Atheism · Religion

That God Question…

There are two types of people in this world. The first type is the irrational, emotionally driven theist who, by means of indoctrination, actually believes in a Sky Daddy. The second type is the ultimately rational and logical atheist – the atheist thinks critically about the world and evaluates the evidence before settling on an issue, and this is why they do not believe in a Sky Daddy.  Now these characterizations may seem a little bit absurd, and a little bit emotional, but we don’t have to worry: these are straight from the New Atheist’s mouth so we know they are based on logic, reason, and evidence. 🙂

Atheists – hereafter referring to New Atheists – do not typically characterize believers as being stupid. Such a claim would be demonstrably false as there are an enormous number of present day intellectuals who believe in God and most of the great thinkers throughout history have been believers. But atheists know that they are critical thinkers and, because of the wealth of time they have put into reading Rational Wiki, their inability to find logical reasons for believing in God necessitates that theists believe for illogical reasons. And that’s how they arrive at the emotional and indoctrination angles – those avoid the obvious mistake of claiming highly intelligent people are dumb and are also, unfortunately, based in observations about American culture. I think we can safely grant, for the sake of argument, that this is a true characterization of most believers in the United States. And I think we can also avoid pointing out that emotional investment and poor thinking is present in many atheists (oops, I think I just did though?). But what about academia? Theists are a minority, but not an irrelevant one – and fields like philosophy of religion are populated by a majority of theists. While there are many possible explanations (ie, self-selection) it cannot simply be dismissed that the academics most intimately familiar with God questions are majority theists. At this point atheists will talk about indoctrination and emotion more loudly or grumble about ‘semantic word games.’ If you’re lucky you’ll get a chuckle when they refer to them as language games. But, for the rest of us, we may be curious as to what the intelligent reasons for believing in God might be.


Ask an atheist why they do not believe in God and they will, without fail, say something along the lines of their being no evidence. By this they, of course, mean scientific evidence, but there is the additional frustration that they will not be at all forthcoming about which arguments they have been presented with and dismissed. Luckily, through grueling field work, I have discovered that they are typically referring to some form of cosmological argument (well, usually the cosmological argument in the form of the Kalam… attributed to Aquinas) or argument from universal constants (fine tuning). I want to focus mostly on the former, but am also going to throw in a few sentences on why their standard “rebuttals” to the fine tuning argument are lacking.

Contingency and Necessity

I remember when I first encountered the philosophical version of necessity I ended up quite confused. That tends to happen as the same words we use in daily conversation end up becoming technical terms in philosophy. Anyway… I want to give a quick down and dirty definition so that there is no confusion moving forward.

Something is necessary if it could not have been otherwise; x is necessary if obtains in every possible world.

I might want to say something along the lines of it being necessary for George to get an A on his exam if he wants to pass the class – that is the only way he can make up for a semester of drinking and oversleeping. This is not the type of necessity we mean. Something is necessary in our sense if it is not logically possible for it to have been otherwise – even though George has found himself in that situation it is possible that he did not drink and never missed a class. So there is a possible world in which George behaved more studiously and could pass the class with a C on that exam, but that is not the state of affairs that obtained in the actual world. In contrast we can look at a statement like ‘2+2 = 4.’ That is a necessary statement – there is no possible world in which two and two do not equal four.

Something is contingent if it could have been otherwise; is contingent if there is a possible world in which does not obtain.

My height is a contingent fact – there are any number of environmental circumstances that could have stunted my growth and resulted in my being a short man who struggles with the ladies. Instead of a tall man who struggles with the ladies. My skill with women is also contingent – I could have learned to be confident and suave over my life. Regardless, contingency is pretty easy and, hopefully I’m not making a sloppy error here, we can say something is contingent if it is not necessary (or vice versa).

Argument From Contingency

This is going to be a very short illustration of how a person might, by looking at the evidence, arrive at the conclusion that God exists.

If we look around the world we will find a lot of contingent facts – the aforementioned situations with George and myself, the current president of the United States, or even the defeat of Germany in the second world war. All of these things could have been different – we can coherently talk about situations in which Germany had secured Europe or Sarah Palin became president (this would be proof there is no God, for the record! 🙂 ). Let’s also notice that when we say something could have been different there is a reason why it is not different. Sarah Palin is not president because John McCain did not win the 2008 election and die in office, John McCain did not win the election because he did not receive enough electoral votes, etc. There is not just a reason, there are reasons for those reasons. Just imagine the web of possibly different circumstances that led to you suffering through this blog post – enormous! So let’s put this the following way:

(1) There are contingent facts and (2) for every contingent fact there is an explanation – this is a strong version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.

