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Richard Carrier Indef 3d

Beck’s Argument for God (1999, 2005)

Richard Carrier


[Part 3D of a larger Review of In Defense of Miracles.]


Here I will point out the errors in Becks’ argument for God. Because they are typical of those used by Christians everywhere, sophisticated or not, I think this survey will be of use on its own, although Beck is so bad at this that he is clearly not the best champion for theism. At any rate, the failure of Beck’s particular case here essentially destroys the entire project of In Defense of Miracles. But for those who want a much more comprehensive discussion of the question of whether God or Naturalism can provide the best explanation of the universe and its physics and contents, see Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (2005), where I also engage an extensive demonstration of the natural foundations of moral facts.

First the Old “There Must Have Been a First Cause” Argument

By proving a limitation of the human imagination (in this case, our inability to imagine an actual infinite series), he claims to have proven a limitation on reality. But there is no necessary connection between what humans can do and what nature can do, so this argument fails to prove the necessity of a first cause. It is even more absurd coming from Christians who all, at one time or another, claim some feature of God to be mysteriously incomprehensible, and thus have no problem accepting that something they cannot imagine can nevertheless exist, despite having no evidence or compelling inferences to justify their belief.

As is typical of all apologists, Beck forgets that he is supposed to prove the necessity of a first cause, or else provide physical evidence for one. Instead, he only shows that a first cause is possible and more easily imagined than an eternity, which hardly needs to be argued. Never having experienced an eternity, it is only natural that we should have a hard time imagining it. That tells us more about ourselves than the universe. He must provide a logical reason or empirical evidence, yet he can offer neither. He even refutes himself with the elegant and entirely true statement: “Not everything that can be conceived should be believed” (154). In other words, just because we can imagine a first cause, this is no reason to believe there was one. And he offers no good reasons to believe there was one.

The weakest step he makes, however, is when he claims that this is actually an argument for the existence of God. But there is no reason that a first cause must be equivalent to a god, at least not by his definition. Consider the kind of argument he uses to make such a connection: a first cause is nondependent, and Romans 1:20 mentions the eternal “God-ness” (he does not give the Greek, which is theotês, “divinity, godhead”), which “conveys the idea of nondependence,” so therefore the first cause “we may indeed call ‘God'” (151-3). But why does he think “God-ness” conveys nondependence? Athena possessed theotês yet she was not ‘nondependent’. And certainly just because God could be a first cause, it does not follow that God is a first cause. So as usual, theists pretend that they don’t need empirical evidence for empirical claims. Moreover, Beck trips over his first argument here. If an actual infinity can’t exist, then even God must have had a first cause, which would beg for an explanation–yet another god? Is it gods all the way down? But if Beck’s sudden reversal is correct, and God can be eternal but uncaused, then Beck’s argument that an actual infinite series is impossible would have to be false, since, for example, an omniscient God’s thoughts would then be an actual infinite series. It seems either way you look his case is doomed.

Theists can’t have it both ways, even though they always want to. Since a universe can be eternal just as easily as a god can, and since the nature of the universe can be a first cause just as easily as a god can, the First Cause argument is vacuous. Since Christians find it easier to imagine a god as an explanation, they conclude that therefore it is more reasonable. They forget the fact that obviously they will find it easier to imagine a God as an explanation: they’ve spent far more time imagining it! They have primed themselves to accept their own conclusion as more natural, a delusion so common that scientists have developed the concept of blind and double-blind experimentation, and other methods, in order to prevent it from tainting the results of research. This is why we cannot trust arguments based on what we find “easier” to “imagine,” especially when talking about things in which our brains have no experience (such as the origin of a universe).

Second the Old “It’s Too Complex to Have Happened by Chance” Argument

Things that seem designed are designed. That’s the teleological inference. The most fundamental flaw with the teleological inference is that it is unfalsifiable and thus could not be refuted even if it were wrong. This means that it is a useless axiom, because it cannot advance our knowledge of the universe. After all, if we cannot know when it is false, then we cannot know when it is true. The argument goes like this: in our experience, we have seen design come only from intelligent action, therefore it is reasonable to infer that all design comes from intelligent action. This is not a necessary deduction, but it would be a reasonable inference–if the premises were true. The problem is that this inference assumes its own truth by using the word “only.” How do we know that we have seen design only as a result of intelligent action? We don’t. All of nature may be proof of unintelligent design, and scientists have found a great deal of evidence to support the belief that unintelligent design exists in abundance. For example, no intelligence is required to make an amorphous substance crystallize in an orderly fashion–it does so automatically. Maybe the nature of the substance (the “physical laws” which govern it) were designed, but that is both undemonstrable and irrelevant. Even if God created the laws of crystallization, it does not follow that god intelligently creates every crystal.

