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An Argument Not Worth Having

August 14, 2010

If there is one argument that is completely not worth having it is whether or not God exists.  This subject was a hot topic in philosophy during the Enlightment era because science was finally starting to intrude on the areas that religion had always had locked up.  By the 19th century it was decided that the argument could never be solved and God was purely a matter of faith.  Then somebody, possibly Al Gore, invented the internet and every stupid argument that had already been resolved was given new life.  When I was blogging on myspace it seemed like this was the only topic that the philosophy blogs ever addressed.  Part of this is because of writers like Christopher Hitchens (who is ill right now) and Richard Dawkins who have done more to fuel Christian paranoia here in the United States then any American ever has.  (Thanks, England.)

Hitchens and Dawkins aren’t content simply to dismiss religion but take it to the extreme of calling religion fundamentally immoral, blaming it for vast amounts of social injustice and suggesting that anybody who could possibly believe in God must be mentally ill.  Now that they have found some common ground for us how about we have a nice conversation on the subject?

I have read both Hitchens book God is Not Great and Dawkins The God Delusion and found both books to be puerile and glib.  Neither author seems to have read much philosophy or intelligent theology.   Dawkins in particular is an unbearable asshole and his biggest fans are like cult members.  Their thesis seems to be that the best way to handle religious intolerance is through more intolerance toward all religions.  Fight fire with fire!  Yeah, that usually works out well.  Keep in mind I’m an Atheist and have even experienced discrimination because of my Atheism but I much prefer Keith Ward’s rebuttal “Is Religion Dangerous?”  a balanced look at religion and faith’s relationship with reason.

Just like anything else the bible can have a bad effect on people predisposed to antisocial behavior.  If you are an asshole and read the bible you might focus on the “eye for an eye”, gay bashing and violence and totally miss the compassion, helping the poor and parts about love and acceptance.     There are people who misinterpreted Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene to be an endorsement of moral egoism.  By his own standards he is completely morally responsible for this.

Recently I allowed myself to be drawn into an argument about whether God exists on the internet.  Somehow this guy named Joe found me and struck up a friendly conversation in an effort to convince me that God exists.  If he had started with this I would have ended the conversation immediately but because he waited until I had already been talking to him for quite some time before springing it on me I felt it was necessary to be polite.  (Damn, my manners.)  He started off by informing me that it was “intellectually dishonest” to doubt the existence of God without one shred of evidence.  I pointed out that the burden of proof was on him because it is impossible for me to prove that something doesn’t exist.  He told me that I was “turning his argument on its head.”

Well, no I was not.  In a criminal court the burden of proof is on the prosecution.  They must prove that a crime has been committed and that the defendant is responsible.  Imagine a legal system that works the other way around.  It would be like Kafka’s The Trial.  You would have to prove that you didn’t do anything even if there was no evidence to suggest that you had done something illegal.  Nobody in a system like this could ever hope to get an acquittal.

My new friend Joe then went on to tell me that Atheism is irrational.    I blame this on guys like Dawkins.  When you start telling people that their belief system is irrational then you get in a “no you are irrational” type of fight and it becomes a death match.  I personally think certain religious beliefs are irrational but I have a hard time rejecting them all and every single religion.  Joe’s whole argument for atheism being irrational was basically that it was dogmatic.  (Ha!)  I have met stupid atheists and the Richard Dawkins fans strike me as being dogmatic followers so I understand this viewpoint.  But I was not raised an atheist.  My mother believes in God and my father has never expressed one way or another any beliefs on the point.  I went to church as a child and I read the bible extensively as a teenager.  I was never religious but I was well into my twenties before I felt comfortable calling myself an Atheist.  Can I prove this is not dogmatic?  No, somebody would have to observe me for a long time to see if I based my decisions on ideology or evidence.  The only way to know is to watch how I argue.

Joe presented a series of arguments that are older than dirt and have already been picked apart.  He presented them as if they were some shocking secret knowledge.  It was as if he had just delivered some kind of Mortal Kombat style finishing move on me and there was nothing I could do to refute these arguments.     I will now go through the three main arguments.

The Prime Mover Argument

I don’t know if Joe knew he was ripping off Aristotle or that Aquinas took this same concept into his philosophy because Joe did not use the term “Prime Mover.”   Basically Joe said that because of cause and effect something had to create the universe and that something apparently has to be God.  Even if we accept that this argument proves “a god” exists I don’t see how it gives any more credence to a Christian version than any other version.  But that is already making a huge leap.  Joe’s arguments were structured as logical syllogisms so either he took them from somewhere else or he knows something about how logic works but many of the syllogisms were logically unsound.    I would like to recreate them here but Joe took three pages just to establish cause and effect and I don’t want this blog to be anywhere near that long.

