...For close to two decades Cass Seltzer has all but owned the psychology of religion, but only because nobody else wanted it, not anyone with the smarts to do academic research in psychology and the ambition to follow through. It had been impossible to get grants, and the prestigious journals would return his manuscripts without sending them out for peer review. The undergraduates crowded his courses, but that counted, if anything, as a strike against him in his department. The graduate students stayed away in droves. The sexy psychological research was all in neural network modeling and cognitive neuroscience. The mind is a neural computer and the folks with the algorithms ruled.
But now things had happened — fundamental and fundamentalist things — and religion as a phenomenon is on everybody's mind. And among all the changes that religion's new towering profile has wrought in the world, which are mostly alarming if not downright terrifying, is the transformation in the life of one Cass Seltzer.
First had come the book, which he had entitled The Varieties of Religious Illusion, a nod to both William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience and to Sigmund Freud's The Future of An Illusion. The book had brought Cass an indecent amount of attention. Time Magazine, in a cover story on the so-called new atheists, had ended by dubbing him "the atheist with a soul." When the magazine came out, Cass's literary agent, Sy Auerbach, called to congratulate him. "Now that you're famous, even I might have to take you seriously. ...
36 ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD [11.19.09]
"What is this stuff, you ask one another," says the narrator in Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's new novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, "and how can it still be kicking around, given how much we already know?"
We have very short memories.
It was in April 2006 that President George W. Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Senator John McCain all announced their support of teaching Intelligent Design in public schools. This assault on science and on the separation of church and state was a mobilizing moment for the Edge community which responded to this initiative with book of essays by 16 eminent scientists entitled Intelligent Thought, excerpts from which appeared on Edge.
At the time, three and a half years ago, no one was using the phrase "the new atheists". In fact, in early 2006 only Sam Harris's book The End of Faith (2004), and Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell (February, 2006) had been published. It was in response to the highly organized and well-financed campaign by the religious right that led champions of rational thinking such as Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, A.C. Grayling, and P.Z. Myers to mount an unrelenting campaign against the purveyors of superstition, supernaturalism, ignorance ... and their apologists (the self-proclaimed "moderates", or to use more apt terms, the "accommodationists", or the "faitheists").
The term "the new atheists" came into play in early 2007, followed by "I am an atheist, but". This is hardly the lingo of the far right. In fact, you don't have to leave the pages of Edge to read variations on this meme from some very distinguished and respected scientists. But what some appear to be saying is "I am an atheist but... other people, not as smart as I am, require religion (a) to get through the day, (b) to create sustainable societies, (c) to have moral values, etc. Others, intellectually lazy, afraid, or unable to invent their own personal narratives, simply wear their parents' old ideas like a hand-me-down suit, defaulting to the maudlin sentimentality that is the soundtrack to the American mind.
Now, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, known to Edge readers as a philosopher who has interesting things to say about Gödel and Spinoza, among others, enters into this conversation, taking on these and wider themes, and pushing the envelope by crossing over into the realm of fiction.
Goldstein isn't the first novelist to appear on Edge, nor the first to discuss religion. In October 1989, the novelist Ken Kesey came to New York spoke to The Reality Club. "As I've often told Ginsberg," he began, "you can't blame the President for the state of the country, it's always the poets' fault. You can't expect politicians to come up with a vision, they don't have it in them. Poets have to come up with the vision and they have to turn it on so it sparks and catches hold."
It's in this spirit that Edge presents a brief excerpt from the first chapter, and the nonfiction appendix from 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (21,250 words).
REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN is a philosopher, a novelist, and Edge contributor. She is the author of the nonfiction works Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, and Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel. Her other novels include The Mind-Body Problem and Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics, and 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.
|36 ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD|
Chapter I: The Argument from the Improbable Self
Something shifted, something so immense you could call it the world.
Call it the world.
The world shifted, catching lots of smart people off guard, churning up issues that you had thought had settled forever beneath the earth's crust. The more sophisticated you are, the more annotated your mental life, the more taken aback you're likely to feel, seeing what the world's lurch has brought to light, thrusting up beliefs and desires you had assumed belonged to an earlier stage of human development.
What is this stuff, you ask one another, and how can it still be kicking around, given how much we already know? It looks like the kind of relics that archeologists dig up and dust off, speculating about the beliefs that once had animated them, to the best that they can be reconstructed, gone as they are now, those thrashings of proto-rationality and mythico-magical hypothesizing, and mostly forgotten.
Now it's all gone unforgotten, and minds that have better things to think about have to divert precious neuronal resources to figuring out how to knock some sense back into the species. It's a tiresome proposition, having to take up the work of the Enlightenment all over again, but it's happened on your watch. You ought to have sent up a balloon now and then to get a read on the prevailing cognitive conditions, the Thinks watching out for the Think-Nots. Now you've gone and let the stockpiling of fallacies reach dangerous levels, and the massed weapons of illogic are threatening the survivability of the globe.
None of this is particularly good for the world, but it has been good for Cass Seltzer. That's what he's thinking at this moment, gazing down at the frozen river and regarding the improbable swerve his life has lately taken. He's thinking his life has gotten better because the world has gone bonkers. He's thinking zealots proliferate and Seltzer prospers.
It's 4 a.m., and Cass Seltzer is standing on Weeks Bridge, the graceful arc that spans the Charles River near Harvard University, staring down at the river below, which is in the rigor mortis of late February in New England. The whole vista is deserted beyond vacancy, deserted in the way of being inhospitable to human life. There's not a car passing on Memorial Drive, and the elegant river dorms are darkened to silent hulks, the most hyper-kinetic of undergraduates sedated to purring girls and boys.
It's not like Cass Seltzer to be out in the middle of an icy night, lost in thought while losing sensation in his extremities. Excitement had gotten the better of him. He had lain in his empty bed for hours, mind racing, until he gave up and crawled out from under the luxe comforter that his girlfriend Lucinda Mandelbaum had brought with her when she moved in with him at the end of June. This comforter has pockets for the hands and feet and a softness that's the result of impregnation with aloe vera. As a man, Cass had been skeptical, but he's become a begrudging believer in Lucinda's comforter, and in her Tempur-Pedic pillow, too, suffused with the fragrance of her coconut shampoo, making it all the more remarkable that he'd forsake his bed for this no-man's stretch of frigid night.
Rummaging in the front closet for some extra protection, he had pulled out, with a smile he couldn't have interpreted for himself, a long-forgotten item, the tricolor scarf that his ex-wife, Pascale, had learned to knit for him during the four months when she was recovering from aphasia, four months that had produced, among other shockers, an excessively long French flag of a scarf, which he wound seven and a half times around his neck before heading out into the dark to deal with the rush in his head.
Lucinda's away tonight, away for the entire bleak week to come. Cass is missing Lucinda in his bones, missing her in the marrow that's presently crystallizing into ice. She's in warmer climes, at a conference in Santa Barbara on "Non-Nash Equilibria in Zero-Sum Games." Among these equilibria is one that's called the "Mandelbaum Equilibrium," and it's Cass's ambition to have the Mandelbaum Equilibrium mastered by the time he picks her up from the airport Friday night.
Technically, Lucinda's a psychologist, like Cass, only not like Cass at all. Her work is so mathematical that almost no one would suspect it has anything to do with mental life. Cass, on the other hand, is about as far away on the continuum as you can get and still be in the same field. He's so far away that he is knee-deep in the swampy humanities. Until recently, Cass had felt almost apologetic explaining that his interest is in the whole wide range of religious experience — a bloated category on anyone's account, but especially on Cass's, who sees religious frames of mind lurking everywhere, masking themselves in the most secular of settings, in politics and scholarship and art and even in personal relationships.
