't think that it's necessary because the premise that whatever begins to exist must have a cause of its existence I think is so intuitively obvious that scarcely anybody could sincerely deny that it is false.

However, despite Craig's attempt to save the cosmological argument, premise (1) is still false. Modern physicists have shown that some things do pop into, and out of, existence. (Remember how I said physics is not intuitive?) According to quantum physics, subatomic particles like electrons, photons, and positrons come into and go out of existence randomly (but in accord with the Heisenberg uncertainty principles). This was first proposed Edward Tryon in 1973: 
Quantum electrodynamics reveals that an electron, positron, and photon occasionally emerge spontaneously in a perfect vacuum. . .  The spontaneous, temporary emergence of particles from a vacuum is called vacuum fluctuations, and is utterly commonplace in quantum field theory." 

Even though most of us have never heard of or understand vacuum fluctuations, their significance is enormous. In fact, vacuum fluctuations are what most of the matter in the universe, including us, is composed of. It's not just subatomic particles that vacuum fluctuations can spontaneously create from nothing (the nothingness of a vacuum at least). Rather, entire universes can be created within vacuum fluctuations. Therefore, there are things that can begin to exist without being caused to exist by something else. If it can happen to subatomic particles, then why not to the universe as a whole? Actually, that is exactly how todays leading astrophysicist thinks the universe got started.

Here is Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow from their recent book The Grand Design, describing the effects of quantum fluctuations:
An important consequence (of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle) is that there is no such thing as empty space. . . . space is never empty. It can have a state of minimum energy, called the vacuum, that that state is subject to what are called quantum jitters, or vacuum fluctuations - particles and fields quivering in and out of existence. . . Quantum fluctuations lead to the creation of tiny universes out of nothing. A few of these reach a critical size, then expand in an inflationary manner, forming galaxies, stars, and, in at least one case, beings like us.

Therefore premise (1) of Craig's argument is false, and his conclusion doesn't follow. However, there is yet another problem with Craig's argument: it assumes too much about whatever created our universe. Even if our universe was created by something outside it, why assume that it was the God of ethical monotheism?  Philosopher Theodore Schick believes this assumption is not justified:
(E)ven if this argument did succeed in proving the existence of a first cause, it wouldn't succeed in proving the existence of God because there is no reason to believe that the cause of the universe has any of the properties traditionally associated with God. Aquinas took God to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. But from the existence of the universe, we cannot conclude that its creator had any of these properties. 

Perhaps the universe wasn't created by just one God, but by a committee of Gods. Or perhaps the universe was created by something less than all-powerful being. Maybe it was created by a super advanced alien?  Or maybe it was created by a committee of super-advanced aliens. Or maybe the God of this universe was lacking in one of the other "omni-qualities" that I discussed in my last post. If so, then this being would not merit the title of God, and therefore would not be worthy of our worship.

Considering all that is problematic with the world and the universe, it is difficult to conceive that it was created by an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God. For example, our world is filled with pain and suffering where death is universal and extinction is the norm. Faulty design is everywhere we look within our own bodies, and in the Earth as well. Destructive weather, tornados, floods, mudslides, and earthquakes kill millions of innocents. Disease caused by viruses, parasites, and germs usually target the young and the weak. The planet we inhabit will eventually die in a hot death when it is consumed by the Sun as it runs out of energy. And our own universe will eventually fizzle out in a very cold death since it will continue to expand forever.

Therefore, for any number of the reasons listed above, the cosmological argument fails to prove God's existence. But it is important to remember, lest the atheist also commit the fallacy of assuming what has not been proved, that the failure of the cosmological argument does not prove that he doesn't exist either. At best, we have only shown that the cosmological argument fails to prove God's existence, and we are left with a Scottish verdict of "not proven."

The Only God Worth Worshiping

In arguing for the existence of God, we won't get very far unless we first define what that term God means. Defining terms eliminates ambiguity and equivocation, and facilitates clear communication.

God = a title meaning "that which deserves to be worshiped."

Even though the term is sometimes used as a NAME for the myriad different gods that people have worshipped throughout history, the term God is not a name (like Yahweh, Elohim, Jehovah, Allah, Zeus, etc). God is a TITLE. And, as noted above, the title means "that which deserves worship."

Worship denotes obedience to, deference and awe toward, devotion and adoration of some being or some thing. In the past, people referred to their ruler, Pharaoh,  or King as "your Worship." Of course, Kings and rulers used to be thought of as offspring of Gods, Gods themselves, or part-God. Nowadays, we don't think of Kings and rulers in the same way, and we therefore do not worship them anymore.