The point is that if there are certain rules, then there will always be complex outcomes–in other words, there will always be design. Consequently, the existence of complex outcomes only proves, at best, the existence of rules, which describe consistent patterns of behavior and their interaction. It does not prove the existence of a creator. And since this is true for substances, it is equally true for the rules themselves. There simply does not have to be a first intelligent cause. Just as a god can have a complex nature (such as his own intelligence and moral character) without intelligent design, so can a universe and its physics.

So God is not a necessary explanation, which leaves empirical demonstration as their only avenue. But theists can offer no empirical evidence against the possibility that the rules of the universe had an unintelligent cause, nor can they offer any empirical evidence proving an intelligent cause. Once again, their entire argument is derived solely from what is “easier” for them to “imagine,” and thus they prime themselves to ignore every answer but their own. This is an invalid method. How or why the universe has the rules it has is an empirical question that can only be answered through empirical observation–it cannot be answered with logical reasoning, nor with wishful thinking.

The second problem with teleological arguments is scientific and statistical illiteracy. Beck gives us some classic examples, which are typical of all other similar arguments made in many other books. He first declares that “we can calculate the probability of an event’s occurrence…to indicate whether [phenomena] might occur as a result of the normal randomness permitted by the laws of physics” (156). Then he gives as examples (citing Hugh Ross) the “mass density of the universe…polarity of the water molecule…[and the] oxygen quantity in [the Earth’s] atmosphere” (157). But we do not even know what the “normal randomness permitted by the laws of physics” would produce in any of these cases, so he is essentially telling us that we can do something (calculate their probability) which in fact we cannot do. If he understood more about astrophysics he would know this, but such scientific illiteracy typifies apologetic works.

Consider the odds that a stationary body of water on Earth will normally flow downhill rather than uphill. The odds are not 50/50. The laws of physics dictate the odds to be 100%, and we know this. Now what are the odds of the universe having a certain mass density? To figure that, we need to know what physical laws determined that density. But we do not know that. For all we know, the odds of the universe having that density, just like the odds of water on Earth flowing downhill, might have been 100%. What Beck is giving us here is an argument from ignorance: since we do not know what densities were possible, we are allowed to “assume” that it could have been anything at all, and that every option is equally likely. But we are not allowed to assume either. We don’t even know if any other density is possible, much less how likely those other possibilities might be.

This gross incompetence becomes greater still when we examine the other two examples. The polarity of water is necessarily decided by the laws of physics–in particular, the attributes of oxygen and hydrogen, which are decided in turn by the four forces in the context of quantum mechanics. So the actual odds of water having that polarity, given the “normal randomness permitted by the laws of physics” is 100%. Thus, Beck cannot argue that this polarity is improbable. He could, perhaps, go deeper and try to argue that the exact attributes of the four forces are improbable, but how can he or anyone know that? We do not know what caused the forces to be what they are, if any particular physical laws govern them, or what other possible attributes there were or what the odds were of any of those alternatives. This is the same problem noted above. It is, in other words, an argument from ignorance, and that is simply a fallacy.

Now consider his third example. He claims that if the oxygen level were greater or less, life would not be possible. But this is demonstrably false. Not only is there life that breathes neither oxygen nor carbon dioxide (anaerobic bacteria in deep sea volcanic vents), but life began when there was virtually no oxygen at all. Geological studies prove that there was very little oxygen when life began in the Precambrian (at which time no life on earth breathed oxygen). Then as a result of pollution from carbon dioxide breathers, oxygen levels rose to at least 30% above present levels (during the Jurassic period), and then fell again (and are still falling). Thus, life on earth has flourished through all kinds of fluctuations in the supply of oxygen. In fact, humans can survive in oxygen levels as low as 60%, and as high as 140%, of the current average at sea level (according to the current NASA Life Sciences Data Book and the 1977 Princeton study, Space Settlements). If Beck knew anything about geology and biohistory, he would see that he is merely putting his foot in his mouth when he uses this invalid example.

The same scientific illiteracy plagues attempts to show that the cosmological constants “had” to be exactly as they are for some kind of intelligent life to develop–in every case, such assumptions about the consequences of variations in the constants are unsupported by any facts or reasoning, and require that the constants are independent of each other, which is unlikely–change one, and you will no doubt change them all. We also do not know if this is the only kind of universe capable of bearing life. Along the same lines, Beck cites Hoyle’s odds against the formation of DNA (157), blissfully ignorant of the fact that Hoyle’s calculation, like all others in the same vein, is entirely bogus (see my critique of all such DNA-based Odds against Life Calculations).