For close to two decades Cass Seltzer has all but owned the psychology of religion, but only because nobody else wanted it, not anyone with the smarts to do academic research in psychology and the ambition to follow through. It had been impossible to get grants, and the prestigious journals would return his manuscripts without sending them out for peer review. The undergraduates crowded his courses, but that counted, if anything, as a strike against him in his department. The graduate students stayed away in droves. The sexy psychological research was all in neural network modeling and cognitive neuroscience. The mind is a neural computer and the folks with the algorithms ruled.
But now things had happened — fundamental and fundamentalist things — and religion as a phenomenon is on everybody's mind. And among all the changes that religion's new towering profile has wrought in the world, which are mostly alarming if not downright terrifying, is the transformation in the life of one Cass Seltzer.
First had come the book, which he had entitled The Varieties of Religious Illusion, a nod to both William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience and to Sigmund Freud's The Future of An Illusion. The book had brought Cass an indecent amount of attention. Time Magazine, in a cover story on the so-called new atheists, had ended by dubbing him "the atheist with a soul." When the magazine came out, Cass's literary agent, Sy Auerbach, called to congratulate him. "Now that you're famous, even I might have to take you seriously."
Next had come the girl, although that designation hardly does justice to the situation, not when the situation stands for the likes of Lucinda Mandelbaum, known in her world as "the Goddess of Game Theory." Lucinda is, pure and simple, a wondrous creature, with adoration her due and Cass's avocation.
And now, only today, as if his cup weren't already gushing over, had come a letter from Harvard, laying out its intention of luring him away from Frankfurter University, located in nearby Weedham, about twelve miles upriver from where Cass is standing right now. After all that has happened to Cass over the course of this past year, he's surprised at the degree of awed elation he feels at the letter bearing the insignia of Veritas. But he's an academic, his sense of success and failure ultimately determined by the academy's utilities (to use the language of Lucinda's science), and Harvard counts as the maximum utility. Cass has the letter on him right now, zippered into an inside pocket of his parka, insulating him against the elements.
The night is so cold that everything seems to have been stripped bare of superfluous existence, reduced to the purity of abstraction. Cass has the distinct impression that he can see better in the sharpened air, that it's counteracting the near-sightedness that has had him wearing glasses since he was twelve. He takes them off and, of course, can't see a thing, can barely see past the nimbus phantom of his own breath.
But then he stares harder and it seems that he can see better, that the world has slid into sharper focus. It's only now, with his glasses off, that he catches sight of the spectacle that the extreme cold has created in the river below, frozen solid except where it quickens through the three graceful arches of the bridge's substructure, creating an effect that could reasonably be called sublime, and in the Kantian sense: not cozily beautiful, but touched by a metaphysical chill. The quickened water has sculpted three immense and perfect arches into the thick ice, soaring fifty or sixty feet to their apices, sublime almost as if by design. The surface of the water in the carved-out breaches is polished to obsidian, lustered to transparency against the white-blue gleam of the frozen encasement, and perspective askew, the whole of it looks like a cathedral rising endlessly, the arches becoming windows that open into vistas of black.
Standing dead center on Weeks Bridge, in the dead of winter in the dead of night, staring down at the three enormous arches sublimely carved into the Charles, suggesting a cathedral shaped into the ice, Cass is contemplating the strange thing that his life has become.
To him. His life has become strange to him. He feels like he's wearing somebody else's coat, grabbed in a hurry from the bed in the spare bedroom after a boozy party. He's walking around in someone else's bespoke cashmere while that guy's got Cass's hooded parka, and only Cass seems to have noticed the switch.
What has happened is that Cass Seltzer has become an intellectual celebrity. He's become famous for his abstract ideas. And not just any old abstract ideas, but atheist abstract ideas, which makes him, according to some of the latest polls, a spokesperson for the most distrusted minority in America, the one that most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.
This is a fact. Studies have found that a large proportion of Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays, and Communists, as "sharing their vision of American society." Atheists, the researchers reported, seem to be playing the pariah role once assigned to Catholics, Jews, and Communists, seen as harboring alien and subversive values, or, more likely, as having no inner values at all, and therefore likely to be criminals, rapists and wild-eyed drug addicts.
"As if," as Cass often finds himself saying into microphones, "the only reason to live morally is out of fear of getting caught and being spanked by the heavenly father."
Cass Seltzer has become the unlikely poster boy for this misunderstood group. His is a good face for counteracting the fallacy of equating godlessness with vice. Handsome, but not in a way to make the squeamish consider indeterminate sexual orientation, Cass's fundamental niceness is written all over him. He's got a strong jaw, a high ovoid forehead from which his floppy auburn hair is only just slightly receding, and the sweetest, most earnest smile this side of Oral Roberts University. Is this a man who could possibly go out and commit murder and mayhem, rape our virgin daughters and shoot controlled substances into his veins?
Cass is still trying to assimilate the fact that his book has become an international sensation, translated into twenty-seven languages, including Latvian. He understands that it's not just a matter of what he's written — as much as he'd like to believe it is — but also a matter of the rare intersection of the preoccupations of his lifetime with the turmoil of the age. When Cass, in all the safety of his obscurity, set about writing a book that would explain how irrelevant the belief in God can be to religious experience — so irrelevant that the emotional structure of religious experiences can be transplanted to completely godless contexts with little of the impact lost; and when he had also, almost as an afterthought, included as an Appendix thirty-six arguments for the existence of God, with rebuttals, his claim being that the most thorough demolition of these arguments would make little difference to the felt qualities of religious experience, he'd had no idea of the massive response his efforts would provoke.
For the most part, fame is agreeable to Cass. For one thing, people treat him more nicely. It's a revelation to learn what a nice bunch of upright mammals we're capable of being. Everybody happily, gratefully, applies the Golden Rule when it comes to interacting with the famous. Thou must treat the famous as thou wouldst wish to be treated thyself. Easy! If only everybody could be famous, we would all be effortlessly altruistic.
The atheist with a soul. Cass always smiles at the absurdity of the phrase. But which is the more absurd element, he wonders. The truth is — and what's the good of a man contemplating an inhumanly frozen world at 4 a.m. if no truth-telling ensues? — that Cass is somewhat at a loss to account for what he has done. How to explain those 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (see Appendix), all of them formally constructed in the preferred analytic style, premises parading with military precision and every shirking presupposition and sketchy implication forced out into the open and subjected to rigorous inspection?
Cass had started out with all the standard arguments for God's existence, the ones discussed in philosophy classes and textbooks: The Cosmological Argument (#1), The Ontological Argument (#2), The Classical Argument from Design (#3A), the arguments from Miracles, Morality, and Mysticism (#'s 11, 16, and 22, respectively), Pascal's Wager (#31) , and William James's Argument from Pragmatism (#32). He had also analyzed the new batch of arguments recently whipped up by the Intelligent Design crowd, to wit, The Argument from Irreducible Complexity (#3B), The Argument from the Paucity of Benign Mutations (# 3C), The Argument from The Original Replicator (#3D), The Argument from The Big Bang (#4), The Argument from the Fine-Tuning of the Physical Constants (#5), and The Argument from the Hard Problem of Consciousness (#12). But then he had gone beyond these, too, attempting to polish up into genuine arguments those religious intuitions and emotions that are often powerfully evocative but too sub-syllogistic to be regarded as actual arguments. He had tried to capture under the net of analytic reason those fleeting shadows cast by unseen winged things darting through the thick foliage of the religious sensibility.
So Cass had formulated The Argument from Cosmic Coincidences (#7), appealing to such facts as these: that the diameter of the moon, as seen from the earth, is the same as the diameter of the sun, as seen from the earth, which is why we can have those spectacular eclipses when the corona of the sun is revealed in all its glory. He had formulated The Argument from Sublimity (#34), trying to capture the line of reasoning lurking behind, for example, the recent testament of one evangelical scientist who had felt his doubts falling away from him when he was hiking in the mountains and came upon a frozen waterfall — in fact a trinity of a frozen waterfall, with three parts to it. "At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth — that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief."
