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God (1997)

Jan Narveson


[This paper was originally published in Reason Papers, #22 - Fall 97, pp. 109-118. Electronically republished here with permission of Reason Papers.]

The question before us tonight is whether God exists. But I think we may re-phrase this in a way that enables discussion to proceed more effectively. Our question is whether we ought to believe that there exists such a thing as God is said to be. More precisely yet, it is whether it is reasonable to believe that.

We should perhaps be still clearer about this. One possibility is that it would be irrational to believe that God exists. This would be so if the belief was either just nonsensical--a "belief" only in words, with no coherent content at all, or internally inconsistent, or flatly incompatible with clearly relevant facts. Another possibility would be that it is irrational not to believe in God--that God's existence is either self-evident, or required by known facts. Finally, it may be that belief in God is neither of the foregoing, and that the belief may be placed along a spectrum ranging from just barely possible to extremely likely.

I shall not argue that belief in God is completely irrational, though I have my suspicions along that line. I will argue, though, that it is definitely not reasonable: that anyone who thinks that the hypothesis that God exists actually explains any known facts is probably guilty of some kind of confusion. I will propose that the cognitive status of religious belief puts it among the intellectual nonstarters in the way of hypotheses. That such beliefs may, for some reason, be comforting or dramatically interesting--or kind of fun--is not denied. But those are hardly reasons compelling belief on rational grounds. Rather, they explain why so many people hold them, despite extreme paucity of cognitive appeal.

Now, people will no doubt say that there are many "gods"--or, more precisely, that different people have quite different beliefs about a god or gods. This is true, in a sense, but again, I think we can narrow the field of possibilities sufficiently so that Professor Craig and I, at least, will be talking about the same thing when we address this question.[1] We both suppose--along with almost everyone present, I suppose--that the entity intended by the term "God" is (1) essentially a mind or spirit, rather than some sort of material force as such, and that this mind is characterized by (2) the possession of infinite power and (3) "goodness," especially in specifically moral respects. Thus, the claim made at the outset of the Judeo-Christian Bible, that "in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth," may be regarded as a sort of defining feature, a laying down of the terms of reference, for the belief we are considering. A being of infinite power would have to have done that--nothing could possibly exist that such a being didn't want to have existing, one would suppose, and at the very least nothing could exist without, as it were, his permission.

A lot of people for a very long time have believed that there is such a mind or spirit, though at this point it is well to bear in mind that there really are a lot of religious-type beliefs that differ pretty drastically from this particular one. I will, for this reason, make a slightly extravagant assumption: falling in step with the Judeo-Christian-classical Greek-western rationalistic tradition, I suggest that if we are to suppose that there are any genuine arguments possible on behalf of a religious hypothesis, this imperialistic type Western one has a great deal going for it. Religions such as pantheism, say, or the colorful galaxies of goddish figures abounding in some of the eastern religions, while a lot more fun than our boring Western tradition, do have the disadvantage, from the point of view of intellectual interest, that they really do seem rather arbitrary and fanciful. I mean, the very idea of having evidence, reason, for supposing that there are all those chaps in the Hindu caste of divine characters really does strain the intellect.

Let us, then, turn to the matter of arguments for (or against) the existence of God. Now, I am not sure how many in this audience will have taken a Philosophy 100 type course, and examined, with the help of some reasonably competent teacher, what are regarded as the archetypal arguments for the existence of God. If you haven't, then the next bits of this address are perhaps going to be somewhat unintelligible, and I apologize for that; but this is not a seminar, but only a public debate, and we simply can't go into everything at the depth the subject deserves here. So, I am going to settle for a very quick rundown on these classic arguments, and accompany most of them by a very quick dismissal which would be utterly outrageous if it weren't that the subject is so thoroughly discussed in philosophical literature.