Basically, Joe’s whole argument is that a finite universe had to be created by something so it had to be God.  If the universe is infinite then there must be an “uncaused cause” in which something came from nothing.  Since something cannot come from nothing the only explanation is God.  Most physicists believed that the universe was infinite until the Big Band Theory was first proposed by Georges Lemaitre, who was both a scientist and a Catholic priest.  Despite the general acceptance of this theory it is still argued whether the universe is finite or infinite but it is really a semantic discussion because it is speculated by some that there was a previous universe that imploded before this one was created.

Joe’s argument is a pretty typical argument from religious people.  It basically goes like this.  There are things in the universe that we don’t understand.  Because we don’t understand them they must be impossible.  Only God can do the impossible so God must exist.  Have fun with that one.

Descartes and the Ontological Argument for God.

Joe really fucked up with Rene Descartes.  He presented Descartes argument like this:

1) If something exists, then nothing does not exist.
2Something exists.
2(a) The “Cogito, ergo sum” Argument
2(a)  [i] “Cogito, ergo sum” [Latin] / “Je pense donc je suis” [French] / “I think, therefore I am” [English]—René Descartes.
2(a) [ii] “Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum” [Latin] / “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am” [English].
2(a)[iii] “Ego cogito, ergo sum” [Latin] / “‘I am thinking, therefore I exist” [English].
2(a)[iv] “I am, I exist” [René Descartes].
3) Therefore, nothing does not exist.

Seriously, this is what he sent me.  I’m not even sure what this is supposed to mean but I know this is not Descartes argument for the existence of God.  Descartes did not say, “Hey, if I can prove that just one thing exists then God must exist.”  That seems to be what this argument is saying.

Basically, what Descartes actually said was that senses are faulty and we can never be sure of any knowledge that is gained through the senses.  He continued to strip through all knowledge until he got down to the one thing that he could be sure of which was his own existence.  (I think therefore I am.)  From that Descartes said that we could know things through reason alone and he argued that any concept that is “clear and distinct” must be true.

  1. Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be contained in the idea of something is true of that thing.
  2. I clearly and distinctly perceive that necessary existence is contained in the idea of God.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

So what Descartes was actually saying was that God is a necessary concept for the universe to exist just like a triangle is a three sided figure.  Descartes also based a lot of his reasoning on the idea that more complex things have to come from something more complex.  Joe also makes this argument to me by saying that because there is intelligence that intelligence must have come from something more intelligent.  This concept flies completely in the face of everything we currently know about biology and evolution but was widely accepted at the time.  I can hear the religious people calling foul already at the mention of evolution so I will simply use David Hume’s objections.

Hume refuted “intelligent design” way back in the 18th century though he called it “the watchmaker fallacy.”  Hume proposed that design of the universe was impossible to know simply because we only have one universe to judge.  He gave an example.  We can tell the difference between a fence made of stone and a random pile of stones because we have comparisons to make but in the case of our universe we can never be able to know what happened by chance and what happened by design.  He also pointed out that Descartes idea of God was not a “clear and distinct” concept but was made up of a bunch of different concepts of what constitutes perfection.  Hume used the example of things like Mermaids that don’t exist but we are able to imagine them by taking our concept of a woman and our concept of a fish and putting them together.

The Problem of Evil

Joe then uses an argument from Gottfried Leibniz that wasn’t really intended to prove God but to give an explanation of how God could possible exist and the world still be so filled with evil.  Leibnitz explanation is famous.  He said that good could not exist without evil and that the world we live in is the perfect balance.  Our world is, “the best of all possible worlds.”  To try and prove God by using this argument results in circular reasoning but that doesn’t bother Joe.  The argument as Leibnitz presented it was satirized in Voltaire’s novel Candide with the character of Dr. Pangloss representing Leibnitz.

Joe goes on to say that in order for morality to exist there must be a moral judge.  In other words people will all be immoral if they don’t have God to punish them.  This is a horrible thing to say to an atheist and is pretty easily refuted.  Some pretty great immoral acts have been done in the name of God and continued to be done every day.

Despite how much Joe messed up these arguments they are more or less the best arguments ever made to try and justify God’s existence.  That’s right, these three arguments that it took me a few paragraphs to refute are the best arguments that the greatest minds who have ever lived have come up with to try and prove God existed.  Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes and Leibnitz were all geniuses who made contributions to science, logic, mathematics, ethics, political philosophy and many other fields.  Yet, this is the best they were able to come up with on the subject of God.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 14, 2010 8:22 am

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  1. An argument not worth having | Steven's Blog

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