For the right observer, Cass supposed, the triptych cathedral etched out in the ice below might yield a similar epiphany.
Cass had named the twenty-eighth in his list "The Argument from Prodigious Genius", though privately he thinks of it as "The Argument from Azarya." The astonishment of beholding genius, especially when it shows up in child prodigies, is so profound that it can feel almost like violence, as if a behavioral firestorm has devastated the laws of psychology, leaving us with no principles for explaining what we're seeing and hearing. "It's as if these children come into the world knowing" are words that Cass had heard twenty years ago, inspired by a child who could see the numbers and thought that they were angels.
And then there's The Argument from the Improbable Self (#13), another one that engages Cass in a personal way. He had struggled to squeeze precision into the sense of paradox he knows too well, the flailing attempt to calm the inside-outside vertigo to which he's given, trying to construct something semi-coherent beneath that vertiginous step outside himself that would result from his staring too long at the improbable fact of his being identical with . . . himself.
If somebody hasn't experienced this particular kind of metaphysical seizure for himself, then it's hard to find the words to give a sense of what it's like. Cass had experienced it as a boy, lying in bed and thinking his way into the sense of the strangeness of being just this.
Cass had had the lower bunk bed. Both he and Jesse, his younger brother, had wanted the higher bunk, but, as usual, Jesse had wanted what he wanted so much more than Cass had wanted it, with a fury of need that was exhausting just to watch, that Cass had let it go. Lying there awake on his lower bunk, Cass would think about being himself rather than being Jesse.
There was Jesse, and here was Cass. But if someone were looking at the two of them, Jesse there, Cass here, how could that observer tell that he, Cass, was Cass here and not Jesse there? If it got switched on them, everything the same about them, the body and memories and sense of self and everything else, only now he was Jesse here and there was Cass there, how would anybody know? How would he know, how would Jesse? Maybe a switch had already happened, maybe it happened again and again, and how could anybody tell?
The longer he tried to get a fix on the fact of being Cass here, the more the whole idea of it just got away from him. If he tried long enough to grasp it, then he could get the fact of being Cass here to blank out of existence and then come dribbling weakly back in, like a fluorescent fixture flickering on and off toward death. He would get the sense of having been shot outside of himself, and now was someone who was regarding his being Cass Seltzer as something like his being in the sixth grade, just something about him that happened to be true. Who was that Other that he was who was regarding his being Cass Seltzer as if he didn't have to be Cass Seltzer? The sense of giddiness induced by these exercises could be a bit too overwhelming for a kid in a lower bunk bed.
It could be a bit overwhelming still.
"Here I am," Cass is saying, standing on Weeks Bridge and talking aloud into the sublimely indifferent night.
Cass knows he needs to tamp down his tendencies toward the transcendental. It isn't becoming in America's favorite atheist, who is, at this moment, Cass Seltzer, who is, somehow or other, just this here.
"Here I am."
How can it be that, of all things, one is this thing, so that one can say, astonishingly — in the right frame of mind, it is astonishing, with the metaphysical chill blowing in from afar — "here I am."
"Here I am."
When you didn't force yourself to think in formal reconstructions, when you didn't catch these moments of ravishments under the lens of premises and conclusions, when you didn't impale them and label them , like so many splayed butterflies, bleeding the transcendental glow right out of them, then . . . what?
It's even hard at a time like this to resist the shameful narcissistic appeal of reasonings like The Argument from Personal Coincidences (#8) and The Argument from Answered Prayers (#9) and The Argument from A Wonderful Life (#10). William James had rebuked the "scoundrel logic" that calculates divine provenance from one's own goody-bag of gains, and Cass couldn't agree more with the spirit of James, but here it is, his bulging goody bag, and call him a scoundrel for feeling personally grateful to the universe when, at this same moment that he is standing on Weeks Bridge and tossing hosannas out into the infinite universe, there are multitudes of others whose lives are painfully constricting with misfortunes that are just as arbitrary and undeserved as his own expansive good luck, but Cass Seltzer does feel grateful.
At moments like this could Cass altogether withstand the sense that — how hard to put it into words — the sense that the universe is personal, that there is something personal that grounds existence and order and value and purpose and meaning — and that the grandeur of that personal universe has somehow infiltrated and is expanding his own small person, bringing his littleness more in line with its grandeur, that the personal universe has been personally kind to him, gracious and forgiving, to Cass Seltzer, gratuitously, exorbitantly, divinely kind, and this despite Cass's having, with callowness and shallowness aforethought, thrown spitballs at the whole idea of cosmic intentionality?
No, no, that doesn't capture it either. Those words are far too narrowed by Cass's own particular life, when what it is he could feel, has felt, might even be feeling now, has nothing to do with the contents of Cass's existence, but rather with existence itself, Itself, this, This, THIS . . . what?
This expansion out into the world which is a kind of love, he supposes, a love for the whole of existence, that could so easily well up in Cass Seltzer at this moment, standing here in the pure abstractions of this night and contemplating the strange thisness of his life when viewed sub specie aeternitatus, that is to say from the vantage point of eternity which comes so highly recommended to us by Spinoza.
Here it is then: the sense that existence is just such a tremendous thing, one comes into it, astonishingly, here one is, formed by biology and history, genes and culture, in the midst of the contingency of the world, here one is, one doesn't know how, one doesn't know why, and suddenly one doesn't know where one is either or who or what one is either, and all that one knows is that one is a part of it, a considered and conscious part of it, generated and sustained in existence in ways one can hardly comprehend, all the time conscious of it, though, of existence, the fullness of it, the reaching expanse and pulsing intricacy of it, and one wants to live in a way that at least begins to do justice to it, one wants to expand one's reach of it as far as expansion is possible and even beyond that, to live one's life in a way commensurate with the privilege of being a part of and conscious of the whole reeling glorious infinite sweep, a sweep that includes, so improbably, a psychologist of religion named Cass Seltzer, who, moved by powers beyond himself, did something more improbable than all the improbabilities constituting his improbable existence could have entailed, did something that won him someone else's life, a better life, a more brilliant life, a life beyond all the ones he had wished for in the pounding obscurity of all his yearnings, because all of this, this, this, THIS couldn't belong to him, to the man who stands on Weeks Bridge, wrapped round in a scarf his once-beloved ex-wife Pascale had knit for him for some necessary reason that he would never know, perhaps to offer him some protection against the desolation she knew would soon be his, and was, but is no longer, suspended here above sublimity, his cheeks aflame with either euphoria or frostbite, a letter in his zippered pocket with the imprimatur of Veritas and a Lucinda Mandelbaum with whom to share it all.
Appendix: 36 ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
1. The Cosmological Argument
FLAW 1: can be crudely put: Who caused God? The Cosmological Argument is a prime example of the Fallacy of Passing the Buck: invoking God to solve some problem, but then leaving unanswered that very same problem when applied to God himself. The proponent of the Cosmological Argument must admit a contradiction to either his first premise — and say that though God exists, he doesn't have a cause — or else a contradiction to his third premise — and say that God is self-caused. Either way, the theist is saying that his premises have at least one exception, but is not explaining why God must be the unique exception, otherwise than asserting his unique mystery (the Fallacy of Using One Mystery To Pseudo-Explain Another). Once you admit of exceptions, you can ask why the universe itself, which is also unique, can't be the exception. The universe itself can either exist without a cause, or else can be self-caused . Since the buck has to stop somewhere, why not with the universe?
FLAW 2: The notion of "cause" is by no means clear, but our best definition is a relation that holds between events that are connected by physical laws. Knocking the vase off the table caused it to crash to the floor; smoking three packs a day caused his lung cancer. To apply this concept to the universe itself is to misuse the concept of cause, extending it into a realm in which we have no idea how to use it. This line of skeptical reasoning, based on the incoherent demands we make of the concept of cause, was developed by David Hume.