The Oxygen Level example also betrays the third problem with all teleological arguments: the anthropic fallacy. Most life on earth does not even breathe oxygen. Yet Beck assumes that the level of oxygen is essential for the development of life. Why does he assume this? Because he breathes oxygen. If we had evolved as an intelligent carbon dioxide breathing jellyfish-like creature, Beck would think that the level of carbon dioxide was essential to life on earth, and believe (mistakenly) that any increase or decrease in that level would make life impossible. But the fact is that life uses what it has, and adapts to where it is. The hypothetical jellyfish people would have evolved to live within just such a carbon dioxide level, and that is why the two would seem so well-matched: the fish have developed to match the levels on their planet, not the other way around. The same is true for us: we have adapted to the oxygen level we have. If the levels were different, we would be different. And if the levels yet change, the only people who will survive will be those who can handle the new level, and then their children will propagate this ability and man will change to be perfectly suited to the new level, and so on. So this, and other things like it, can never be used to show that life is improbable. Rather, these things prove only one thing: that life is adaptable to many different circumstances. This is exactly the opposite of what theists want us to think.

I discuss more errors of this kind in various cosmological arguments elsewhere. See Richard Carrier, Ten Things Wrong with Cosmological Creationism (2000) and The Fine Tuning Argument (2001).

Third the old “Objective Moral Values Require a Divine Source” Argument

Here Beck simply regurgitates his own version of the argument of C.S. Lewis. The first premise is “morality is an objective feature of our universe” (160). Beck supports this premise with only one observation: “it is simply impossible…for the larger context of social discourse to occur without making statements about what is right or wrong or without assuming that they are true or false.” But as happens in all such arguments, he refutes himself by actually using subjective facts to support his belief that these statements are rooted in objective facts. But if the connecting premise, which takes us logically from “we believe moral statements are true” to “moral statements refer to objective facts,” is a subjective fact, then the argument falls–instead, the argument proves the exact opposite: that moral statements refer to subjective facts.

Beck’s self-defeating statement is this: “That Adolf Hitler…[was] not really morally wrong, that we cannot judge a society truly guilty if it practices genocide…are such repugnant proposals that we find it impossible to believe that they could be true.” Notice what he is saying: these statements cannot be true because they are repugnant. His argument depends entirely on our subjective reaction to these statements. If we did not find them repugnant, then he would not have an argument, would he? Imagine if he had said this: “That eating ice cream was not really morally wrong is such a repugnant proposal that we find it impossible to believe that it could be true.” Would he then have proof that we believe eating ice cream is objectively wrong? No–because we do not regard this proposal as repugnant. Thus, his argument actually requires a subjective foundation for morality (in this case, a feeling of “repugnance”), and he cannot use this to prove an objective foundation for morality.

He tries to shore up his position by dismissing two criticisms, that “moral judgments” are just “emotive outbursts or conditioned patterns of behavior,” with this wonderful proof: “it is doubtful that reasonable people really believe it” (161). So now, if I really believe this, he doubts that I am reasonable! This is a covert ad hominem attack on his opponents, and a fallacious “appeal to the crowd.” It is all the more telling, because when he presents his “proof” that reasonable people do not believe this, he actually states what amounts to a subjectivist definition of morality: “That the brutal slaughter of children is revolting, horrifying and antisocial but not immoral or wrong is nonsense.” Of course it is nonsense! It just so happens that being “revolting, horrifying and antisocial” is for Beck the same thing as being “immoral or wrong.” Beck would benefit from Ayer’s observation: “a proposition whose validity we are resolved to maintain in the face of any experience is not a hypothesis at all, but a definition” (Language, Truth, and Logic, 1946, p. 95). So if it is nonsense, if it is impossible, to regard a “revolting, horrifying and antisocial” act as moral, if no possible observation could ever make this true, then it follows that this is the definition of morality.

