In this episode I’m going to look at some of the arguments for the existence of God. I’m going to present four classical arguments and then I will show you why and how these arguments fail. For this episode, I will be using the book Irreligion by John Allen Paulos as source material for the counter arguments. This will not be an exhaustive list but it will provide a good understanding of these arguments and their counters. This is C-Webb’s Sunday school!
I am currently working through a book by John Allen Paulos, who is an American professor of mathematics at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It’s called: Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up. I am about half-way through and it is a relatively short book but he presents some intriguing arguments. The book is broken down into three sections based on popular arguments for the existence of a god. What I aim to do with these subsequent episodes is try to present the information in a way that can be easily understood. It’s not a technical book and does a good job at explaining these but I am by no means a mathematician. I find it’s important to work through these arguments on paper instead inside your own head and this is what I aim to do. I’m going to work out these arguments so that I can better understand them by putting them in my own words and hopefully, you dear listener, will benefit from it as well.
The first section of the book covers Four Classical Arguments and they are: The argument from first cause or the cosmological argument, the argument from design, the argument from the anthropic principle and the ontological argument. If you are a critic of faith, you’ve probably heard these arguments mentioned before but you may not, like me, have a deep understanding of what they actually are. For each argument, I will lay out its foundation from the point of view of the believer and then show you how Professor Paulos argues against it along with my own interpretations.
The Cosmological Argument:
This argument is known by several different names, the cosmological argument tries to explain the first cause of the universe. More simply put, where did our known universe come from? Theologians and some philosophers contend that the universe has to have a first cause, something had to set the universe in motion and one would assume that whatever set the universe in motion had to act outside of the universe it was creating [link]. It is therefore assumed that the originator of this first cause is God. The argument is typically presented as such:
- Everything has a cause, or perhaps many causes.
- Nothing is its own cause.
- Causal chains can’t go on forever.
- So there has to be a first cause.
- That first cause is God, who therefore exists. [Paulos, John Allen (2007-12-26). Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up (pp. 3-4). Hill and Wang. Kindle Edition.]
This line of reasoning dates back to Artistotle and is contingent on a primitive understanding of the Big Bang Theory. It states that “whatever has a beginning has a cause; therefore the universe had a beginning so it must have a cause.” Looking at the first statement of “everything has a cause” we see an immediate problem when it comes to God. Believers will tell you that God caused the universe to be created, whether they say 6,000 years ago or via the Big Bang billions of years ago but in both arguments, God is the creator. We assume God exist as we know Him today. If you take the first statement that “everything has a cause” a good question to ask would be “who created God?” The typical response would be “God doesn’t need a cause, he’s just…God.” The next question to ask would be “Did God cause himself?” which is a reasonable question but if God did cause himself, it would violate the second statement which says “nothing is its own cause.” You see, no matter how you slice it, having a first uncaused cause violates the logic laid out in this argument. You can’t have it both ways; there are too many hoops to jump through to put God into the equation. Let’s say, for the sake of argument there is an eternal uncaused. You could then ask “Why does this eternal uncaused have to be God?” Would it be just as accurate to say that whatever caused the Big Bang also existed without using the God hypothesis? One does not need a God to make this equation work. It’s also important to remember that there is a long way to go from this causal God to the God of the Bible. You have a lot of dots to connect along the way. It’s not over yet though, we still have a few more questions our believer friend.
It’s not unreasonable to ask the believer when God started to exist. They are making the positive assumptions so it is up to them to provide evidence for their position. The non-believer can keep asking who created God and then who created God’s god and so on and so forth forever. The universe appears to have somewhat consistent natural laws that help explain the workings of the universe, why not use those instead of an untestable, unverifiable and un falsifiable God? Professor Paulos says:
“…we add the implication of quantum mechanics that “cause” at the micro level is at best probabilistic (not to mention all the quantum weirdnesses that have been cataloged by physicists), the first cause argument loses much of its limited force. In fact, some versions of quantum cosmology explicitly rule out a first cause. Other accounts imply that the Big Bang and the birth of universes are recurring phenomena” [Paulos, John Allen (2007-12-26). Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up (p. 7). Hill and Wang. Kindle Edition].
Gottfried Leibniz famously asked “Why is there something rather than nothing?” That’s a good question and it can help fuel further exploration but Leibniz answered his own question when he said: “The sufficient reason for the universe is a necessary Being (ie: God) bearing reason for its existence within itself.” What he suggests here is that God is not only the first cause but also caused Himself to exist. You can see this fails statement number two “nothing is its own cause” of the cosmological argument. At this point, the believer may not be fazed so he’ll try another tactic.