1. "Ontological"

We begin by noting the sometime popularity of some perfectly fascinating arguments--from the logical point of view anyway--known as "ontological" arguments. On this view, all we have to do is to understand the sheer idea of god to see that, obviously, there simply must be one (and, of course, only one) of those things. While there are a very few people working away in dusty attics trying to save something from this sort of argument, I stand with the overwhelming majority of my fellow philosophers in regarding that project as, essentially, nuts. Conceptual analysis can tell us at most what sort of god there is if there is one; but it can't tell us that there is one. Period.

2. "Cosmological"

According to these arguments, the "cosmos" is such that there simply couldn't be such a thing if there weren't also a god around to create the thing--to get the show on the road, as it were. And these are arguments for which Dr. Craig, as it turns out, has considerable sympathy.

Alas, though, I have to say that along with an almost--but not quite--equally overwhelming majority of my fellow philosophers, my verdict is, again, a solid nix on this one. The idea that if there is a cosmos there must be a god invites a familiar and, I think, unanswerable question: Why? That is to say, why should the claim that there has always, forever and ever going into the past, been a god be any more plausible than the view that there has always, forever and ever going into the past, been a cosmos?

Craig spells out his version of the Ontological Argument in remarkably learned fashion; his contributions to the book, Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology, are studded with exotic symbols and listings of hypotheses from current physics and astronomy, and I am very impressed with that. The trouble is, though, all this superpower conceptual apparatus is brought in on behalf of the same old argument we find in two sentences or so in Aquinas. The cosmos couldn't be infinite; yet everything has to have a cause; therefore the cosmos has a cause; and "this we call God," as they say.

But, alas! Being the same old argument, it has the same old problem: God himself, clearly, has to be an actual infinite, if anything. (Consider that God is a mind, or minded being. Minds exist in time (the idea that God's somehow doesn't strikes me as sheer evasive double-talk); but Craig's and Aquinas's first premise is that there can't be any of those: actual infinities, they want to say, are impossible. Very well, then: if actual infinities are impossible, then it is impossible that there is a God. So you pretty well have to take your pick: either there can't be a god; or there can be real infinities, in which case why can't the physical universe be it? [Craig offers an interesting argument for the impossibility of infinities which I'll be happy to discuss if anyone wants to--but it won't work--luckily for him. As I say.]

I'm inclined to put this type of argument down to metaphysical snobbery on the part of us humans. We have minds, of course, and that puts us at a great advantage over mere physical objects, which, so far as we have any reason to believe, do not. The advantage is that they can't discuss the subject with us! So if we tell them that we're better than they are--nyah, nyah!--they aren't about to talk back. However, that's not much of a substitute for rational cogency, if you see what I mean.

3. Arguments from "Design"

So we had better move on to where, as I suppose Dr. Craig will agree, the action is. These are the sort of arguments that flourished back in the 18th Century. Impressed by the progress of science and the prowess of scientific method, the thinkers of that century, and their successors down to the present, proposed that various features of the world around us as we know it are such as to make it very likely that a creative intelligence is responsible for it. These "arguments from design," as they are called, seem to me to be of the right general type, broadly speaking, to rate at least some sort of a hearing from the thoughtful inquirer. Shortly, we'll turn to them.

Emotional Considerations

But before getting down to brass tacks with those arguments, we should mention a few sideshow considerations that have, I think, strongly influenced a lot of people. It may have been noted that I have entirely left out of the above any kind of emotional stuff, and in a way, I apologize for that. After all, most people who have a religion attach a lot of emotional significance to it. They want to suppose that there is a personal God who will, as it were, be around to sympathize with them when things are tough, and they want to be able to write oratorios in his praises and that sort of thing. I sympathize with these people, and I don't wish in the least to denigrate the deep impulses from which these tendencies flow. Unfortunately, however, if we are to try to elevate such things to the level of argument, then they come up against a general problem which appears to me to be fatal: namely, that an argument of the form, "Wouldn't it be neat if p," simply doesn't entail "p." Wishful thinking isn't argument--though it is, too often, a substitute for it.