COMMENT: The Cosmological Argument, like the Argument from the Big Bang, and The Argument from the Intelligibility of the Universe, are expressions of our cosmic befuddlement at the question: why is there something rather than nothing? The late philosopher Sydney Morgenbesser had a classic response to this question: "And if there were nothing? You'd still be complaining!"
2. The Ontological Argument
This argument, first articulated by Saint Anselm (1033-1109), the Archbishop of Canterbury, is unlike any other, proceeding purely on the conceptual level. Everyone agrees that the mere existence of a concept does not entail that there are examples of that concept; after all, we can know what a unicorn is and at the same time say "unicorns don't exist." The claim of the Ontological Argument is that the concept of God is the one exception to this rule. The very concept of God, when defined correctly, entails that there is something that satisfies that concept. Although most people suspect that there is something wrong with this argument, it's not so easy to figure out what it is.
FLAW: It was Immanuel Kant who pinpointed the fallacy in the Ontological Argument: it is to treat "existence" as a property, like "being fat" or "having ten fingers." The Ontological Argument relies on a bit of wordplay, assuming that "existence" is just another property, but logically it is completely different. If you really could treat "existence" as just part of the definition of the concept of God, then you could just as easily build it into the definition of any other concept. We could, with the wave of our verbal magic wand, define a trunicorn as "a horse that (a) has a single horn on its head, and (b) exists." So if you think about a trunicorn, you're thinking about something that must, by definition, exist; therefore trunicorns exist. This is clearly absurd: we could use this line of reasoning to prove that any figment of our imagination exists.
COMMENT: Once again, Sydney Morgenbesser had a pertinent remark, this one offered as an Ontological Argument for God's Non-Existence: Existence is such a lousy thing, how could God go and do it?
3. The Argument from Design
FLAW: Darwin showed how the process of replication could give rise to the illusion of design without the foresight of an actual designer. Replicators make copies of themselves, which make copies of themselves, and so on, giving rise to an exponential number of descendants. In any finite environment the replicators must compete for the energy and materials necessary for replication. Since no copying process is perfect, errors will eventually crop up, and any error that causes a replicator to reproduce more efficiently than its competitors will result in that line of replicators predominating in the population. After many generations, the dominant replicators will appear to have been designed for effective replication, whereas all they have done is accumulate the copying errors which in the past did lead to effective replication. The fallacy in the argument, then is Premise 1 (and as a consequence, Premise 3, which depends on it): parts of a complex object serving a complex function do not, in fact, require a designer.
In the twenty-first century, creationists have tried to revive the Teleological Argument in three forms:
This argument has been around since the time of Charles Darwin, and his replies to it still hold.
FLAW 1: For many organs, Premise 2 is false. An eye without a lens can still see, just not as well as an eye with a lens.
FLAW 2: For many other organs, removal of a part, or other alterations, may render it useless for its current function, but the organ could have been useful to the organism for some other function. Insect wings, before they were large enough to be effective for flight, were used as heat-exchange panels. This is also true for most of the molecular mechanisms, such as the flagellum motor, invoked in the modern version of the Argument from Irreducible Complexity.
FLAW 3: (The Fallacy of Arguing from Ignorance): There may be biological systems for which we don't yet know how they may have been useful in simpler versions. But there are obviously many things we don't yet understand in molecular biology, and given the huge success that biologists have achieved in explaining so many examples of incremental evolution in other biological systems, it is more reasonable to infer that these gaps will eventually be filled by the day-to-day progress of biology than to invoke a supernatural designer just to explain these temporary puzzles.
COMMENT: This last flaw can be seen as one particular instance of the more general and fallacious Argument from Ignorance:
FLAW: Premise 1 is obviously true. If there weren't things that we could not explain yet, then science would be complete, laboratories and observatories would unplug their computers and convert to condominiums, and all departments of science would be converted to departments in the History of Science. Science is only in business because there are things we have not explained yet. So we cannot infer from the existence of genuine, ongoing science that there must be a God.
FLAW: Evolution does not require infinitesimally improbable mutations, such as a fully formed eye appearing out of the blue in a single generation, because (a) mutations can have small effects (tissue that is slightly more transparent, or cells that are slightly more sensitive to light), and mutations contributing to these effects can accumulate over time; (b) for any sexually reproducing organism, the necessary mutations do not have to have occurred one after the other in a single line of descendants, but could have appeared independently in thousands of separate organisms, each mutating at random, and the necessary combinations could come together as the organisms mate and exchange genes; (c) life on earth has had a vast amount of time to accumulate the necessary mutations (almost four billion years).
FLAW 1: Premise 6 states that a replicator, because of its complexity, cannot have arisen from natural processes, i.e. by way of natural selection. But the mathematician John von Neumann showed in the 1950s that it is theoretically possible for a simple physical system to make exact copies of itself from surrounding materials. Since then, biologists and chemists have identified a number of naturally occurring molecules and crystals that can replicate in ways that could lead to natural selection (in particular, that allow random variations to be preserved in the copies). Once a molecule replicates, the process of natural selection can kick in, and the replicator can accumulate matter and become more complex, eventually leading to precursors of the replication system used by living organisms today.
FLAW 2: Even without von Neumann's work (which not everyone accepts as conclusive), to conclude the existence of God from our not yet knowing how to explain the Original Replicator is to rely on The Argument from Ignorance.
4. The Argument from The Big Bang
The Big Bang is based on the observed expansion of the universe, with galaxies rushing away from each other. The implication is that if we run the film of the universe backward from the present, the universe must continuously contract, all the way back to a single point. The theory of the Big Bang is that the universe exploded into existence about 14 billion years ago.
FLAW 1: Cosmologists themselves do not all agree that the Big Bang is a "singularity" — the sudden appearance of space, time, and physical laws from inexplicable nothingness. The Big Bang may represent the lawful emergence of a new universe from a previously existing one. In that case, it would be superfluous to invoke God to explain the emergence of something from nothing.
FLAW 2: The Argument From the Big Bang has all the flaws of The Cosmological Argument — it passes the buck from the mystery of the origin of the universe to the mystery of the origin of God, and it extends the notion of "cause" outside the domain of events covered by natural laws (also known as the universe) where it no longer makes sense.
5. The Arguments from the Fine-Tuning of Physical Constants
Philosophers and physicists often speak of "The Anthropic Principle," which comes in several versions, labeled "weak," "strong" and "very strong." All three versions argue that any explanation of the universe must account for the fact that we humans ( or any complex organism that could observe its condition) exist in it. The Argument from Fine-Tuning corresponds to the Very Strong Anthropic Principle. Its upshot is that the upshot of the universe is . . . us. The universe must have been designed with us in mind.
FLAW 1: The first premise may be false. Many physicists and cosmologists, following Einstein, hope for a unified "theory of everything," which would deduce from as-yet-unknown physical laws that the physical constants of our universe had to be what they are. In that case, ours would be the only possible universe. (See also The Argument from the Intelligibility of the Universe,# 35, below).
FLAW 2: Even were we to accept the first premise, the transition from 4 to 5 is invalid. Perhaps we are living in a multiverse (a term coined by William James), a vast plurality (perhaps infinite) of parallel universes with different physical constants, all of them composing one reality. We find ourselves, unsurprisingly (since we are here doing the observing), in one of the rare universe that does support the appearance of stable matter and complex life, but nothing had to have been fine-tuned. Or perhaps we are living in an "oscillatory universe," a succession of universes with differing physical constants, each one collapsing into a point and then exploding with a new big bang into a new universe with different physical constants, one succeeding the other over an infinite time span. Again, we find ourselves, not surprisingly, in one of those time-slices in which the universe does have physical constants that support stable matter and complex life. These hypotheses, which are receiving much attention from contemporary cosmologists, are sufficient to invalidate the leap from 4 to 5.