And as can be seen, this is a subjective definition: to be immoral, according to Beck, something must be “revolting, horrifying and antisocial.” It is not entirely subjective, since to be “antisocial” is an objective, not a subjective fact. But this is still not dependent on God, and the other two terms are subjective. That is then what it means to Beck’s imagined audience when they call something immoral. This is especially clear when we observe that the converse is true: could Beck and his gang ever regard something that was “pleasing, admirable, and compassionate” as immoral? Certainly not! Hence this proves that Beck’s morals are rooted in subjective human sentiments: since eating ice cream, for example, is not “revolting, horrifying and antisocial” it follows that he does not regard it as immoral, and never would so regard it even if God himself told him otherwise–unless God could convince Beck that eating ice cream really was, somehow, “revolting, horrifying and antisocial.”

So much for Beck’s first premise. His second premise then becomes moot: “naturalistic ‘explanations’ of the objectivity of morality are inadequate.” Well, since even Beck has failed to present evidence of a truly objective moral standard, it should hardly matter that we cannot account for it. Indeed, even theists cannot really account for it, since they cannot explain why we should define “moral” as “what aligns with God’s nature or commands” instead of what is “pleasing, admirable, and compassionate.” They simply assume that this will be accepted. But we must actually have a reason to adopt this as a moral standard. And if the “morality” defined by a god’s nature or commands contradicts our natural sentiments, if it classifies pleasing, admirable, and compassionate acts as immoral and “revolting, horrifying and antisocial” acts as moral, what possible reason would we have to adopt such a standard, a standard which would itself be revolting to us?

Furthermore, if it “just so happens” that God’s standard is the same as our own subjective sentiments, then we don’t need God anymore–our sentiments will tell us what is moral. More sophisticated authors would try to claim (though Beck fails to make this point himself) that our sentiments are meaningless unless God designed them, but that does not solve their problem. For God could have designed us with the opposite sentiments (he could have possessed the opposite sentiments himself), and, by the theist’s own reasoning, once-revolting acts, like genocide, would then be moral. And since theists cannot justify why God’s nature is what it is, since it has no cause, and was not designed in any way but just “is,” by unexplained accident, it follows that this theistic explanation for “objective moral value” leaves us with a moral system that is nothing more than an unexplained accident. At least in an atheist’s worldview, morality is an explainable accident, so atheism actually has an edge over the theist in this department.

Beck perpetuates a lot of other nonsense about nontheistic moral theories, and once again his own language condemns his arguments to the trash bin, but even more important, it is what he omits that renders his argument useless in modern philosophical circles. For example, he claims that “any form of naturalistic evolution denies human freedom,” showing his ignorance of those who use quantum mechanics to explain human freedom within an evolutionary context. Then he concludes that such theories “must deny responsibility,” showing his ignorance of the fact that most philosophers today persuasively defend compatibilism, which proves that responsibility is compatible with determinism. Humorously, one of this book’s own authors, John Feinberg, actually defends compatibilism in order to support the incarnation of Christ (242), once again exposing inconsistencies in the editorial design of the book. Moreland also ignored Feinberg to support Beck’s view of freewill, but I discussed that in my Review of Moreland’s Chapter.

Beck continues, “hence it cannot be that my actions have any value” even though he makes no argument for how value “cannot” exist in this view. It is self-evident that value necessarily exists the moment there is any mind that values anything. Human actions–indeed, all things–obtain their value from us. Indeed, they do so even within the theist’s own worldview: the theist claims that value comes from God, but the theist himself must first value God’s opinion or nature before he can use that argument, and in doing this he proves that value ultimately comes from humans, not from God. And if he posits that God put this standard in us, all he has shown is that values come from the unexplained accident of God’s nature, which God himself did not create, and thus even then the basis of value could not be caused by any intelligent plan.

Then Beck amplifies his attack on determinism: only those who have “freedom” can have “the requisite insight to make moral choice possible and to actually decide on moral values or actions for themselves.” But what does freedom have to do with insight? If I am determined in advance to have insight, I have it just as well as a free man. In fact, a free man has no advantages over me: we both need the same reasoning faculties, the same rules of logic, the same time and resolve to reflect, the same knowledge of the same facts, all brought to us by the same means. If exactly the same input will produce exactly the same insight in both the free and the determined man, then “lack of insight” in men’s choices can never be used to impugn determinism.

Likewise, Beck says freedom is needed to make choice possible, and to allow us to decide for ourselves, but he does not demonstrate this. I do not see how being determined to choose makes choice impossible. Choice still exists. The machine that is doing the choosing is still ourselves, and its input is the same, and its output the same, as it would be for any supposedly “free” man. So how exactly are these things impossible? I still make decisions, and my decisions are still based on who I am and what I know, just as they would be if I were “free” (whatever that means–antideterminists have a very hard time explaining that one). So here, he simply regurgitates half-baked criticisms of determinism, and presents no argument (I discuss compatibilism more in my review of Moreland).