We are familiar with what contingent facts are, and roughly what explanations are, but we need to unpack what we really mean when we say something has an explanation. Well, that’s not true. I’m going to more or less state how this sort of argument would characterize an explanation and perhaps you will find some intuitive sense in it: explanations cannot be circular. Let’s imagine some very simple situation where we want to understand why George and Lucas are currently involved in a fist fight with each other, and we decide to accomplish this by asking a spectator. The spectator tells us that they are fighting because George punched Lucas… because Lucas punched George. So we ask why Lucas punched George and are told that it was because George punched Lucas. So here we have a circular ‘explanation’ that takes us no closer to the source of the fight despite the fact that each answer given by the spectator is true and a full response (at least in the strict sense) to the question asked.  So we can put our next observation as follows:

(3) Explanations cannot be circular.

Let’s look at some of the above examples and take note that we have explained a contingent fact with another contingent fact – and each of those is explained by its own collection of contingent facts. We can look at this as a much more complex version of the fist fight example where we never have a true explanation because every given answer needs its own explanation. But we also know that, per our premise above, contingent facts do have an explanation. From this we can conclude that at the bottom of the chain:

(4) There is a necessary fact that explains contingent facts.

This is admittedly where I go from knowing little to knowing very little. But let’s take a look at, for example, our universe. Our universe is a collection of contingent facts! Physicists talk all the time about how constants could have been different, quantum fluctuations could have made different patterns in the cosmic microwave background, etc – and, clearly, this is good reason to believe that our universe itself is a contingent state of affairs. Anyways at this point we have a necessity upon which the laws of physics, the existence of our universe, etc rests upon and this is starting to get a little bit nearer to God; it still needs to be established that this necessity has the sort of attributes that we would say match up with our understanding of what God is, and there are obviously arguments to that effect (maybe there are two types of explanations – natural, scientific explanations and personal [agent-causation] explanations; there cannot be a scientific explanation given for the existence of our universe which leaves a personal explanation). Regardless, we’re now a lot further than the atheist would want us to get, or even acknowledge is possible, and yet we did this through simple reasoning based on things that seem quite reasonable to believe. Whether they are reasonable to believe under aggressive examination is a different story – but the point is there being prima facie reason.

Anyway I figured this is a nice little example of the sort of thought process that would allow someone to believe that God exists, even though I admittedly lazed the fuck out and didn’t feel like doing the next few steps. I mean… why put more work in when your point is sufficiently made?

Fine Tuning and Conclusion

Very briefly we can look at how an atheist would respond to the claim that the physical constants of the universe are finely tuned to support life. The first response is that maybe there are different forms of life that would exist and we are not being particularly imaginative; however, this misses the point that a hairsbreadth change in these constants would have the universe collapse in on itself or prevent the formation of atoms or heavy elements – that’s hardly a failure of imagining exotic life forms but rather the basic components of life, such as the ability to separate oneself from the environment and engage in metabolic activity, are impossible.

The second line of response is known as the anthropic principle, and I think it was made famous in the current New Atheist culture by Dawkins’ repeated use. We can look at how they would apply it to the smaller claims that it’s amazing our planet has life forms on it, look how unlikely it is! Look how barren other planets are! The response to this is that regardless of how small the chance is there is an enormous number of planets and it is almost guaranteed that one of them would have life of our sort – and it is only on that rare but guaranteed planet that creatures like us could be asking that sort of question. It seems special, but only because we are looking at it from the bottom up. This is a pretty satisfactory answer as we can see an incredibly large number of planets that orbit around stars and are in situations quite similar to our own; however, this reply becomes a bit less satisfactory when we try and apply it on a universal scale – in order to say the same for our universe we would need to make an appeal to a multiverse. And the existence of an infinite multiverse with constants that take up every possible value (if they were restricted to a small range of values it would not answer the question; why those values?) seems to be a bit faith-based and is hardly the knockdown answer they want. Better to simply acknowledge that it is a serious question, maybe even that it supports a theistic worldview, but then note that the overall body of evidence favors atheism. Though the New Atheist would cut off their own hands rather than offer any concession to the theist, so… you end up with convictions about multiverses that are implied by some theories and cannot be detected with scientific observation. Honestly a little bit hypocritical.

Actual Conclusion

That previous part got a little bit long I guess. At the end of the day I’m not invested in whether or not God exists outside of an intellectual curiousity (I’m an agnostic who leans atheist on most days) – I want to know what the world we find ourselves in is actually like. So it’s especially aggravating when a group of people claiming to be unbiased, rational intellectuals dismiss the conversation out of hand, out of ignorance.

It’s been fun!


One thought on “That God Question…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s