Monday, February 6, 2012

Proofs of God

Part of my Approaching Atheism series.

Here, I address some of the historical claims to having proven the existence of God. Although philosophers generally consider these arguments to have been sufficiently answered, many Christian apologists today do no more than to repeat variants of these approaches. In fact, if a Christian apologist is giving a logical-sounding argument, it's likely to be a variation of one of the below approaches.

The Ontological Argument

Claimed proofs of the existence of God that adhere to the ontological argument have been put forward by St. Anselm, Immanual Kant, René Descartes, Mulla Sadra, and even Kurt Gödel.

Per Anselm's original formulation:

  1. Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  2. The idea of God exists in the mind.
  3. A being which exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
  4. If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being—that which exists in reality.
  5. We cannot be imagining something that is greater than God.
  6. Therefore, God exists.

In short, any ontological argument purports to prove the existence of God solely from the definition of God, plus some valid deductive argumentation.

Two points:

Primo: Who are we to say that existence is better than nonexistence? Certainly, as existing beings, our opinion on the matter might be biased in this regard. And it's not like there are any nonexistent beings who can be brought forward to argue the other case. This question might seem silly or dismissive, but the ontological argument purports to be a formal argument; as such, any premise which it puts forth should be subject to challenge and consideration.

The most obvious rationlist response would be to point out that it is simply unimaginable that nonexistence could be equal to (much less better than) nonexistence. The fact is, we cannot possibly imagine what it would be like to not exist. Therefore, we can entirely discount nonexistence, and thus firmly claim that existence is better.

But demand of any Zen Buddhist that the Yang is greater or better than the Yin (much less vice-versa), and you will have at most earned yourself a condescending smile. Zen Buddhism, much less a great deal of Eastern culture, is somewhat more democratic regarding the relative merits of existence and nonexistence than the tradition of Western philsophy can admit. In Buddhist dialectic, being and nonbeing are to be considered as complementary; in much of Eastern music, sound and silence play a relatively equal role; in much of Eastern visual art, figure and space do the same. I do not bring this up in order to claim that the belief system of Buddhism is correct (it is not) but rather as data in response to the claim that one could not possibly imagine that nonbeing is equal to being. At present, there are billions of people who could imagine it quite easily. This view challenges point (3) of Anselm's formulation, as described above.


A more significant problem with the ontological argument is that it purports to make real claims about the universe from a set of premises which solely consist of definitions. Ultimately if the argument is valid, (and it is), then the conclusion must consist of no more truth than that which was contained in the premises. However, if the premises were all definitions, then they are all free creations of the mind. And yet from such, they claim to reveal or create a real state of affairs.

As an example, consider the following. I hereby define new word (we can do this whenever we like; terms and their definitions are after all free creations of the mind):

ex·ist·i·corn [ig-zist-i-kawrn]
1. A unicorn that actually, physically exists

Now that I've defined this new term, I can present the following sound and valid argument:

  1. All existicorns are unicorns [definition]
  2. All existicorns actually, physically exist [definition]
  3. Some unicorns actually, physically exist [1, 2; Darapti (AAI-3) syllogism]

From the above, it can be logically concluded that solely by the virtue of having defined existicorns and used them in a formal argument, I have thereby brought one or more unicorns into actual existence! Using similar approaches, I could define anything into or out of existence, or change any state of affairs. I could define myself to be fabulously wealthy and powerful, and if anyone disagreed with these arguments I could redefine my detractors such that they ceased to exist. Clearly, this approach neither creates nor reveals any real state of affairs in any way.

So what went wrong here? We are allowed to define new terms. We are allowed to present definitions as premises in formal argumentation. Provided that the argument is valid per the rules of formal logic, we are required to admit it as sound, and therefore admit its conclusion as true. Aren't we?

The difference is that if all of the premises of an argument consist merely of definitions, then the argument can say nothing about reality; only its own definitions. No matter how the definitions or their properties are rearranged through the deductive argument, the conclusion can do no more than reassert some claim that was embedded in one or more of the premises. And reasserting a claim is not properly argumentation.

Which brings us back to the ontological argument. The assertion of God's existence is presented as being embedded in some property such as "perfection" or "greatness" and then only teased out later. But nevertheless, the argument amounts to nothing more than a reassertion of its premises. And merely asserting what you've alread asserted hardly constitutes deductive proof of anything.

We can generalize this observation into a rule that can be applied to any deductive argument: no proof can result in an intentional conclusion (aka. semantic meaning or reference to any real state of affairs) if none of its premises have intentionality.

This may be considered a special case of the observation made by John Searle, that no quantity or combination of propositions which have only syntactic (contextual) meaning can result in any proposition which has semantic (referential/intentional) content. Deductive operations do nothing more than to syntactically rearrange the elements and properties contained within their premises. If all of the premises only have definitive content, then any assertion which follows from them can at most amount to a somewhat complicated tautology related to the set of premises as a whole. Such a rule somewhat parallels the problem of ethics: that deductive arguments cannot produce any ethical or moral assertion if none of its premises include an ethical assertion. More broadly, if nothing intentional goes into a deductive argument as one or more of its premises, then nothing intentional can come out as its conclusion.

The Teleological Argument

The teleological argument is at the heart of the current "intelligent design" movement. However, it is not new idea at all. Although I confronted ID in passing previously, that argument had more to do with its applications. Here I address the heart of the argument.