Another argument for the existence of God is the fact that our universe seems to obey certain rules or laws. These rules and laws have been painstakingly discovered by physicists and other natural scientist throughout the centuries. In episode 14 of this very podcast, I cataloged several scientists that were believers in God who also empathically declared that God set forth the laws of the universe and it was their duty to discover God’s work. This may very well have been their motivation but it doesn’t make that statement’s about God true. If this is the response of the believer, that our natural laws are created by God, we can rightfully ask “why did God make it this way?” If the believer is intellectually honest they will try to answer this using reason but if they’re not, you may get this answer instead: “we cannot know the mind of God.” So if we can’t know the mind of God but our eternal soul depends on believing in Him, seems like God has some explaining to do because he makes it awful hard to believe with the little evidence he left behind but I supposed we just have to take it on faith that he exist.
Now back to the original argument. Professor Paulos describes this line of argument by using the example of a child asking a parent a question and with each answer the parent gives, the child ask why and so on and so forth until finally the parent has ran out of responses and says “because I said so, that’s why!” We can ask the believer “why did God make these particular natural laws?” If He did it arbitrarily and for no reason at all, then some things are not subject to natural law, the chain of natural law is broken and we might as well say the laws themselves, not God, are the arbitrary “because we said so.” But, if God did have a reason for creating these particular laws, let’s say to bring about the best possible world, and then it can be assumed God is subjected to preexisting constraints, standards and laws. That assumes there has to be something before God to set these laws and standards for Him to follow and since “nothing is its own cause” God is pretty much useless in this equation. Either way, there is no reason to introduce God.
To round out this topic, we can see where this argument falls short. We could invent a god to fill the gap but what’s the point? Most people who argue “first-cause” are already presupposing their particular god exists. It has been demonstrated that you do not need to posit a supernatural being to explain the universe. God is just one less variable not worth considering and He is getting smaller and smaller as our understanding of the universe grows bigger and bigger.
The Argument from Design
Also known as the Teleological Argument, the argument from design is based on empirical observations on the apparent design and purpose in the universe that exist outside of human activities. Therefore, according to this argument, the existence of a designer can be assumed and this designer is typically presented as God [link]. Professor Paulos describes the argument from design as follows:
- Something— the diversity of life-forms, the beauty of the outdoors, the stars, the fine structure constants— is much too complex (or too perfect) to have come about randomly or by sheer accident.
- This something must have been the handiwork of some creator.
- Therefore God, the Creator, exists [Paulos, John Allen (2007-12-26). Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up (pp. 10-11). Hill and Wang. Kindle Edition].
He also lays out the argument for purpose:
- The world in general or life-forms in it seem to be evidence of clear intention or direction.
- There must be an intender or director behind this purpose.
- This entity must be God, and therefore God exists [Paulos, John Allen (2007-12-26). Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up (p. 11). Hill and Wang. Kindle Edition].
The most famous of these arguments comes from the English theologian William Paley and his infamous divine watchmaker. It goes something like this: You are wandering around a beach or field and you stumble upon a pocket watch. Given the complex design and the intricate moving parts of the watch one would not assume that the necessary components of the watch randomly came together but the watch was purposefully designed and had a created. This is a reasonable assumption but Paley takes it one step further and suggests that the complex workings of nature and the purposeful designed screams of a designer, therefore God exists.
Creationist claim that the probability of nature just randomly collecting molecules and atoms together to form the diverse life we see on this planet is so astronomically high that it is laughable. They assert that the chance of random mutation cannot account for life on earth because life is too complex and our complex planet must have a creator. Ok, I’ll bite, let’s assume this is true. But, before I concede the argument, I need to have a few questions addressed: 1) what’s the probability of such complexity? 2) How do we know that something is too complex to have arisen by itself? 3) What is the origin of this complexity? These seem like reasonable questions to pose to creationist. I want to look more closely at the last question, the origin of complexity. I am not going to argue that life on this planet is not complex, it is but our knowledge of this complexity grows daily and the more we understand about our world, the less overwhelming it is and we certainly know more about the universe than an 18th century theologian.
