Let me run down some preliminary points first. The question whether agnosticism or atheism…I think what we have here is a word allergy, perhaps. I claim that there is no rational justification for the belief in the existence of God. I also claim that the evidence is strongly against it; that the rational conclusion to draw is that there is no God. I do not believe that agnosticism is necessarily a stable middle position. I believe that if you add the evidence up and start drawing conclusions, there is about as much reason to believe in the existence of God as there is to believe in leprechauns, for example.
In terms of the question about whether a belief that one holds in a particular God, say a Christian God, excludes all other Gods, I think that is a point that really needs to be returned to. It is impossible, as far as I can see, that one could have anything like a fully-fledged belief in the reality of the God of the New Testament, that does not by its very nature rule out the possibility, the bare possibility, of some other scriptural tradition. It is an unpleasant point for many people to find themselves having to swallow, but I think that if you believe there is any content to your theistic belief…you are necessarily led to the conclusion that other visions of the divine are as false, for example, as atheism would be false on your view.
But, now let’s get to the question of whether God’s existence or the postulation of God’s existence makes any sense of the origin of the universe. Alright. The question here, I think, really has to be addressed from the standpoint of what are you going to take for granted? If, of course, you take the existence of God for granted and say from God, Big Bang, universe, no problem. The atheist, however, does not have and does not need a particular causative view about where the world came from. All that atheism asserts is the balance of the evidence does not favor a God. You don’t necessarily need, right, a positive view about the nature of origins in order to make atheism work. In particular, atheism needs no positive theory of cosmic origins, except to claim that theist cosmology is not rationally justified, that there is nothing going for it. Given the current state of Big Bang cosmology, and particularly given the fact that theories rise and fall with the publication of each new issue of physics journals, it would be rash indeed to think that we are currently in possession of the truth about the origins of the universe. In light of this situation, an atheist can, and I think should, be content with accepting that we do not have conclusive evidence for any particular body or cosmology or any particular body of theory regarding cosmic origins. There are after all, two goals involved in philosophical theorizing about the world. The first goal is to find the truth. The second is to avoid error. In circumstances where our best available scientific theories are still very much "under construction," it is prudent, I think, to avoid error and not to claim that we know where the world came from. Showing that God is not the rational explanation for the universe is an entirely different task than showing how and why the universe came to be. I claim that we are well justified to believing that the standard God of western monotheism is not the explanation of the world, without having much confidence in any particular theory of where things came from.
Well, let’s move then to the question…I am skipping just a little bit here…so move to the question of whether or not the initial conditions of the universe or that the Big Bang or this great singularity out there some 15 billion years ago. If the order and structure and coherence of the world are perhaps not better explained by theism than by atheism. In particular, I believe the question that was posed is the following: Given that the initial conditions of the Big Bang place the odds very, very heavily against the existence of a universe hospitable to life, are we justified in thinking that cosmic evolution, so to speak, is the outcome of a purposive, intelligent choice? Theism, I remind you, requires that the existence of the world is explained in some way by the action of an intelligent, purposive God…you know, and the theist needs to claim that his God serves as some kind of intelligent purposive agent who chooses to create a world. Right?
Alright. I claim that there is no such justification for that kind of belief, and there are several points worth making in this context. I will have to make them fairly quickly. First of all, if the Big Bang had been caused by a God who desired to create a universe hospitable to life, then it should be possible, at least in principle, to predict the outcome of the Big Bang from its initial conditions. But, as standardly interpreted at any rate, Big Bang cosmology gives no such predictability. Not even in principle. At the Big Bang singularity, all law-like relations break down, Stephen Hawking’s so-called "Principle of Ignorance" reigns supreme. It is literally impossible to tell what’s going to come out of the Big Bang singularity. Impossible, I submit, even for a rational agent like God, who is alleged to have created it.
The second point, much more significant, I think, is that present state of the universe is improbable only relative to the many ways that some universe or other might have come into existence. But, because we know that this is a universe where life exists, all we may justly conclude is that our cosmological theory must make it possible for the universe to support life. Big Bang cosmology does exactly this. Alright, it satisfies what is called the weak anthropic principle.
Thirdly, from the fact that initial probability is low, no conclusion at all follows about whether it is the result of a conscious choice. Take 10,000 coins. Toss them into the street. Any particular sequence of heads and tails you get will be absurdly improbable, but none of them arises from design.
Finally, some cosmological models include what are called inflationary … stages early on in the expansion of the universe, possibily due to quantum fluctuations. On such models, the present state of the universe could very easily, or relatively easily, have arisen from quite a large number of initial configurations. There is no reason, literally no reason to think, that the initial conditions of the Big Bang had to be chosen with great care. Alright? My learned colleague Dr. Craig suggests that the number of ways which the universe might come about with life is vastly, vastly, vastly less than the way that it could come without life. That is only relative to a certain interpretation of the Big Bang theory. I personally think that the theory of the Big Bang as we know and love it today is very much provisional. But, I caution that in taking the most tendentious interpretation of Big Bang cosmology, Dr. Craig has in effect stacked the deck ever so slightly against the atheist. It is perfectly consistent with what we know about inflationary models that a inhabited universe is perfectly plausible.