One of the best (and most referenced in contemporary apologetics) descriptions of the teleological argument was given by William Paley in 1802:

[S]uppose I found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think … that, for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for [a] stone [that happened to be lying on the ground]?… For this reason, and for no other; namely, that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, if a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it.

To Paley's analogy, allow me to add a few stipulations:
  • The ground is made entirely of watch parts, as far as the eye can see.
  • Some of the watch parts are magnetic, attracting fitting parts to them.
  • The area constantly suffers a low-level earthquakes, shaking the parts about. This situation has been going on for some billions of years.
  • Before finding the watch, he finds many almost-watches, some consisting of only a few gears fitted together, others consisting of almost completed watches.
  • Although it does keep and tell time quite well, the watch that Paley does find can only be described as "messy." It has some parts that are completely redundant, while many of its most critical functions are not. It has many additional parts that do nothing, as well as mechanical functions that serve no useful purpose.
  • Provided that one working watch existed anywhere on the plain, the odds that he would find it are near-certain (this to model the fact that life once instantiated becomes nigh-ubiquitous via replication).

To pick just one example of organisms. Humans have appendixes and tonsils. We have wisdom teeth, mental insanity, and any number of genetic disorders and predispositions to disease. We urinate from our generative organs, and defecate very closely thereto. Whales have femurs. This suggests design?!? For any simple organism, you could provide a list of its necessary functions to any competent human engineer armed with a CAD program, and they could design a version that improves on nature.

The fact is, life is a sloppy, messy business. For every useful function of any organism, there are any number of completely arbitrary properties that it also has, some of which are wasteful or even detrimental. Design fails to explain any of the properties of life other those that can be deemed positive. Only through an extensive application of confirmation bias can the teleological design approach ignore the rest; but ignoring it is all that it can do. Only the evolutionary approach can explain both the wondrous capabilities of life, and at the same time the sloppy mess that makes it up, at the same time.

In short: the teleological design argument can only explain positive characteristics of life. It cannot explain the many arbitrary or negative characteristics that also exist, all of which are observable. Evolution explains them all, and is therefore the superior theory.

The Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument for the existence of God is as often known as the "first cause" or "prime mover" argument. Aristotle is most credited with elucidating this argument, although he originally did so in order to argue against the notion of a universe bounded in time, with a definite beginning and end. From his perspective, the "first cause" was a form of reductio ad absurdum. Later on, once Christianity had presumed exactly such cosmological bounds, Aristotle's formulation was repurposed in order to support the concept of God Himself.

More recently, this argument has been best formulated by William Lane Craig, following the Kalām cosmological argument:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The Universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the Universe had a cause.

Getting to point (1) above involves a very general observation of the second law of thermodynamics. It's easy to imagine striking a single cue ball and sending it into a grouping of ten billiard balls, causing all of them to move about; it's much more difficult to imagine reversing this process, having ten pool players each striking a billiard ball in such a way as to cause them all to move into a triangular grouping and pass all of their energy back into one single cue ball. More commonly referenced is the analogy of dropping an egg into any number of shell pieces, as well as globs and splatters of its contents; one can scoop up the mess and drop it for nigh-infinity, and never achieve an unbroken egg thereby. As a very generalized statement of the second law, one could simply say that causes < effects.

The idea between either the theist first cause position or the big bang is that if ones run time back far enough, eventually one must come to a point where there was only one thing to act as a cause, and there one must stop. Where that one thing came from I refer to as the ex nihilo problem. The notion that fewer causes lead to a greater number of effects, being a simplistic formulation of thermodynamics' second law, could only be applicable within the bounds of the universe; it need not apply to the universe as a whole, only to some bounded portion of its contents. But applying "causes < effects" to the universe in its entirety is exactly what one claims to do when they claim (or more often accuse the other view of claiming) that "something came from nothing."

But in any case, the scientific view is not that the universe came from nothing per point (2) above, nor that it was always there. We simply don't know. We can only speak based on evidence as far back as a few moments following the big bang. Before that, science makes no assertion regarding whether something came from nothing. In fact, to do so would itself violate the law regarding conservation of energy.

Questions regarding how or whether the origin of the universe involves "something from nothing" I refer in to as the ex nihilo problem. What is important to know, is that neither the scientific view nor any variation of the theist or creationist view, has an answer to it. For every "how" that the scientific view has no answer to, the creationist shunts into a "why:"
Scientist: I don't know how X happened.

Creationist: That means God did it.

Scientist: Why did God do it?

Creationist: I don't know.
Shunting the causal question into the memory-hole of "God's mysterious ways" does nothing to answer any of them. At most, it makes the faithful hesitant to attempt an answer, and perhaps more comfortable in ignoring them. But there still remains a 1:1 correspondence between the questions that science can't answer and those that religion can't answer.

Whether God or a singularity, either paradigm does seem to suggest some sort of "first cause" -like entity. In light of this, some (of the more generalized types of) theists suggest that we take the entity pointed at by astrophysics and merely rename it as "God." No harm done in merely changing a name, right? Well, that would be the case except that calling it "God" tends to suggest a number of additional claims: that the first cause has a purpose in expanding, possesses something like intelligence, and something like intent. For none of these claims is any evidence provided. And if one retorts that they never intended to make such claims, then why relabel it "God" at all? To do so is a slight to both reason and faith.

Next up:

I defend the Lord God Almighty against varied attempts to disprove His existence.


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