Sophisticated arguments for God

by Neil Rickert

Over at his website (which most of us call a blog), Jerry Coyne has been discussing sophisticated theology and illustrating this with reference to a book (“Questions of Truth”) by Polkinghorne and Beale.  As part of that discussion, Jerry has compiled a list of arguments that are often presented as evidence for God:

  1. The Big Bang: what got it started in the first place? After all a quantum vacuum isn’t nothing.
  2. Why is science possible at all?  The human ability to apprehend truth must be a gift from God, since it couldn’t have evolved (see Plantinga)
  3. The “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” proves that God designed the universe
  4. Ditto for the existence of physical “laws”
  5. Only God could have give us the “innate” human sense or morality (see Francis Collins)
  6. The “fine-tuning” of the universe (that is, the values of physical constants) is evidence for God
  7. The appearance of humanoid creatures on the planet—creatures capable of apprehending and worshiping a God—is evidence of His handiwork.

Indeed, these are arguments that I often see presented by theists when asked for evidence.  I most commonly see them presented as arguments for Christianity, though I have occasionally seen some of them presented as arguments for Islam.

The first thing to note is that while these arguments are often presented as evidence, they are not actually evidence.  That is to say, there is no strictly logical derivation from what is presented to what is claimed.  These arguments are typically presented as part of an appeal to emotion, rather than as an appeal to logic.

The next thing to note, is that these arguments work better as arguments for deism than as arguments for Christianity.  For the arguments are based on a broad view of our universe.  They are not based on specific interventions in the world.  So, at best, they argue for a non-interventionist god who created the universe, and then allowed it to unfold without further intervention.  That proponents of an interventionist religion such as Christianity use these arguments, is really an admission that there is no credible evidence of divine intervention in the world.

I’ll now comment on the arguments in that list.

1: (the big bang).  The thing to note here, is that the big bang is a model designed to explain the evidence.  It might yet be wrong.  At sometime in the future, perhaps a different and better model will be used.  The argument for a deity is of the form “It seems to look like X; therefore it must have been produced by Y.”  That sort of argument always seems dubious.  When we use what is observed to try to determine what made that observation possible, we are guessing.  When we make these kinds of guesses in ordinary life, we recognize that further investigation is required so that we can have more than mere guesswork.  In the case of the big bang, the same should apply.  We should skip the guess work, and carry on with further scientific investigation of the cosmos.

2: (the possibility of science)  It is surprising to me that theists argue this.  That they do shows the extent to which they grasp at straws.  For the most part, science is a systematic evidence based study of nature.  I’m not sure why theist would question this possibility.

3: (the effectiveness of mathematics) For myself, I never saw anything unreasonable about the use of mathematics in science.  Given that science uses systematic methods, it is to be expected that some of that systematicity will show up in the way that they have structured their description of nature.  Part of the problem comes from philosophers of science, who often don’t seem to understand how science works.  This leads to a mistaken view that mathematics could not be useful unless the world itself had mathematical properties.

4: (existence of physical laws)  This, too, is a puzzle.  It ought to be obvious that the laws of physics are human constructs.  There seems to be a mistaken belief that if the laws of physics are constructs, then the world itself is a construct.  I’m not sure why this mistake is so commonly made.  People do not say “because the English language is a construct, therefore the world described in English is a construct.”

5: (sense of morality)  It seems obvious to me that our moral sense comes from the culture, and does not depend on a deity.

6: (fine tuning)  Part of the mistake here is the same as in item 3.  And partly, the mistake is in assuming that the world was made for us, when the evidence shows that we evolved to be adapted to the world that was already here.

7: (humans have big brains and complex cognitive systems)  This is just the solution that evolution has provided.  The world is continually changing, and biological systems need to adapt.  One strategy for that is to have high reproductive rates and allow natural selection to manage the adaptation.  An alternative strategy is to have organisms which have high adaptive abilities in their behavior.  The insects seem to be following the first of those strategies, and mammals seem to be following the second.  That we have large brains compared to other mammals, is because we evolved as a social species.  Social interaction requires large brains.

In summary, I find those arguments for God to be very weak.

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5 Comments to “Sophisticated arguments for God”

  1. …and not very sophisticated.

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  2. Good god! Where to begin here?

    “The Big Bang: what got it started in the first place? After all a quantum vacuum isn’t nothing.”

    First of all, who says that something couldn’t have always existed. To say that the universe “has always been here and was never “started” at all would easily refute this claim. The laws of conservation of energy is in line with this train of thought. We can’t create something out of nothing. The “Big Bang” in my opinion is just a model used to describe what may have happened at one point in time (not the beginning of time, although perhaps the earliest time we can meaningfully talk about). My belief is that the Big Bang is a cyclical process that will cycle towards a “Big Crunch” and repeat indefinitely. The Big Bang also only focuses on one universe rather than the possibility of many co-existing at once. What if at least two universes exist, and when one shrinks the other grows? Who knows? It could be that the Big Bang was really just a “white hole” providing an exit for all matter/energy trapped in a black hole on the “other side” or in a different universe. Either way, as you put it, this claim isn’t any evidence at all — except that the author may believe that infinity doesn’t exist (by his rationale, we could ask “what started God” in the first place?). If the author believes that “God” was always there and had no start, then we can say the same thing for the universe.