I must say that I don't quite understand how anyone can imagine that the sheer fact that he very much wants a certain thing to be true is, of itself, enough to make it true. One wonders how such a person's belief-forming mechanisms work, or whether they work at all. But anyway, let's just point out that if you'd like to have a rationally justified belief that there is a God, you had better roll up your sleeves and find some genuine reason why we should suppose this, rather than just singing louder.

The same is true of such "arguments" as that an awful lot of people have supposed that there is a god, so there must be one, right? I mean, can all that number of people be wrong? Trouble is, the answer is pretty obviously "Yes"--as evidenced by the fact that since there are umpty thousand different religions, each incompatible with all the rest, almost everybody must be wrong anyway. Besides that, there are a whole lot of people--usually ones who have thought about the subject a lot more than most believers--who have no religion at all. In short, all these various people don't agree with each other; so they can't all be right, and must, indeed, mostly be wrong.

In any case, of course, we have to do a lot better than to count noses when our question is whether some objective fact obtains, a fact obtaining independently of our belief in it. And that is the kind of fact that the existence of God would, obviously, have to be.

Explanations and Best Explanations

So let's get back to the main kind of argument that, as I say, seems to deserve our most serious attention. The Argument from Design is, actually, a somewhat primitive or, should we say, insufficiently clued-in version of a more general type of argument--the sort of argument that is typical of science.

That "argument from design" says that the Universe has such-and-such a "design"; therefore, it must have a designer! But here, I must point out, we may have run afoul of a terrible ambiguity. The word "design," namely, can be used in two ways: to mean (a) something like "pattern," such as the layout of a checker-board; or it can mean (b) something brought about, or intended to be brought about, by somebody or other who has a scheme, a plan, in short a design. The argument would be flatly question-begging if, looking out at the Universe around you, you were to say, "obviously it has design," meaning "design" in the second sense. But if we are to have a genuine argument here, we are entitled only to the term in its first sense. In that sense, we observe, looking out at the universe, that it has a certain pattern or structure. And we then go on to suggest that it could hardly have had such a thing if there weren't some terribly clever Person to design it like that (and of course, to build it, having designed it).

That's a respectable argument, in form; the only thing wrong with it is that, alas, its major premise is false. That is to say: it simply isn't true that the only thing that could give an entity some structure or other is some minded entity who wanted it to be that way. Like Topsy, lots of structures just grow--crystals, say. Nature is lots of ways, and one of them is crystal lattices, and another is the double helix, and still another is ... but you get the point. If somebody is going to maintain, nevertheless, that some feature or other of the world around us is such that Somebody must have existed to make it that way, he's simply going to have do a lot better than that.

What is needed is an argument of the following general type. We have here a phenomenon to be explained. The phenomenon is the existence of the observable world around us. This we can all see if we have but eyes to see--no problem. We ignore, for example, the "skeptics," who doubt that we have any reason to believe that anything "really" exists. Now, skeptics are lots of fun, and good intellectual exercise, if one has the leisure for it--but we definitely don't just now. So we'll have to forego this pleasure, and assume that the skeptic is well off the mark.

Not only do we reject the general claim that there is actually no world around us at all; we actually know a fair amount about the place by now--all of which is available for purposes of arguments such as these. Now: the religious person is offering the existence of God as an explanation of all this. His argument, then, is of the general type, "Inference to the Best Explanation." Obviously this is a rubric that brings up lots of important questions, notably, What makes an explanation a good explanation? And while we can hardly get to the bottom of the matter, we must say a little about this.

Well, for one thing, an explanation has to explain. That is: the proposal, the hypothesis, put forward as doing the explaining has to be such that, once you understand the thing and you understand the phenomenon to be explained, you can see how, yes, one of those things would lead to one of these things being the way it is--and not some other way. But, preferably, you'd be able to say a bit more. After all, tons of candidates might be able to meet this first requirement. Much better would be to be able to say that, really, there's hardly any competition: the other proposals just don't cut it.