Beck then tries to dismiss the social construction theory of morality, using two feeble points. First, he says “we often think it plausible to make…judgments about…other societies” and so it cannot be that “values derive from our society.” But when we criticize others, we are often appealing to the same values possessed by all people, everywhere. Most if not all moral disagreements between people and societies are based on different beliefs about the facts, not on any true differences in core values. National Socialism, for instance, derived its anti-Semitic morals from the false belief that Jews were not human, were devoid of compassion, and had engaged in conspiratorial crimes against humanity. So Beck is mistakenly assuming that there can actually be a society that does not share the same fundamental values as we do, even though he cannot demonstrate that this is humanly possible, much less a reality. If such a society did exist, it would be so absolutely alien to us that we would hardly be able to communicate with it, and whether we could “condemn” them from within their own system would be the least of our concerns.

Second, he says that “only persons can be the source of values, yet no finite…person is in a position to determine” values for others, so “there must be some ‘ultimate’ person” who does this, which would be God. But consider the fact that only persons can be the source of the meaning of the words in the English language, and yet no finite person determines the meaning of those words–but neither is God telling us what to put in dictionaries. Rather, the meaning of words arises from social convention, without the intelligent design of any one individual. The same cause exists for human moral systems. But even more importantly, the values upon which moral systems are based are not “made up” by anyone, even society, and then “given” to us: they are learned, and developed out of our nature–they are a part of us, intimately born from our experiences and biological nature. What makes people happy, and grants them security and health, is inherent in us, and universal. It does not come by dictation from any person or group.

In short, it is patently ridiculous to look for an “ultimate” person to tell us what will make us happy. We already know that on our own! And since pain, happiness, consciousness, knowledge, empathy and reflection are universal among all human beings, the values which these engender or entail are likewise universal. It would be absurd to claim that we need a God to tell us how to be happy, or even to tell us that we want to be happy! We all want to be happy, by our very nature, and the means to be happy will be pretty much the same for everyone, and can be learned without needing a God. Maybe a God, being so wise and knowledgeable, could at least help by pointing things out that we need to know, but I don’t see any god doing this for us, and such a god would still not be necessary.

Even theists are in the same boat as the rest of us, trying to figure out on our own the key to happiness, by reference to their own needs, desires, experiences, and innate qualities. Thus, Beck’s “moral argument” for the existence of God is his weakest yet. Here it has been enough to show the inadequacy of Becks’ moral argument for God, but to learn more about what I really think about the origin, nature, and justification of moral values, you can read my essays Does the Christian Theism Advocated by J.P. Moreland Provide a Better Reason to be Moral than Secular Humanism? (1998) and What an Atheist Ought to Stand For (1999), and then, for the most comprehensive discussion, my book Sense and Goodness without God (2005).

Has Beck Made a Case?

From all of this Beck has the temerity to conclude that “we are…entitled to assurance that God exists…[and] can act intelligently and with moral concern within human history” (162). Considering how crucial this conclusion is to the entire book’s cumulative case for miracles, it is the weakest and most vulnerable link in the chain. For if there is no good reason to think there is a god (and whatever good reasons there might be, Beck has presented none of them), then there is no reason to believe that any amazing event is a miracle from god. For without a prior, positive reason to prefer a divine explanation, a natural explanation must be resorted to–for then no matter how improbable, so long as it is reasonably possible, a natural explanation will always remain the most plausible explanation, since it is the only kind of explanation we have proven successful on other occasions.

I would be willing to cut Beck some slack, on the grounds that he didn’t have enough room to argue what he needed, if it were not for the fact that his argument is so absolutely crucial to the whole point of the book that if his argument could not have been made sound in the space he was given, he should have been given more. Instead, all he even attempts to offer as proof is negative evidence: an actual infinity or a natural first cause is “less” conceivable than a First Cause God, there are natural phenomena that have “not” been explained, and the prospect that morals are subjective is “not” a desirable discovery. He presents absolutely no positive evidence in favor of the existence of God. But how curious an approach this is. If I wanted to set out to prove that Bigfoot was a lost species of ape hiding in the woods, but all I had to argue the point were the same notions–that the idea of the “good evidence being faked” was “less” conceivable to me than the idea of Bigfoot actually causing the evidence, that we have “not” searched every inch of the woods, and that the prospect of Bigfoot’s nonexistence was “not” a desirable discovery–would Beck be convinced? He would not, and so he has no right to expect us to be convinced when he uses essentially the same arguments for God.

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