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Paul Obrien Gentle Atheism3

Thomas Aquinas made this argument famous in the 13th century, though Aristotle had his own version of it centuries earlier. This argument appeals to such notions as cause and effect, and it addresses that which can be as confounding as a Zen koan.

It seems certain that the world exists and we exist in the world. But this world is certainly the effect of some earlier cause. Just as we are living because we were born from parents, the world moves and exists because of some incident causing it to exist. It could have been a sun exploding, hurling dust into the galaxy, thickening into a mass that eventually attained enough weight to orbit an even heavier object, the sun; or maybe it was something else. Nonetheless, the world was caused by something else which came before it. That thing which caused the world to exist and move also had something that caused it to exist, and that in turn also had something that caused it, and so on. The origin of the world and the whole universe seems to be the product of a process of cause and effect that extends farther and farther back in time.

But how can this be? There seems to be an infinite regression here. Everything that exists is certainly the effect of something else; but that something else is the effect of yet another thing and the list never seems to end. Yet mustn’t it end somewhere? Something had to have been the first cause. In a row of dominos where they’re all falling down in order, one causing another to fall, there had to be that first falling domino which started the series. It seems that the same should be true for the series of things happening in the universe.

There is only one explanation for this, Aquinas skillfully asserts; something was the first cause and yet was not caused itself. Something was the first movement that caused all other movements to occur, yet was not moved by anything other than itself. You might want to visualize it as the first, self-moving domino; no domino pushed it down, but through its own power, it fell and in turn knocked all the other dominos down (the dominos we call objects in the universe, metaphorically). The chain reaction had to begin somewhere and this is where it began, at this point of the unmoved mover and the uncaused cause. This first step is what we call God, he who created all things and yet was not created himself.

I have laid awake at night considering this notion of how everything began. It had to begin somewhere at some time, didn’t it? Aquinas has corralled a notion that stands as a striking, perplexing question to human thought. But we must be careful to assess his solution. Aquinas has asked the right question, but has he provided the right answer?

His solution is that something had to have caused itself, had to have been the "Prime Mover," and it makes some sense. But I cannot help but feel that it is too easy and too cursory an account for the problem at hand. We have no experience of dealing with something that causes itself totally unaffected by anything outside of itself, or that moves something else without itself being moved. There is simply no precedent for such a thing, because it violates our notions of physics and common intuition. This prime mover that Aquinas proposes would have to be something which started the chain reaction billions of years ago, but by means that we as humans do not understand.

So what? After all, there are millions of things that we as humans do not understand. I only wonder, though, if this is too far a stretch to be viable, however clean and tidy it would make things. We are asked to accept an explanation for how the omnipresence of cause-and-effect came to pass, and this explanation cannot be comprehended (because it violates our notions of physics) and cannot be observed (because it happened billions of years ago). This is asking a lot for us to accept, and let me tell you why. If my car was not running well and my father told me how to fix it, I may fail to comprehend his explanation. But if I do what he says and my car works, I have at least observed his theory working empirically and that gives it weight. In other words, my observation of the phenomena gives the theory behind it some credibility regardless of the fact that I do not fully comprehend the theory itself.

Now imagine that an anthropologist describes to me an ancient weapon, one that has been described by a certain tribe for centuries. All physical remnants of this artifact have long since rotted away, let us say, but through the oral tradition of this tribe, a full description of its form and function can be provided. I will never be able to see this weapon because every example of it is gone, but I can still comprehend it; this gives a little weight to the theory behind the weapon. In other words, my comprehension of the phenomenon gives the theory and explanation behind it credibility regardless of the fact that I do not observe it.

But without any comprehension or observation of something, I become doubtful about whether the phenomenon has much credibility to it at all. Something is being offered which works only in an extremely general and theoretical sense, but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of it, it can neither be observed nor comprehended. It is not self-evident that this prime mover is the only option either. Ridiculous as it may sound, I have heard that maybe someone from the future might someday time-travel to the beginning of the universe before anything existed and start everything up, completing a loop in time and creation; that may sound outrageous, but it is conceivable, even remotely, isn’t it? Findings in quantum physics, after all, have at least suggested the possibility that time can move backwards, so at least it doesn’t violate our comprehension of physics.

But what that latter theory lacks, Aquinas’s theory also lacks: convincing proof. It is speculation about something that is too distant and untouchable by our minds and senses, at least at this time. My curiosity still drives me to speculate upon the issue, but I fear that without some real advances in our understanding of the universe and its origins, this theory will never extend beyond mere speculation. I certainly do not want to condemn speculation and the formulation of theories and hypotheses. After all, this is where great ideas usually arise. But we have to be sure that these theories are solid enough to rest on before we can say that they offer a definitive argument for something. My hat is off to Aquinas, let there be no doubt of that, but I’m afraid he hasn’t earned the cigar.

There is a further flaw in this argument, and it is a point that will certainly come up again and again. Even if we grant Aquinas his uncaused cause, how do we know if it is still around today? Couldn’t it have simply started everything and then extinguished itself? Why not? And how would we know anyway? Even if this prime mover is still around, how do we know it is omnipotent like the Christian God is generally thought to be? How do we know it has any intellectual faculties or omniscience, much less the benevolence that God is often thought to possess? It seems conceivable that if the cosmological argument were correct, God could be far less than omnipotent, completely inhuman, and maybe even dead.

This argument, by itself, does not have enough resources to answer these questions or refute these discouraging possibilities. I fear someone will have to use some other argument to supplement these explanations, and that is why we are surveying all the main arguments: to try to see the bigger picture. But we can also make a very important distinction here between two detonations of God. On the street, if someone says "God" we probably think of the entity of God, the benevolent and infinitely powerful Creator. But when some people refer to "God," they do not mean this anthropomorphic meaning of God at all. Some mean "God" as an order in the universe, with all of those traits ascribed to an entity put entirely aside.

