Does God Exist? (2002)
Bill Cooke’s Closing Statement: Behold the new god! Anthropocentric conceit!
Having lunged and parried in cyberspace on the question of the possible existence of a god, how far have we got? I doubt anyone’s mind has been changed significantly. All that has probably happened as a result of these exchanges is that all parties are confirmed in their original views. This has distressing implications for notions that we are persuaded by argument. On the whole we are not. Our opinions are often held for reasons other than rational ones. Very often, we hold opinions not for their truth content, but for the effect they will have on our self esteem. As the cosmos attests to our overwhelming unimportance in the scheme of things, it requires some maturity to adopt a worldview which takes note of this central fact. Science and reason are the methods by which this truth is made apparent to us, and humanism is the philosophy by which we come to terms with it. Each of these steps helps us toward becoming mature enough to dispense with delusions that one matters to the universe, or, worse still, that one matters to some disconcertingly humanlike image, called Super-duper (or is it Hyper-mega?) who is said to have made the universe.
So the question is, are we prepared to overcome our natural–possibly even hard-wired–tendency toward anthropocentric conceit, or not? In my opinion, religions are unprepared to even recognize the danger of anthropocentric conceit, let alone deal with it in any way. Sadly, Mr. Aijaz’s arguments are nothing more than an attempt to impose upon the entire universe an image he can recognize, and even own, in an attempt to ward off the central fact of his–our–cosmic irrelevance. So, in full recognition that none of these arguments will make the slightest difference in the face of such an attempt, I make some final observations.
Mr. Aijaz fails to grasp my point about his argument being circular. He thinks that this would involve me in an argument just as circular as his because I must have a notion of a God for me to deny. This ignores the point I made earlier in this debate that atheism is not about denying some particular notion of God or gods, but being without a clear understanding of God or gods–the lack of clarity coming from the inability of theists to agree on what they nevertheless claim to be so obvious. Thus, the burden lies with the theist to demonstrate that his conception of God, among all the competing conceptions, is the only valid one. And of course the first step in this is to demonstrate that one’s own conception of God or gods is not just another delusion of homo sapiens, as most of the others have proved to be.
Mr. Aijaz then says, plausibly, that we need an hypothesis before a proof or disproof can be attempted. This is true, but my point has been to question the self-serving and anthropocentric nature of most starting hypotheses employed by theists. As anyone schooled in philosophy should know, the wording of the original hypothesis has a significant bearing on the eventual answer. To avoid this sort of biasing, the original question would better be framed simply as a question: what is the universe and how does it work? A question like this is more open ended and vastly less anthropocentric than ‘does God exist?’ or some such. We have some small idea from cosmology, astronomy, physics, mathematics and so on, how the universe works. None of these disciplines make presumptuous declarations about the central magnificence of homo sapiens over so large a backdrop. We need to turn to theology for that. And, as I showed in my previous rebuttal, even some of the leading theologians have called their colleagues’ bluff on this.
But the jewel in Mr. Aijaz’s crown is the so-called Kalam Cosmological Argument. For many reasons, I find it difficult to take this gambit seriously. I am accused of being flippant in my replies or demurring on the basic claim of the Kalam argument, so, at the risk of wearying readers with repetition, and to show the required level of solemnity to this august confrontation, I must make my views even more clear than I thought they already are. The Kalam Argument, as advocated by Mr. Aijaz, seems determined to ignore all developments in physics and cosmology since Copernicus. Its language of efficient causes, creation ex nihilo, and so on, would have brought pride to the heart of Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas, but in an Einsteinian/quantum universe is nothing more than archaic mumbo-jumbo.
At this point I would refer readers to the website of Shlomi Tal (www.geocities.com/stmetanat/kalam.htm), who makes the straightforward observation that the notion of the beginning of time, upon which the Kalam argument hinges, is a meaningless expression. The physicist Victor Stenger says the same thing when he says we ‘need not worry about what happened before the Planck Time: There was no before because there was no time.' Time is not an absolute property of the universe with an existence of its own. And neither does everything require a cause. Quentin Smith showed this in 1998. Stephen Hawking’s Wave Function of the Universe ‘implies that there is a 95% probability that the universe came into existence uncaused.'
Most commentators of the Kalam argument have noted that, even if, for the sake of the argument, we allow the efficient first cause, what possible justification is there to presume that first cause to be Hyper-mega? William Lane Craig, the chief proponent of the Kalam gambit, would, I am sure, urge the cause of Super-duper at this stage, and the theistic alliance would break down very quickly after that. There is, of course, no rational justification for either leap of faith. Each of these presumptions to equate the efficient cause (a bankrupt idea to begin with, remember, but being kept in play just for the sake of argument) with our god-opposed to their god–is nothing more than an anthropocentric conceit. Here, at last, we get a concession, with Mr. Aijaz admitting that there is no way to equate the efficient first cause with one particular god. All he can do now is make the rather flat denial that ‘all supernatural hypotheses are equiprobable with respect to accounting for the origins of our universe.’ No evidence of any sort is provided for this. In fact, Mr. Aijaz compounds this one declaration with another, announcing that monotheism is more rational than polytheism! Why this should be so is left unstated. Mr. Aijaz’s assertion amounts to nothing more than “My god is better than yours.”