6. The Argument from the Beauty of Physical Laws
FLAW 1: Do we decide an explanation is good because it's beautiful, or do we find an explanation beautiful because it provides a good explanation? When we say that the laws of nature are beautiful, what we are really saying is that the laws of nature are the laws of nature, and thus unify into elegant explanation a vast host of seemingly unrelated and random phenomena. We would find the laws of nature of any lawful universe beautiful. So what this argument boils down to is the observation that we live in a lawful universe. And of course any universe that could support the likes of us would have to be lawful. So this argument is another version of the The Anthropic Principle — we live in the kind of universe which is the only kind of universe in which observers like us could live — and thus is subject to the flaws of Argument #5.
FLAW 2: If the laws of the universe are intrinsically beautiful, then positing a God who loves beauty, and who is mysteriously capable of creating an elegant universe (and presumably a messy one as well, though his aesthetic tastes led him not to), makes the universe complex and incomprehensible all over again. This negates the intuition behind Premise 3, that the universe is intrinsically elegant and intelligible. (See The Argument from the Intelligibility of the Universe, #35 below.)
7. The Argument from Cosmic Coincidences
FLAW 1: Premise 3 does not follow from Premise 2. The occurrence of the highly improbable can be statistically explained in two ways. One is when we have a very large sample. A one-in-a-million event is not improbable at all if there are a million opportunities for it to occur. The other is that there is a huge number of occurrences that could be counted as coincidences, if we don't specify them beforehand but just notice them after the fact. (There could have been a constellation that forms a square around the moon; there could have been a comet that appeared on January 1, 2000; there could have been a constellation in the shape of a Star of David, etc. etc. etc.) When you consider how many coincidences are possible, the fact that we observe any one coincidence (which we notice after the fact) is not improbably but likely. And let's not forget the statistically improbable coincidences that cause havoc and suffering, rather than awe and wonder, in humans: the perfect storm, the perfect tsunami, the perfect plague, etc.
FLAW 2: The derivation of Premise 5 from Premises 3 and 4 is invalid: an example of the Projection Fallacy, in which we project the workings of our mind onto the world, and assume that our own subjective reaction is the result of some cosmic plan to cause that reaction. The human brain sees patterns in all kinds of random configurations: cloud formations, constellations, tea leaves, inkblots. That is why we are so good at finding supposed coincidences. It is getting things backwards to say that, in every case in which we see a pattern, someone deliberately put that pattern in the universe for us to see.
COMMENT: Prominent among the uncanny coincidences that figure into this argument are those having to do with numbers. Numbers are mysterious to us because they are not material objects like rocks and tables, but at the same time they seem to be real entities, ones that we can't conjure up with any properties we fancy but that have their own necessary properties and relations, and hence must somehow exist outside us (see The Argument from Our Knowledge of The Infinite, #29, and The Argument from Mathematical Reality, #30 below). We are therefore likely to attribute magical powers to them. And, given the infinity of numbers and the countless possible ways to apply them to the world, "uncanny coincidences" are bound to occur (see FLAW 1). In Hebrew, the letters are also numbers, which has given rise to the mystical art of "gematria," often used to elucidate, speculate, and prophesy about the unknowable.
8. The Argument from Personal Coincidences
FLAW 1: The second premise suffers from the major flaw of the Argument from Cosmic Coincidences: a large number of experiences, together with the large number of patterns that we would call "coincidences" after the fact, make uncanny coincidences probable, not improbable.
FLAW 2: Psychologists have shown that people are subject to an illusion called Confirmation Bias. When they have a hypothesis (such as that daydreams predict the future), they vividly notice all the instances that confirm it (the times when they think of a friend and he calls), and forget all the instances that don't (the times when they think of a friend and he doesn't call). Likewise, who among us remembers all the times when we miss a plane and it doesn't crash? The vast number of non-events we live through don't make an impression on us; the few coincidences do.
FLAW 3: There is an additional strong psychological bias at work here: Every one of us treats his or her own life with utmost seriousness. For all of us, there can be nothing more significant than the lives we are living. As David Hume pointed out, the self has an inclination to "spread itself on the world," projecting onto objective reality the psychological assumptions and attitudes that are too constant to be noticed, that play in the background like a noise you don't realize you are hearing until it stops. This form of the Projection Fallacy is especially powerful when it comes to the emotionally fraught questions about our own significance.
9. The Argument from Answered Prayers
This argument is similar to The Argument from Miracles below, except instead of the official miracles claimed by established religion, it refers to intimate and personal miracles.
FLAW 1: Premise 3 is indeed true. However, to use it to infer that a miracle has taken place (and an answered prayer is certainly a miracle) is to subvert it. There is nothing that is less probable than a miracle, since it constitutes a violation of a law of nature (see The Argument from Miracles, #11, below). Therefore, it is more reasonable to conclude that the correlation of the prayer and the recovery is a coincidence than that it is a miracle.
FLAW 2: The coincidence of a person praying for the unlikely to happen and its then happening is, of course, improbable. But the flaws in The Argument from Cosmic Coincidences and The Argument from Personal Coincidences apply here: Given a large enough sample of prayers (the number of times people call out to God to help them and those they love is tragically large), the improbable is bound to happen occasionally. And, given the existence of Confirmation Bias, we will notice these coincidences, yet fail to notice and count up the vastly larger number of unanswered prayers.
FLAW 3: There is an inconsistency in the moral reasoning behind this argument. It asks us to believe in a compassionate God who would be moved to pity by the desperate pleas of some among us — but not by the equally desperate pleas of others among us. Together with The Argument from A Wonderful Life, it appears to be supported by a few cherry-picked examples, but in fact is refuted by the much larger number of counterexamples it ignores: the prayers that go unanswered, the people who do not live wonderful lives. When the life is our own, or that of someone we love, we are especially liable to the Projection Fallacy, and spread our personal sense of significance onto the world at Large.
FLAW 4: Reliable cases of answered prayers always involve medical conditions that we know can spontaneously resolve themselves through the healing powers and immune system of the body, such as recovery from cancer, or a coma, or lameness. Prayers that a person can grow back a limb, or that a child can be resurrected from the dead, always go unanswered. This affirms that supposedly answered prayers are actually just the rarer cases of natural recovery.
10. The Argument from A Wonderful Life
FLAW 1: Premise 2 ignores the psychological complexity of people. People have inner resources on which they draw, often without knowing how they are doing it or even that they are doing it. Psychologists have shown that events in our conscious lives—from linguistic intuitions of which sentences sound grammatical to moral intuitions of what would be the right thing to do in a moral dilemma—are the end-products of complicated mental manipulations of which we are unaware. So, too, decisions and resolutions can bubble into awareness without our being conscious of the processes that led to them. These epiphanies seem to announce themselves to us, as if they came from an external guide: another example of the Projection Fallacy.
FLAW 2: The same as FLAW 3 in The Argument from Answered Prayers, #9 above.
11. The Argument from Miracles
FLAW 1: It is certainly true, as Premise 4 asserts, that we have a multitude of reports of miracles, with each religion insisting on those that establish it alone as the true religion. But the reports are not testifying to the same events; each miracle list justifies one religion at the expense of the others. See FLAW 2 in the Argument from Holy Books, #23 below.