And the reason we don't feel it appropriate to worship mere mortal Kings or Presidents, despots or dictators, is that they lack qualities that God has. And the qualities that the God of ethical monotheism has to have, in order to earn the title of God, and merit any one's worship, include:

1. Omnipotence = God is not limited in power. God can do whatever God wants, or needs, to do.

2. Omniscience = There is no limit on God's knowledge. God knows everything.

3. Omniperfection = There is no limit on God's morality. God is all good, all loving, all-(any good moral quality). Fill in the blank. He is not limited or deficient in any moral quality.

4. Omnipresence = God's power or ability is not limited by space or distance. There is no corner of the universe that God's influence cannot reach.

5. Aseity = a big word philosophers use that means God is not dependent or subordinate to anything external to itself. He does not need to check in with, or get approval from anything else in the universe. He's the head-honcho.

Notice, that I can't help myself from using gendered terms for God. You can just ignore this gendered convention if you wish. God should be worshiped if it turns out to be a he, she, it, or something non-gendered. I'm just falling into the common convention of calling God a "He" (even though the idea is absurd when you consider the evolution of sexual organs).

It's also worth noting that most believers in the God of ethical monotheism (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) believe in this sort of God. Mormons believe in the God of ethical monotheism as well; intact with all the aforementioned OMNI qualities. At, God is described as "the Supreme Being in whom we believe and whom we worship. He is all-powerful and all-knowing, and He is full of love, mercy, charity, and compassion. He is the Author of the plan for our happiness."

And God better have all these OMNI qualities, since a God that does not possess them would not be worth worshiping.  For example, God would not deserve worship if he was not all powerful. Why worship a wimp, or even a very powerful yet limited being like an advanced extra-terrestial? An advanced alien life-force that has evolved for millions of years beyond us, and possessing some amazing technology, would surely appear to be all-powerful (just as I might appear all-powerful to my dogs).  But this limited being would not be deserving of worship because, despite appearances (and really cool technology), it wouldn't be omnipotent. Therefore an advanced E.T. does not earn the moniker of God, nor does it deserve to be worshiped.

Second, a being that isn't all knowing does not deserve our worship. Why worship something that is not very bright? Again, go back to the E.T. argument. An advanced E.T. might be smarter than us, but not all knowing. It might not know the future, for example, and therefore wouldn't know the consequences of their actions (which might be catastrophic). Or they might not know anything about human beings, and therefore not know what is best for us. Whatever it is that they know (which would be much more than we do), they don't know everything, and therefore are undeserving of worship.

Third, a God deserving of worship would need to be all-perfect. If God was lacking in courage or love or goodness or any other moral quality, then worship is off the table. Why worship a being who could sometimes be cruel, petty, vindictive, or selfish? (Read the Old Testament for examples). This type of all-powerful being would be something of a dictator or tyrant.  I wouldn't worship such a being, and neither should you; this sort of God is not deserving.

I almost want to skip omnipresence since it usually isn't emphasized. However, I will just say that if there is some corner of the universe or world that is beyond God's powers, or ability to travel to, then God has a blind spot of sorts, and isn't omnipresent. If God had to travel by spaceship across the universe, rather than instantaneously by some sort of God-magic, then again, God is limited.

And finally, my favorite word of the bunch: aseity. Aseity is a big ten-dollar word meaning that God is not dependent on anything else, like another God for example. For example, Mormons sometimes make the mistake of believing that God is checked in power by another God (maybe a God that existed before Him, since Mormons believe that God was once a mere mortal like we are). This sort of God does not have aseity, and therefore is not supreme. Why worship a non-supreme being? It would be more appropriate to worship whoever is supreme - not the one that is subordinate. Zoroastrians (a really old religion that predates Islam in the Middle East) believe in dualism, which is the idea that a good God is checked in power by an evil God. The two are locked in an eternal struggle for control of the universe. Asian philosophy and Confucianism have a similar idea in yin and yang. This almost sounds familiar to the LDS concept of God and Satan, except that Mormons think that God allows Satan to roam for a season to fulfill his purposes of providing an "opposition in all things," after which God will banish him.

So, God must have all these omni-qualities if worship is an appropriate response or attitude to take towards it. If God is shown to not have at least one of these qualities, then worship towards God is not an appropriate response. OK. Just needed to get that out there to define terms. That's all I have to say about that.

Next, we will look at the first argument for God's existence: the cosmological argument.