So let’s assume that nature, the universe and life is extremely complex, complex beyond any comprehension. This complexity raises random chance to a near impossibility. I can then correctly assume that the creator of this complex universe has to be at least as complex if not more complex as its creation. I can then ask: what are the chances of an infinitely complex Being existing or one complex enough to create our complex world? If you’re like me, you cannot even begin to fathom such a being. Creationist will try to strengthen their complexity argument by invoking an even greater complexity. It’s a double standard to assume that life is too complex to arise without a creator but they fail to see how ludicrous their assumption that an infinitely complex creator exist to begin with. What’s more probable? Complex life arising from natural causes or an infinitely complex creator setting everything in motion?
The Argument from the Anthropic Principle
The Anthropic Principle is a philosophical consideration that the universe, through observation, must be compatible with the conscious life that observes it. Some argue that the universe is compelled to create conscious life. Apologists call this the “Fine Tuning” [link]. They say that if the universe were not precisely tuned, we would not be around to observe it, therefore God is said fine tuner. Professor Paulos states it this way:
- The values of physical constants, the matter/antimatter imbalance, and various other physical laws are necessary for human beings to exist.
- Human beings exist.
- The physics must have been fine-tuned to the constants’ values to make us possible.
- Therefore the fine-tuner, God, exists [Paulos, John Allen (2007-12-26). Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up (p. 28). Hill and Wang. Kindle Edition].
There are several things wrong with this line of reasoning and they are rather simple. Argument 1 and 2 logically follow but it’s when we jump to argument 3 that things fall apart. There’s no need for fine tuning; the values for the constants are what they are, that’s it, nothing more. Our present state is determined by these constants, this much is true and if these constants were different, obviously we wouldn’t be here in our present form just like if you decided to go straight to college instead of the military, your life outcome and current position would be different. Does that mean college was fine tuned for you? Some people will say it was their destiny to do such and such…well, we don’t have any evidence besides what history tells us and we won’t know what your life would look life it you took an alternate route. This can be stretched out to the universe as well. We only have one data point in a 13 Billion year old universe for life and that’s us here on Earth. You can hardly extrapolate from this one data point to the idea that the universe is fine tuned for life. There is no way for us to know what other life forms could exist because we have no other data points. All we know is that this mixture for some reason created life as we know it. Was it God? It doesn’t seem likely given the other two arguments already discussed. A puddle doesn’t admire the hole it fell into and say “this hole fits me perfectly; it must have been created especially for me.”
Smarter more intelligent people than me have dismantled this argument and its most damning counter-punch is evolution by natural selection. Stephen J. Gould [link] states the following:
“Our world is not an optimal place, fine-tuned by omnipotent forces of selection. It is a quirky mass of imperfections, working well enough (often admirably); a jury-rigged set of adaptations built of curious parts made available by past histories in different contexts. […] A world optimally adapted to current environments is a world without history, and a world without history might have been created as we find it. History matters; it confounds perfection and proves that current life transformed its own past [link].”
The universe was not fined tuned for life but life fine tuned to the universe. The Earth is a hostile environment for us to live, space is even worse. The vast amount of physical, fossil, genetic and other biological evidence shows that life has been fine-tuned through natural selection to adapt to the physical and geophysical environment. Life has adapted to physics, not the other way around.
The Ontological Argument
The ontological argument is not a specific argument like the ones I’ve already shown; it’s more of a way of reasoning albeit a poor one. The argument basically starts with the definition of God and concludes with His existence by using mostly a priori reasoning with little to no reference to empirical observations. A priori reasoning is basically starting with your conclusion beforehand and fitting your logic and reasoning to meet that conclusion.
This argument tries to present logical trickery to confuse the reader by making convoluted logic structures. Here is a good example:
Epimenides the Cretan says the following sentence: “All Cretans are liars.” To get a better understanding of this sentence, we can simplify it by saying “this sentence is false.” Here is how this paradox presents itself: if the sentence is true then by what it says it must be false but if the sentence is false then by what it says it must be true so therefore this sentence is only true if and only if it’s false. Are you confused yet? So why is this important for the existence of God? Because the ontological argument uses this same logical paradox to prove that God exist. So now let’s apply this to the existence of God so you can see how this logic can potentially workout:
- God exists
- Both of these sentences are false
So to start out, the second sentence is either true or false. If we are to assume that the second sentence is true then both sentences are false. Now the only way for the second sentence to be false the first sentence has to be true and if this is the case we have just proven that God exist. Does is really prove anything? Not really, you can use this line of reasoning to prove almost anything exist. Professor Paulos gives one more example with the following sentence:
- If this statement is true, then God exist
So if we assume that this statement is true, we can then say that God exist because the statement is true. You may object to this and say we’re just assuming that the statement is true but what has been shown is that if this statement is true then God does indeed exist because this statement is true but we can do the inverse as well and say this:
- If this statement is true, then God doesn’t exist
Now we have just proven that god doesn’t exist but did you really prove it? By using the ontological argument in this way just goes to show you how bad it is in determining the existence of God. Now let’s go look at a serious ontological argument put forth by Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century.