FLAW 2: The fatal flaw in The Argument from Miracles was masterfully exposed by David Hume in An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Chapter 10, "On Miracles." Human testimony may often be accurate, but it is very far from infallible. People are sometimes mistaken; people are sometimes dishonest; people are sometimes gullible — indeed, more than sometimes. Since in order to believe that a miracle has occurred we must believe a law of nature has been violated (something for which we otherwise have the maximum of empirical evidence), and we can only believe it on the basis of the truthfulness of human testimony (which we already know is often inaccurate), then even if we knew nothing else about the event, and had no particular reason to distrust the reports of witness, we would have to conclude that it is more likely that the miracle has not occurred, and that there is an error in the testimony, than that the miracle has occurred. (Hume strengthens his argument, already strong, by observing that religion creates situations in which there are particular reasons to distrust the reports of witnesses. "But if the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense.")
COMMENT: The Argument from Miracles covers more specific arguments, such as The Argument from Prophets, The Arguments from Messiahs, and the Argument from Individuals with Miraculous Powers.
12. The Argument from The Hard Problem of Consciousness
FLAW 1: Premise 3 is dubious. Science often shows that properties can be emergent: they arise from complex interactions of simpler elements, even if they cannot be found in any of the elements themselves. (Water is wet, but that does not mean that every H¬2 0 molecule it is made of is also wet.) Granted, we do not have a theory of neuroscience that explains how consciousness emerges from patterns of neural activity, but to draw theological conclusions from the currently incomplete state of scientific knowledge is to commit the Fallacy of Arguing from Ignorance.
FLAW 2: Alternatively, the theory of panpsychism posits that consciousness in a low-grade form, what is often called "proto-consciousness," is inherent in matter. Our physical theories, with their mathematical methodology, have not yet been able to capture this aspect of matter, but that may just be a limitation on our mathematical physical theories. Some physicists have hypothesized that contemporary malaise about the foundations of quantum mechanics arise because physics is here confronting the intrinsic consciousness of matter, which has not yet been adequately formalized within physical theories.
FLAW 3: It has become clear that every measurable manifestation of consciousness, like our ability to describe what we feel, or let our feelings guide our behavior (the "Easy Problem" of consciousness) has been, or will be, explained in terms of neural activity (that is, every thought, feeling, and intention has a neural correlate). Only the existence of consciousness itself (the "Hard Problem") remains mysterious. But perhaps the hardness of the hard problem says more about what we find hard — the limitations of the brains of Homo sapiens when it tries to think scientifically — than about the hardness of the problem itself. Just as our brains do not allow us to visualize four-dimensional objects perhaps our brains do not allow us to understand how subjective experience arises from complex neural activity.
FLAW 4: Premise 12 is entirely unclear. How does invoking the spark of the divine explain the existence of consciousness? It is the Fallacy of Using One Mystery To Pseudo-Explain Another.
COMMENT: Premise 11 is also dubious, because our capacity to suffer is far in excess of what it would take to make moral choices possible. This will be discussed in connection with The Argument from Suffering, #25 below.
13. The Argument from The Improbable Self
FLAW: Premise 5 is a blatant example of the Fallacy of Using One Mystery To Pseudo-Explain Another. Granted that the problem boggles the mind, but waving one's hands in the direction of God is no solution. It gives us no sense of how God can account for why I am this thing and not another.
COMMENT: In one way, this argument is reminiscent of the Anthropic Principle. There are a vast number of people who could have been born. One's own parents alone could have given birth to a vast number of alternatives to oneself—same egg, different sperm; different egg, same sperm; different egg, different sperm. Granted, one gropes for a reason for why it was, against these terrific odds, that oneself came to be born. But there may be no reason; it just happened. By the time you ask this question, you already are existing in a world in which you were born. Another analogy: the odds that the phone company would have given you your exact number are minuscule. But it had to give you some number, so asking after the fact why it should be that number is silly. Likewise, the child your parents conceived had to be someone. Now that you're born, it's no mystery why it should be you; you're the one asking the question.
14. The Argument from Survival after Death
FLAW: Premise 5 is vulnerable to the same criticisms that were leveled against Premise 12 in the Argument from the Hard Problem of Consciousness. Existence after death no more implies God's existence than our existence before death does.
COMMENT: Many, of course, would dispute Premise 1. The universal experiences of people near death, such as auras and out-of-body experiences, could be hallucinations resulting from oxygen deprivation in the brain. In addition, miraculous resurrections after total brain death, and accurate reports of conversations and events that took place while the brain was not functioning, have never been scientifically documented, and are informal, secondhand examples of testimony of miracles. They are thus vulnerable to the same flaws pointed out in The Argument from Miracles. But the argument is fatally flawed even if Premise 1 is granted.
15. The Argument from the Inconceivability of Personal Annihilation
FLAW 1: Premise 2 confuses psychological inconceivability with logical inconceivability. The sense in which I can't conceive of my own annihilation is like the sense in which I can't conceive of those whom I love may betray me—a failure of the imagination, not an impossible state of affairs. Thus Premise 2 ought to read "My annihilation is inconceivable to me.", which is a fact about what my brain can conceive, not a fact about what exists.
FLAW 2: Same as Flaw 3 from The Argument from the Survival of Death.
COMMENT: Though logically unsound, this is among the most powerful psychological impulses to believe in a soul, and an afterlife, and God. It genuinely is difficult—not to speak of disheartening— to conceive of oneself not existing!
16. The Argument from Moral Truth
FLAW 1: The major flaw of this argument is revealed in a powerful argument that Plato made famous in the Euthyphro. Reference to God does not help in the least to ground the objective truth of morality. The question is: why did God choose the moral rules he did? Did he have a reason justifying his choice that, say, giving alms to the poor is good, while genocide is wrong? Either he had a good reason or he didn't. If he did, then his reasons, whatever they are, can provide the grounding for moral truths for us, and God himself is redundant. And if he didn't have a good reason, then his choices are arbitrary—he could just as easily have gone the other way, making charity bad and genocide good—and we would have no reason to take his choices seriously. According to the Euthyphro argument, then, the Argument from Moral Truth is another example of The Fallacy of Passing the Buck. The hard work of moral philosophy consists in grounding morality in some version of the Golden Rule: that I cannot be committed to my own interests mattering in a way that yours do not just because I am me and you are not.
FLAW 2: Premise 4 is belied by the history of religion, which shows that the God from which people draw their morality (for example, the God of the Bible and the Koran) did not establish what we now recognize to be morality at all. The God of the Old Testament commanded people to keep slaves, slay their enemies, execute blasphemers and homosexuals, and commit many other heinous acts. Of course, our interpretation of which aspects of Biblical morality to take seriously has grown more sophisticated over time, and we read the Bible selectively and often metaphorically. But that is just the point: we must be consulting some standards of morality that do not come from God in order to judge which aspects of God's word to take literally and which aspects to ignore.
COMMENT: Some would question the first premise, and regard its assertion as a flaw of this argument. Slavery and torture and genocide are wrong by our lights, they would argue, and conflict with certain values we hold dear, such as freedom and happiness. But those are just subjective values, and it is obscure to say that statements that are consistent with those values are objectively true in the same way that mathematical or scientific statements can be true. But the argument is fatally flawed even if Premise 1 is granted.
17. The Argument from Altruism
FLAW 1: Theories of the evolution of altruism by natural selection have been around for decades and are now widely supported by many kinds of evidence. A gene for being kind to one's kin, even if it hurts the person doing the favor, can be favored by evolution, because that gene would be helping a copy of itself that is shared by the kin. And a gene for conferring a large benefit to a non-relative at a cost to oneself can evolve if the favor-doer is the beneficiary of a return favor at a later time. Both parties are better off, in the long run, from the exchange of favors.
Some defenders of religion do not consider these theories to be legitimate explanations of altruism, because a tendency to favor one's kin, or to trade favors, are ultimately just forms of selfishness for one's genes, rather than true altruism. But this is a confusion of the original phenomenon: we are trying to explain why people are sometimes altruistic, not why genes are altruistic. (We have no reason to believe that genes are ever altruistic in the first place!) Also, in a species with language, namely humans, committed altruists develop a reputation for being altruistic, and thereby win more friends, allies, and trading partners. This can give rise to selection for true, committed, altruism, not just the tit-for-tat exchange of favors.