Having skirted around a central weakness of his main argument, Mr. Aijaz then says: ‘The logic of the Kalam cosmological argument is unassailable…’! But as we have seen, its logic is not simply unsound so much as irrelevant, based as it is on a comprehensive refusal to take all modern physics and cosmology seriously. Its notion of efficient causes is archaic and it can’t equate an efficient cause to any god. If this is an unassailable argument, I shudder to see a problematic one.
Having mistaken the rubble of the Kalam argument for a golden palace, Mr. Aijaz then proceeds to deal with the ‘who created God?’ argument. Begin with an ad hominem attack is always a good rule. My crime is no longer flippancy, it is now naivete. Mr. Aijaz’s arguments here are extraordinary. First he defines the question out of existence by saying that no cause could precede a first cause. The problem with this, of course, is that it begs the question of whether there is a first cause in the first place, let alone whether that first cause is Super-duper or not. This is like saying, “Of Course leprechauns exist; otherwise how would we have the word leprechaun?”
Mr. Aijaz then appeals to our ignorance when he says ‘if postulating the existence of God explains the existence of our universe, it does not follow that we have not accounted for why the cosmos exists, even though God’s existence may have no explanation.’ Oh dear, oh dear. In other words, “I know God exists even though there’s no evidence for it.”
The next two gambits are nothing more than reiterated assertions of God’s existence. The objection of ‘who made God?’ is said to be a categorical fallacy because what is true of God is not necessarily true of the universe. Once again, this begs the question. What grounds, apart from convenience, does Mr. Aijaz have to declare this question a categorical fallacy? Simply declaring Super-duper to operate according to different ‘categories’ than the universe is not good enough. Who is Mr. Aijaz to say what categories Super-duper must recognise? Once more, these assertions, imposing of categories, and question-begging redefinitions go nowhere. In other words, these are the gambits of a human being, anxious to impose his preferred view on the universe rather than look openly, without categories, at what the universe actually is.
Now let us return to the original objection to the god idea. While the intellectual arguments against theism are overwhelming, it is the moral objections to theism that motivate me more. Underlying theism is what Paul Kurtz called the transcendental temptation, and what I have called anthropocentric conceit. Both terms refer to the presumption of human beings who write themselves across the universe and demand from the universe consolations for what we cannot always get here on earth.
There are few more tasteless examples of what I mean than from the two fundamentalists Tim La Haye and David Noebel, who wrote the bestselling tract Mind Siege: The Battle for Truth in the New Millennium. Towards the end of this misanthropic and paranoid book these two men mused on their likely reception on reaching heaven. ‘Try to imagine the moment,’ they wrote, ‘when this life is over and you stand before the bema and hear from the lips of Jesus Christ, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. You have been my lighthouse to the world.”‘ La Haye and Noebel can spit hate at liberals, humanists, other religions, including that of Mr. Aijaz, homosexuals, feminists, artists, and anyone hostile to American great power imperialism, and expect to be warmly welcomed by the creator of the entire universe! This presupposes a smugness and arrogance that I find nauseating. Even in the overwhelmingly unlikely event that such a god is found to exist, I would willingly go to hell before bowing to such a dismal and mean spirited deity.
Mr. Aijaz will, doubtless, find my arguments unconvincing and my motivations dishonest. This is one of religion’s most reassuring consolations. At heart, we both want the same thing; a coherent view of the universe which can provide us with meaning and purpose in the hope that we may in turn do some skerrick of good during our brief tenancy on earth. The question is, what level of delusion are we going to permit ourselves? We all operate with some delusory notions. In my opinion, atheism, humanism and rationalism are the best tools by which we can free ourselves from anthropocentric delusions as possible, while theism makes no attempt in this direction and even encourages anthropocentric conceit. Nevertheless, I wish Mr. Aijaz well. The worst I can think of him is that I think him mistaken. But he has the luxury of knowing I am not just wrong but wicked. And what is the sole reason for his extra ability to think ill of his opponent? An anthropocentric conceit called God. That should itself be sufficient condemnation of the God idea.
(1) Stenger, Victor, Not by Design: The Origin of the Universe, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988, p 26.
(2) Smith, Quentin, ‘Big Bang Cosmology and Atheism’, Free Inquiry, Vol 18, No. 2 (Spring 1998), pp 35-6. This article is being reprinted in a comprehensive study called Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? to be released in April.
(3) La Haye, Tim, and Noebel, David, Mind Siege: The Battle for Truth in the New Millennium, Nashville, Tenn: World Publishing, 2000, p 286.