- God is a being than which nothing greater can even be conceived
- We understand the notion of God as well as the notion of God’s really existing
- Let’s also tentatively assume God doesn’t exist
- If we understand the notion of a positive being and that being really exists, then this being is greater than it would have been if we only understood the notion of it
- From these assumptions, we conclude that if God did not exist, we could conceive of a being greater than God (a being just like God, but really existing). This is a contradiction since God is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived
- Thus Assumption 3 is refuted and God exists [Paulos, John Allen (2007-12-26). Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up (pp. 38-39). Hill and Wang. Kindle Edition].
You may be scratching your head and have a puzzled look on your face (don’t worry, I do too) when trying to understand what the hell that all means. The key to understanding and even refuting these arguments is substituting God with pretty much anything. Professor Paulos substitutes a perfect Island or you can substitute a car, tree, house, country etc…the list can go on and on but the point is that you can use this logic to prove the existence of most anything. David Hume tries to support this argument by using logic and the meaning of words. Hume says:
“…the only way a proposition can be proved by logic and the meaning of words alone is for its negation to be (or lead to) a contradiction, but there’s no contradiction that results from God’s not existing.”
So what this is really saying is that the God has no contradictions. I see one problem with that as does Professor Paulos and it has to do with the omni’s but specifically omnipotence’s and omniscient. Omniscient means God knows everything even His own actions and can predict what will happen next with 100% accuracy. Omnipotence says that God can act in any way and do anything He wants even if it goes against something He already predicted. By doing this, He makes His expectations uncertain and fallible. It’s a contraction plain and simple. Now, this is for a particular kind of God so the apologist can create any type of god he wants to weasel out of this contraction but what does that prove? That you can prove you specific god exist? Well, so can I! So who’s right?
At this point in the argument with an apologist, they are on the ropes and are one punch away from being KO’d so with their last ounce of strength they swing a wild haymaker and try to connect. Their haymaker is this: “Prove to me God doesn’t exist!” You see the punch coming but right when you do a bead of sweat falls into your eyes and you are temporally blinded, this punch is going to land and you are going down for the ten-count. Fortunately you can slip the punch and land a right hook and drop your opponent face down on the canvas.
It is true, we cannot prove that God doesn’t exist; it’s a consequence of basic logic. The apologist is making an existential statement which, again, cannot be conclusively disproved but this can be said for any outrageous and absurd claim. You can claim that fairies exist or elves or trolls or fish that speak perfect English. Are we fairly certain these things don’t exist? I am sure the apologist will agree with you but we can’t look everywhere and know everything to say with 100% certainty that they don’t exist. You can then ask the apologist, prove God does exist and not is a weird bass ackwards type of way. Bring forth your evidence. Existence claims can be proven simply by presenting evidence of said entity.
Universal statements such as all emeralds are green, can’t be conclusively proved. Again, we can’t look everywhere and know everything to assert with absolute confidence that said entity exist. However, universal claims can be disproven by simply presenting a counterexample such as a red emerald. God isn’t special when it comes to logic and as I stated before, you can substitute God with pretty much anything and “prove” it exist. This isn’t evidence of God, its evidence of how people can manipulate logic and words to prove their worldview and this is exactly what the ontological argument does.
I have presented four historical arguments for the existence of God and the refutations. I didn’t exhaustively cover all the details of each claim and refutation. Instead, I laid out an overview of why these arguments fail. I am not a philosopher nor have I studied philosophy but that doesn’t stop me from trying to understand the arguments and hopefully I was able to shed some light on these seemingly complicated topics. Atheist don’t have to disprove God’s existence, the burden of proof is on the theist. I can’t help the fact that the proof you are bringing to the table is not sufficient for me to believe. That’s your problem not mine. If the God you argue for exist, it’s not a terribly difficult task to bring forth some evidence besides convoluted logic and reasoning. Seriously, He’s the creator of the universe for Christ sakes, why does He need flawed logic to prove His existence?