FLAW 2: We have evolved higer mental faculties, such as self-reflection and logic, that allow us to reason about the world, to persuade other people to form alliances with us, to learn from our mistakes, and to achieve other feats of reason. Those same faculties, when they are honed through debate, reason, and knowledge, can allow us to step outside ourselves, learn about other people's point of view, and act in a way that we can justify as maximizing everyone's well-being. We are capable of moral reasoning because we are capable of reasoning in general.
FLAW 3: In some versions of the Argument from Altruism, God succeeds in getting people to act altruistically because he promises them a divine reward and threatens them with divine retribution. People behave altruistically to gain a reward or avoid a punishment in the life to come. This argument is self-contradictory. It aims to explain how people act without regard to their self-interest, but then assumes that there could be no motive for acting altruistically other than self-interest.
18. The Argument from Free Will
FLAW 1: This argument, in order to lead to God, must ignore the paradoxical Fork of Free Will. Either my actions are predictable (from my genes, my upbringing, my brain state, my current situation, and so on), or they are not. If they are predictable, then there is no reason to deny that they are caused, and we would not have free will. So they must be unpredictable, in other words, random. But if our behavior is random, then in what sense can it be attributable to us at all? If it really is a random event when I give the infirm man my seat in the subway, then in what sense is it me to whom this good deed should be attributed? If the action isn't caused by my psychological states, which are themselves caused by other states, then in one way is it really my action? And what good would it do to insist on moral responsibility, if our choices are random, and cannot be predicted from prior events (such as growing up in a society that holds people responsible)? This leads us back to the conclusion that we, as moral agents must be parts of the natural world-- the very negation of 7.
FLAW 2: Premise 10 is an example of the Fallacy of Using One Mystery to Pseudo-Explain Another. It expresses, rather than dispels, the confusion we feel when faced with the Fork of Free Will. The paradox has not been clarified in the least by introducing God into the analysis.
COMMENT: Free will is yet another quandary that takes us to the edge of our human capacity for understanding. The concept is baffling, because our moral agency seems to demand both that our actions be determined, and also that they not be determined.
19. The Argument from Personal Purpose
FLAW 1: The first premise rests on a confusion between the purpose of an action and the purpose of a life. It is human activities that have purposes—or don't. We study for the purpose of educating and supporting ourselves. We eat right and exercise for the purpose of being healthy. We warn children not to accept rides with strangers for the purpose of keeping them safe. We donate to charity for the purpose of helping the poor (just as we would want someone to help us if we were poor.) The notion of a person's entire life serving a purpose, above and beyond the purpose of all the person's choices, is obscure. Might it mean the purpose for which the person was born? That implies that some goal-seeking agent decided to bring our lives into being to serve some purpose. Then who is that goal-seeking agent? Parents often purposively have children, but we wouldn't want to see a parent's wishes as the purpose of the child's life. If the goal-seeking agent is God, the argument becomes circular: we make sense of the notion of "the purpose of a life" by stipulating that the purpose is whatever God had in mind when he created us, but then argue for the existence of God because he is the only one who could have designed us with a purpose in mind.
FLAW 2: Premise 2 states that human life cannot be pointless. But of course it could be pointless in the sense meant by this argument: lacking a purpose in the grand scheme of things. It could very well be the there is no grand scheme of things because there is no Grand Schemer. By assuming that there is a grand scheme of things, it assumes that there is a schemer whose scheme it is, which circularly assumes the conclusion.
COMMENT: It's important not to confuse the notion of "pointless" in Premise 2 with notions like "not worth living" or "expendable." It is probably confusions of this sort that give Premise 2 its appeal. But we can very well maintain that each human life is precious—is worth living, is not expendable—without maintaining that each human life has a purpose in the overall scheme of things.
20. The Argument from the Intolerability of Insignificance
FLAW: Premise 4 is illicit: it is of the form "This argument must be correct, because it is intolerable that this argument is not correct." The argument is either circular, or an example of the Fallacy of Wishful Thinking. Maybe we won't matter in a million years, and there's just nothing we can do about it. If that is the case, we shouldn't declare that it is intolerable—we just have to live with it. Another way of putting it is: we should take ourselves seriously (being mindful of what we do, and the world we leave our children and grandchildren), but we shouldn't take ourselves that seriously, and arrogantly demand that we must matter in a million years.
21. The Argument from the Consensus of Humanity
FLAW: 2 is false. Widely separated people could very well come up with the same false beliefs. Human nature is universal, and thus prone to universal illusions and shortcomings of perception, memory, reasoning, and objectivity. Also , many of the needs and terrors and dependencies of the human condition (such as the knowledge of our own mortality, and the attendant desire not to die) are universal. Our beliefs don't arise only from well-evaluated reasoning, but from wishful thinking, self-deception, self-aggrandizement, gullibility, false memories, visual illusions, and other mental glitches. Well-grounded beliefs may be the exception rather than the rule when it comes to psychologically fraught beliefs, which tend to bypass rational grounding and spring instead from unexamined emotions. The fallacy of arguing that if an idea is universally held then it must be true was labeled by the ancient logicians consensus gentium.
22. The Argument from the Consensus of Mystics
FLAW 1: Premise 5 is disputable. There is indeed reason to think mystics might be deluded in similar ways. The universal human nature that refuted the Argument from the Consensus of Humanity entails that the human brain can be stimulated in unusual ways that give rise to universal (but not objectively correct) experiences. The fact that we can stimulate the temporal lobes of non-mystics and induce mystical experiences in them is evidence that mystics might indeed all be deluded in similar ways. Certain drugs can also induce feelings of transcendence, such as an enlargement of perception beyond the bounds of effability, a melting of the boundaries of the self, a joyful expansion out into an existence that seems to be all One, with all that Oneness pronouncing Yes upon us. Such experiences, which, as William James points out, are most easily attained by getting drunk, are of the same kind as the mystical: "The drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystic consciousness." Of course, we do not exalt the stupor and delusions of drunkenness because we know what caused them. The fact that the same effects can overcome a person when we know what caused them (and hence don't call the experience "mystical") — is reason to suspect that the causes of mystical experiences also lie within internal excitations of the brain having nothing to do with perception.
FLAW 2: The struggle to put the ineffable contents of abnormal experiences into language inclines the struggler toward pre-existing religious language, which is the only language that most of us have been exposed to which overlaps with the unusual sensations of an altered state of consciousness. This observation casts doubt on Premise 7.See also The Argument from Sublimity, #34 below.
23. The Argument from Holy Books
FLAW 1: This is a circular argument if ever there was one. The first three premises cannot be maintained unless one independently knows the very conclusion to be proved, namely that God exists.
FLAW 2: A glance at the world's religions shows that there are numerous books and scrolls and doctrines and revelations that all claim to reveal the word of God. But they are mutually incompatible. Should I believe that Jesus is my personal savior? Or should I believe that God made a covenant with the Jews requiring every Jew to keep the commandments of the Torah? Should I believe that Mohammad was Allah's last prophet and that Ali, the prophet's cousin and husband of his daughter Fatima, ought to have been the first caliph, or that Mohammad was Allah's last prophet and that Ali was the fourth and last caliph? Should I believe that the resurrected prophet Moroni dictated the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith? Or that Ahura Mazda, the benevolent Creator, is at cosmic war with the malevolent Angra Mainyu? And on and on it goes. Only the most arrogant provincialism could allow someone to believe that the holy documents that happen to be held sacred by the clan he was born into are true, while all the documents held sacred by the clans he wasn't born into are false.