Let’s move on. Alright. Is it the case that God actually…belief in the existence of God actually makes some kind of sense of order out of the universe? Are we given some kind of explanation by appealing to a God? And, here again, I would stress the points that I made early on. God is by His very nature supposed to be incomprehensible. Right? It is very difficult for me to see what kind of explanatory gain we get by saying there is this incomprehensible something which is not in space, which is not in time, which is not physical, which somehow or other in a way that we can’t understand causes the physical universe to come into being. Alright. Admittedly, the atheist has no presently-available theory which is going to explain where the world came from anyway. But, that is not the point at issue. The point is whether we gain anything by postulating a god as the explanation.
As for the question: why is there something rather than nothing? Well, there is a fairly simple explanation to that. How many ways are there for nothing? One. How many ways are there for there to be something? An infinite number. Even if an actual infinite, what are the odds? A bit of a joke argument, but I think you can see the point… Appealing to God as the explanation of the origin of the universe is, I claim, getting you essentially nowhere.
Well, now let’s move on to the question of moral values. I mentioned, alright, that we were likely to hear something like this. Atheism, it is alleged, makes morality impossible, because it makes objective moral values impossible. I would be very interested to know what objective moral values are. I claim that it is possible to look about in the world and competently judge this is good and that is bad. And, I believe it is possible to look about the world and judge this is good and that is bad by standards that are applicable to any rational agent. Moral philosophers would be very surprised to learn that it is impossible to construct morality or possible to generate an ethical theory, alright, without postulating the existence of God as some kind of explanation. The quote, of course, from Mackie is interesting. Mackie was in many ways a very exceptional philosopher. He was exceptional, I think, also in holding that the existence of God is necessary to justify objective moral truths. A naturalistic understanding of human beings might for example say that (side ended here)
… human beings the reason that we owe obligations to human beings is that they are capable of suffering pain. Of course, you might also reflect upon the fact that other large mammals, such as cattle and dogs, are capable of suffering pain. Those things capable of suffering pain, I claim, are things to which we owe an obligation not inflict pain on. It is beyond me, I simply do not see how, alright, a moral intuition like that, if you like it, lacks objective content. It is very unusual view of ethics, I would say that makes ethics dependent upon the opinions of a god. It is a much more usual way of generating a moral theory by starting off with what we might call broadly conceived intuitions about right or wrong or understandings, understanding of the nature of obligation which don’t use a god.
But, to move on, it is claimed that there is no atheistic explanation for any of these large number of things that allegedly are better explained by the hypothesis theism. Again, I return to the question of what’s the standard here that we are using? What’s the…what in a sense are we being asked to decide? The atheist says the evidence is against the hypothesis that God exists. The atheist does not need to provide a detailed explanation for everything that might conceivably be better explained by the theistic hypothesis. Rather, the atheist can say, “We have a large number of things which are competently explained by familiar sorts of things.” The Principle of Conservatism as I enunciated it, says that we are rationally justified in accepting things that can be explained in the familiar way, which would leave God out, alright, because God counts as unfamiliar. But, all of that is perfectly consistent with there not being [a god]. We have her a burden of proof placed on the atheist: show that this, this and the other thing, can in fact be generated on atheistic principles. It is about Big Bang cosmology again. I claim to be rationally justified in not believing in the existence of God, without having a detailed explanation of the origin of the universe. I suspect that by our very nature, we finite human beings are in a position perhaps never to know, alright, the answer to the big question: Where does it all come from?
And, now finally, to the question of whether God can be known. Is it possible, peering into one’s own mind to find the still small voice that testifies to the existence of God? Here, I think, there is really a problem. A problem for the theist who will hold that he has a reliable, right, route to the truth, a reliable way of determining when God is talking and when not. David Koresh, for example, was firmly persuaded that he was in contact with God. I suspect that most of you would not be…would not welcome, right, the truth of that hypothesis; that he must of been the victim of some deception. But, if the only thing that matters is one’s own subjective sense of certainty, that “Yes, this is God talking”, it would appear that there is no objective means for determining when someone’s religious experiences are correct, when they are veridical, so to speak, when they match up with the way the world is and when they are not. In light of all of that, I am afraid I will have to say that the case for atheism strikes me as still as strong as ever.
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Dr. Jesseph’s statements in the Jesseph-Craig Debate are copyright © 1996 by Doug Jesseph. All rights reserved.
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