The next thing is that, needless to say, your explanation had better be consistent with the facts. If it implies that things would be different from the way they are, then that hypothesis is out the window, at least until somebody can show that maybe the recalcitrant facts can be accounted for by some side hypothesis or something. Meanwhile, though, what we want is that all the things we know are consistent with this hypothesis, and then in addition there are things that seem pretty much to scream out for just this one.

Or at least any other hypotheses we can think of that might explain them are just too klunky to bother with. Correct hypotheses have, we think, a certain elegance.

So what about the God hypothesis? Well, it does seem to have elegance, and if it has it at all, it has it in spades. I mean, we're going to explain this whole shebang, all this stupefying welter of stuff in the universe as we know it, as being the result of some one gigantic mind at work. How elegant can you get?

Well, actually that's something of a delusion, as we'll shortly see. But for the moment, I'm willing to allow that on the face of it, the God hypothesis looks pretty darned elegant. So what else has it got going for it?

Alas, this is where things begin to get tricky. In fact, I would have to say that that's literally the right word for it: the appearance that the God hypothesis explains the existence of the world around us, when you look it straight in the eye, suddenly turns into a phantasm. Here's why. If we are going to explain something or other by the suggestion that somebody made it that way, did something to bring it about in conformity with an antecedent plan, then we at least have to know:
     (a) what the plan was, and,
     (b) how he did it.

Now, I'm willing to waive the second thing for the moment. How on earth (so to speak) would an infinite being go about creating something out of nothing? The supporters of the God theory aren't bothered by that question, because they think they can just say, "Well, who are we to know a thing like that? I mean, give us a break--God can do anything, right? By definition he can! So go away and don't bother me about that!"

Actually, we should look at that response with a jaundiced eye, for it sweeps a lot of perfectly reasonable questions under the carpet. However, as I say, I'm willing, for the time being, to let the believer get away with this. It's the other thing that really bothers us. Why would an infinitely intelligent being do this sort of thing, anyway? We have to have an answer to that if we are to suppose that we have a genuine explanation of the type we are all familiar with, involving the having of understandable purposes and the equipment to bring them about. But alas, we don't. And that's not all. It isn't just that we don't, but we can't.

Consider: what we are told is that things are the way they are because some very bright chap wanted them to be that way. And how do we know that? I mean, how do we know that this--and not something else--is the sort of thing an infinitely intelligent infinitely powerful being would do, as it were, in his spare time? Well, when you think about it, it shortly becomes obvious that we haven't the foggiest, remotest shred of a notion on this point. And thus we come to see that in fact, this so-called "explanation" is nothing of the sort: it's not an explanation at all, but rather, an account that needs at least as much explaining as what we're trying to explain with it. That makes it a nonstarter as real explanations go. As an explanation of anything at all, the God hypothesis is a fake, a nonstarter.

As an example, consider the question of "creationism." Why did the folks with two legs and one head and stuff win out over those weird organisms they found over in Alberta? Answer; because God wanted them to! And how do we know he wanted them to? Where did you get the hot line to God? That is to say: how do we know he is the sort of being who would have wanted this sort of world instead of the other sort he could have had instead? The answer is: we don't! Instead, the creationist says, "Well, that's the kind he must have wanted, seeing as how that's what actually happened!" A "hypothesis" like that is, of course, totally useless--and thus not a real hypothesis at all. No matter what happens, the Creationist is all ready to say that God must have wanted it that way--no reason given, or even possible, as to why he would have, and consequently no way to predict what he'll want next.