Many people have believed and many people still believe in a God in the sense that the universe is orderly and patterned, and yet these same people do not accept the anthropomorphic accounts for God. Are they atheists then? You’ll have to ask them. The point is that this order is something very different than the anthropomorphic God. Some of these proofs lend themselves more to the order meaning of God than to the entity one, and this seems to be the case in the cosmological argument. Whatever Aquinas intended and whatever meaning of God he hoped to confirm, this argument runs into less trouble with the "God-as-order" meaning than with the meaning of "God-as-humanlike."

Therefore, keep in mind that the questions I asked earlier about whether this prime mover determines anything at all about a benevolent entity really applies to the one meaning of God and not the other. Also keep this in mind when you read any literature about God and hear people talking about God. For example, a famous scientist may have said something about God, but he intended it to be about the "God-as-order" meaning. Someone who is religious could misunderstand this use of the word "God" and misapply his statement to something about "God-as-humanlike." These kinds of misunderstandings happen more than one might think, and I suspect these kinds of misquotations are merely mistakes.

So if a group of scientists, or any group of people for that matter, are referring to "God" in passing and the meaning that they are intending is not obvious, try to figure it out as soon as possible. It makes all the difference in the world.

The Teleological Argument

This is another very intelligent account for the existence of God, and I find the point that it raises of particular relevance to my overall thesis in this work.

The world is a beautiful place, and the fact that we are alive is astoundingly remarkable. This planet had to be just the right distance from just the right size of star, and it had to have so many factors be correct (temperature, air pressure, chemical composition) for any life to come into being upon it. And how strangely magnificent a living creature is. It is almost mystical and magical that life came to pass at all. And besides life, take the order of the stars, the order of the electrons in the very atoms that make up all things, and even the order of mathematics and formal logic. Take the great symmetry and complexity of the universe we know, and it makes a poet out of the worst of us.

It is within this sentiment that the teleological argument resides: this world is just too orderly to be a mere happenstance. Scientists may have us believe that this life as we know it and even this planet and galaxy came about by mere chance. But it seems unlikely, to this arguer, that chance could have produced such beauty and order among what ought to be, in all scientific probability, a chaos. There must have been a designer of all this, an intelligent architect who formed creation to be what it is. This argument makes God to be this architect of the universe, the grand and intelligent designer of this great orderly symmetry we find throughout the universe. I must admit, on a personal note, that I find it wonderfully romantic to think that the ways of the universe would inspire us, who are often such ungrateful and ignorant creatures, to be so humbled and awed as to assign an orderer to the world we live in.


But what would the person who gives us this argument say to me if I told them that I thought chance was behind all of this anyway, at least to the best of my knowledge? Maybe they would sigh and tell me, "you overestimate the power of chance."

"And you underestimate it," I would reply.

First of all, I feel no less awed by the beauty of nature thana theist does. A belief in the existence of God is not a necessary condition for the respect and appreciation of the order that we seein the universe. Second of all, I seem to have less troubleaccepting the notion that chance could have been responsible forthe universe when I consider all the billions of years, the billions of stars, and all of the countless rocks that could be orbiting those stars which could potentially house life. It is almost incalculable. The teleological arguer makes an educated guess that the chances are far too slim to accept that chance alone could be responsible. I, on the other hand, and hopefully speaking for many people, also make an educated guess and find that the chances may not be so bad after all.

This argument also suffers from what the cosmological argument suffers from: even if you grant it as true, it really gives no indication as to why this God would have to be omnipotent, benevolent, or even still be alive at all. I am not at all convinced that it would take an entity as opposed to an inhuman force to cause or create the universe. I am also not convinced that if an entity did in fact create the universe that it must be benevolent either. No real evidence points to either conclusion in any real way. There is too much assumption and speculation to call this argument true, however true it might feel.

As for the symmetry of logic and mathematics, I obviously cannot appeal to chance and the vastness of the physical universe since chance in the physical world is inapplicable to abstractions. That still doesn’t convince me that they are somehow the product of design, however, and I do not see why they couldn’t be these merely inhuman axioms that just reside in nature, like matter and extension. Simply being unable to account for their origin does not convincingly lead to something like God. Maybe we just don’t know.

But though I do not accept the argument, I can appreciate its sentiment. Being an atheist does not in any way take away a strong appreciation and love for life. But as I will soon discuss, atheists are sometimes guilty of reasoning similar to this teleological arguer. Just as the design argument tries to constrain the universe to God, some atheists would try to show how God is constrained to the universe.

These are three of the most classical arguments for the existence of God. If the list seems incomplete, I applaud your suspicion. It is extremely incomplete, but it provides a good foundation upon which we can build. Though there are probably hundreds of arguments, I have purposefully left out two specific arguments for the existence of God only because they deserve special attention for the fruitful ideas they yield: they are the pragmatist argument and the argument from faith. The latter isn’t really an argument at all, at least not in a formal sense, but it convinces and converts maybe more than all of the other theories combined.

The point in describing these three theories is twofold. First, I want to introduce some of the more conventional arguments for the existence of God to a less experienced detective; but even to a more experienced sleuth, I try to at least touch upon old arguments just for the sake of recapitulation. Secondly and more importantly, I now want to immediately put aside these issues that seem to arise in many discussions about the existence of God. My brief criticisms are certainly cursory and incomplete in many ways, but my intention is to diffuse the arguments in order to get at what I consider to be the heart of the issue of God. Though I do not claim to have refuted any of the three arguments, I hope I have at least suggested that serious doubt about their tenability exists. This doubt is meant only to encourage us to look further into the topic and not become too settled upon its surface.

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