    “Why is science possible at all? The human ability to apprehend truth must be a gift from God, since it couldn’t have evolved (see Plantinga)”

    I don’t think we can apprehend or find any “truth” anyways. We can only define something to be true. Objective truth doesn’t exist in my opinion or at the very least I believe that we have no ability to apprehend it if it does exist.

    “The “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” proves that God designed the universe”

    I’m not sure what the author even means by this claim. What is meant by “unreasonable effectiveness”? Math seems to be one of the most “reasonable” subjects out there to study and thus should be “reasonably effective”. Furthermore, this form of symbolic representation was created by humans. This claim needs a lot more clarity to get anything productive out of it.

    “Ditto for the existence of physical “laws””
    “The “fine-tuning” of the universe (that is, the values of physical constants) is evidence for God”
    “The appearance of humanoid creatures on the planet—creatures capable of apprehending and worshiping a God—is evidence of His handiwork.”

    All of these claims are evidence for nothing more than the anthropic principle — that is, that observations of the physical universe (constants and physical laws) must be compatible with and thus support the existence of any conscious life that observes it. This goes right in line with the concept of a multi-verse (multi-universe) model. If there are an infinite number of Big Bang iterations and each one has a slight difference in randomly generated physical constants, then the Big Bang that produced circumstances to produce self-aware observers would be a matter of chance — but it would also have to be a certain way (with a small window of possible variation) for us to exist. What people perceive as “evidence for intelligent design” can be explained by my “random constants until it works” scenario of universe creation. There’s no reason to believe that there aren’t or haven’t been an infinite number of these iterations (Big Bang’s) to produce a result that eventually supports beings that can observe it. All one needs to appreciate are the concepts: “random” and “infinite”. The possibilities are endless with these two concepts in mind, and there’s no reason to think that the mechanisms behind generating unique physical laws and constants is any different (as well as evolution or abiogenesis for that matter).

    “The appearance of humanoid creatures on the planet—creatures capable of apprehending and worshiping a God—is evidence of His handiwork.”

    Umm…I’m not sure where to begin with this statement but I’ll take a stab at it. Yes there are creatures capable of worshiping the concept of a “God” that may or may not actually exist (depending on what they think “God” really is). There are also creatures capable of not worshiping “God”, or capable of worshiping a “Devil”, or capable of believing countless others. I don’t think it takes much capability to worship an idea such as “God”. In fact, I think it requires much less capability to worship “God” or to label unexplainable phenomena as being acts of “God”, rather than searching for additional ways of explaining it. It requires more capability to question the idea of a God (to doubt it), than to assume it exists — in my opinion. I like how they throw in a “His” when referring to God. Not only is the author’s concept of God selfishly anthropomorphic but also male rather than female which makes no intuitive sense at all. It would be intuitive to assume that givers of life (women) would be the primary creation attribute. Just another artifact from the “dominator society’s” overtaking of Goddess worshiping civilizations from past times. It’s so ridiculous I think I just had a vein pop out in my forehead (I just popped it back in — sigh — that’s better). Ironically I used to believe these arguments (and ideas of God) long ago. I’m glad I didn’t miss my opportunity to hop that fence. Cuz’ you “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” as they say.

    “Only God could have give us the “innate” human sense or morality”

    I think it would help to define “morality” before proceeding, but lets say that this is some value system — what we believe to be “right” or “wrong”.
    Unfortunately, one person’s “God” is another person’s “Devil”, so “right” and “wrong” are subjective. This claim by the author seems to be presuming that an objective morality exists. Our belief systems are based on what was beneficial for survival (on different levels) beginning many, many years ago. All higher animals (primates for example) seem to have some idea of “right” and “wrong”. They know which behaviors to avoid (or conceal) presumably because they think they are “wrong” (behaviors which can generate a consequential punishment), but in general they seem to use behaviors that are beneficial to survive (just as humans do). Even “altruism” (which many think of as a sign of morality) can be argued to be selfish because those that commit “altruistic acts” can benefit from that behavior by having the recipients indebted to them, thus allowing a similar “favor” to be returned later (or a chance to go to heaven and/or avoid the threat of punishment in hell). I think we need to define “right” and “wrong” better before coming to any solid conclusions — but people disagree on many of these beliefs. Some don’t think you are ever justified in killing another, and others say that there are circumstances when it is justified. We have no universal morals. I will say however that we do have a self-awareness and an ability to see the consequences of our actions (on multiple levels that other animals are incapable of). This can take us as far as the “golden rule” (the truest example of altruism if it exists) which generates most of what people consider to be “universal morals”.
    The fact that morals vary from culture to culture and often precipitate a religious war, implies that this “God-given morality” is inconsistent and thus varies from religion to religion. I’ll stop here cuz’ I’m opening a can of worms.

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    • First of all, who says that something couldn’t have always existed.

      I agree with that. For that matter, I agree with just about everything else in your comment.

      What is meant by “unreasonable effectiveness”?

      There’s a famous paper by Eugene Wigner: “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” and it has a wikipedia page. Perhaps I should have mentioned that in the post.

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  3. The frickin’ morality argument is coming up all the time lately. Why can’t people see murder should be avoided regardless of God? It’s embarrassing and insulting. It’s embarsulting.

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