In addition to all that, I would remind you of a little problem that has been afflicting theological circles for a long time. For if you look around certain corners of the universe, it is not only utterly unclear why an intelligent being would have wanted to create one of those gadgets, but--much worse yet--it does sort of look as though here's a fair amount about it that an intelligent being would be pretty embarrassed about creating. Malaria, for example, or Tay-Sachs Syndrome, stuff like that. Now, theological philosophers are all ready to tell us hokey stories about how God is just out to try our souls with a bit of evil to worry about, and so on. In the end, what they say is this classic line: that "the Lord works in mysterious ways his wonders to achieve." Yeee-up! Hey, right! So mysterious that even when we've got stuff that looks exactly like the stuff he isn't supposed to want us to produce, it somehow still fits. (Praises be, eh?!)

So, in short, if you are looking for a genuine explanation of anything, theology just isn't where it's at. Once you've got your explanatory being at hand, then you are in a position to attribute this or that particular result to his operation. But if you don't have him yet, and are trying to infer his existence from the way things you, you are in over your (and everyone else's) head.


To all of the above, I do want to add a quick footnote on a subject that I suspect is of great interest and, maybe, concern to a lot of you: namely, the relation between religion and morals. In fact, a lot of people think, I believe, that religion is somehow the "foundation" of morals. It's worth concluding this short excursion by pointing out that this, too, is a delusion, only a more serious one than the first one.

The basic reason why the hypothesis of a God can't explain right and wrong is simple. As pointed out at the beginning, God is defined as a being who is, among other things, infinitely good. But this means that if we didn't know what the term "good" means already, independently of anything we might "get" from a theological story, then it would follow that we simply can't discuss the subject of god: saying that "God is good" would mean absolutely nothing.

On the other hand, if we do know that already--which, of course, we do--then it is impossible that we needed to have got it from God. In fact, it's the other way around. The truth of the matter is that the hypothesis of a morally perfect being running the show is a hypothesis presupposing some other good account of morals. The idea of God "legislating" the rules of morality is the idea of somebody running the show the way we think it should be run. But all of the genuine thinking about this has to be done outside of theology, since all it can do is build the results into its religious account.

The reason why it is right to do so-and-so cannot, in short, be that some infinitely wise being says we should do it. He wouldn't be an infinitely wise being unless he had darn good reason for saying we should do so and so; but he can't conceivably have better reason than that is is right. Yes, we know: but why is it right? What makes it so? Appealing to God for answers to that questions is logically useless. When it comes to morals, God is a fifth wheel. Unfortunately, it is a wheel that has steered a great many people way down some very wrong tracks, so this is no fussy little abstract logical point.

It is perhaps in point to add, too, that the structure of most religions, including this one, is one that looks like a perfect set up for turning ordinary people into slaves, or dupes--in short, the whole thing sounds uncomfortably like fascism. And this no big surprise: what story could be more useful to aspiring dictators than one according to which they are merely the agents of God who, of course, is always right--n'est pas?

I'll conclude by suggesting that the idea that you can actually have a reason, in the sober scientific or logical sense of that term, for believing in anything as far-out as the existence of God is, actually, a bit on the fantastic side. In the minds of the many people who believe such things, we have to say that religious hypotheses are myths--charming, sometimes profound as may be, and often emotionally compelling--but still, basically, myths. People believe them because it makes them comfortable, or perhaps because it makes them uncomfortable and they're neurotic old-school Torontonians who just don't feel right unless they're guilty about something; and so on... but whatever else, it's not because these stories have some genuine conceptual content that can do some honest intellectual work. They're just not in that ball park, I'm afraid.

Now, I for my part am very grateful that Bach wrote the Mass in B Minor and that all those devout people built Chartres Cathedral, and so on. Religion gets a lot of points for things like that, even if it also has the embarrassment of being responsible for perhaps most of the wars that have ever been fought, and so on. But to bring in such things is to take the discussion to another plane, I guess. So I quit, for the moment.


[1] The occasion was a debate with William Craig at the University of Toronto in January, 1996.

"God" is copyright © by Reason Papers. Electronically published by Internet Infidels with permission.