24. The Argument from Perfect Justice
FLAW: This is a good example of the Fallacy of Wishful Thinking. Our wishes for how the world should be need not be true; just because we want there to be some realm in which perfect justice applies does not mean that there is such a realm. In other words, there is no way to pass from Premise 2 to Premise 3 without the Fallacy of Wishful Thinking.
25. The Argument from Suffering
FLAW: This argument is a sorrowful one, since it highlights the most intolerable feature of our world, the excess of suffering. The suffering in this world is excessive in both its intensity and its prevalence, often undergone by those who can never gain anything from it. This is a powerful argument against the existence of a compassionate and powerful deity. It is only the Fallacy of Wishful Thinking, embodied in Premise 2, that could make us presume that what is psychologically intolerable cannot be the case.
26. The Argument from the Survival of The Jews
FLAW 1: The fact that the Jews, after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, had no country of their own made it more likely, rather than less likely, that they would survive as a people. If they had been concentrated in one country, they would surely have been conquered by one of history's great empires, as happened to other vanished tribes. But a people dispersed across a vast diaspora is more resilient, which is why other stateless peoples, like the Parsis and Roma, have also survived for millennia, often against harrowing odds. Moreover, the Jews encouraged cultural traits — such as literacy, urban living, specialization in middleman occupations, and an extensive legal code to govern their internal affairs --that gave them further resilience against the vicissitudes of historical change. The survival of the Jews, therefore, is not a miraculous improbability.
COMMENT: The persecution of the Jews need not be seen as a part of a cosmic moral drama. The unique role that Judaism played in disseminating monotheism, mostly through the organs of its two far more popular monotheistic offshoots, Christianity and Islam, has bequeathed to its adherents an unusual amount of attention, mostly negative, from adherents of those other monotheistic religions.
27. The Argument from The Upward Curve of History
FLAW: Though our species has inherited traits of selfishness and aggression, we have also inherited capacities for empathy, reasoning, and learning from experience. We have also inherited language, and with it a means to pass on the lessons we have learned from history. And so humankind has slowly reasoned its way toward a broader and more sophisticated understanding of morality, and more effective institutions for keeping peace. We make moral progress as we do scientific progress, through reasoning, experimentation, and the rejection of failed alternatives.
28. The Argument from Prodigious Genius
FLAW 1: The psychological traits that go into human accomplishment, such as intelligence and perseverance, are heritable. By the laws of probability, rare individuals will inherit a concentrated dose of those genes. Given a nurturing cultural context, these individuals will, some of the time, exercise their powers to accomplish great feats. Those are the individuals we call geniuses. We may not know enough about genetics, neuroscience, and cognition to explain exactly what makes for a Mozart or an Einstein, but exploiting this gap to argue for supernatural provenance is an example of The Fallacy of Arguing from Ignorance.
FLAW 2: Human genius is not consistently applied to human betterment. Consider weapons of mass destruction, computer viruses, Hitler's brilliantly effective rhetoric, or those criminal geniuses (for example electronic thieves) who are so cunning that they elude detection.
29. The Argument from Human Knowledge of Infinity
FLAW: There are certain computational procedures governed by what logicians call recursive rules. A recursive rule is one that refers to itself, and hence it can be applied to its own output ad infinitum. For example, we can define a natural number recursively: 1 is a natural number and if you add 1 to a natural number, the result is a natural number. We can apply this rule an indefinite number of times and thereby generate an infinite series of natural numbers. Recursive rules allow a finite system (a set of rules, a computer, a brain) to reason about an infinity of objects, refuting Premise 3.
COMMENT: In 1931 the young logician Kurt Gödel published a paper proving a result called the Incompleteness Theorem (actually there are two). Basically, what Gödel demonstrated is that recursive rules cannot capture all of arithmetic. So though the flaw discussed above is sufficient to invalidate Premise 3 , it should not be understood as suggesting that all of our mathematical knowledge is reducible to recursive rules.
30. The Argument from Mathematical Reality
Mathematics is derived through pure reason — what the philosophers call a priori reason — which means that it cannot be refuted by any empirical observations. The fundamental question in philosophy of mathematics is: how can mathematics be true but not empirical? Is it because mathematics describes some trans-empirical reality — as mathematical realists believe — or is it because mathematics has no content at all and is a purely formal game consisting of stipulated rules and their consequences? The Argument from Mathematical Reality assumes, in its third premise, the position of mathematical realism, which isn't a fallacy in itself; many mathematicians believe it, some of them arguing that it follows from Gödel's incompleteness theorems (see the COMMENT in The Argument from Human Knowledge of Infinity, #30 above). This argument, however, goes further and tries to deduce God's existence from the trans-empirical existence of mathematical reality.
FLAW 1: The inference of 5, from 1 and 4, does not take into account the formalist response to the non-empirical nature of mathematics.
FLAW 2: Even if one, Platonistically, accepts the derivation of 5 and then 6, there is something fishy about proceeding onward to 7, with its presumption that something outside of mathematical reality must explain the existence of mathematical reality. Lurking within 7 is the hidden premise: mathematical truths must be explained by reference to non-mathematical truths. But why? If God can be self-explanatory, as this argument presumes, why then can't mathematical reality be self-explanatory — especially since the truths of mathematics are, as this argument asserts, necessarily true?
FLAW 3: Mathematical reality — if indeed it exists — is, admittedly, mysterious. But invoking God does not dispel this puzzlement; it is an instance of "The Fallacy of Using One Mystery to Pseudo-Explain Another." The mystery of God's existence is often used, by those who assert it, as an explanatory sink hole.
31.The Argument from Decision Theory (Pascal's Wager)
This unusual argument does not justify the conclusion that "God exists." Rather it argues that it is rational to believe that God exists, given that we don't know whether he exists.
FLAW 1: The "believe" option in Pascal's wager can be interpreted in two ways.
One is that the wagerer genuinely has to believe, deep down, that God exists; in other words, it is not enough to mouth a creed, or merely act as if God exists. According to this interpretation, God, if He exists, can peer into a person's soul and discern the person's actual convictions. If so, the kind of "belief" that Pascal's wager advises — a purely pragmatic strategy, chosen because the expected benefits exceed the expected costs — would not be enough. Indeed, it's not even clear that this option is coherent: if one chooses to believe something because of the consequences of holding that belief, rather than being intuitively convinced of it, is it really a belief, or just an empty vow?
The other interpretation is that it is enough to act in the way that traditional believers act: say prayers, go to services, recite the appropriate creed, and go through the other motions of religion.
The problem is that Pascal's wager offers no guidance as to which prayers, which services, which creed, to live by. Say I chose to believe in the Zoroastrian cosmic war between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu to avoid the wrath of the former, while the real fact of the matter is that God gave the Torah to the Jews, and I am thereby inviting the wrath of Yahweh (or vice-versa). Given all the things I could "believe" in, I am in constant danger of incurring the negative consequences of disbelief even though I choose the "belief" option. The fact that Blaise Pascal stated his wager as two stark choices, putting the outcomes in blatantly Christian terms — eternal salvation and eternal damnation — reveals more about his own upbringing than they do about the logic of belief. The wager simply codifies his particular "live options," to use William James's term, for the only choices that seem possible to a given believer.
FLAW 2: Pascal's wager assumes a petty, egotistical, and vindictive God who punishes anyone who does not believe in him. But the great monotheistic religions all declare that "mercy" is one of God's essential traits. A merciful God would surely have some understanding of why a person may not believe in him (if the evidence for God were obvious, the fancy reasoning of Pascal's wager would not be necessary), and so would extend compassion to a nonbeliever. (Bertrand Russell, when asked what he would have to say to God if, despite his philosophical atheism, he were to die and face his Creator, responded, "Oh, Lord, why did you not provide more evidence?') The nonbeliever therefore should have nothing to worry about — falsifying the negative payoff in the lower-left-hand cell of the matrix.
FLAW 3: The calculations of expected value in Pascal's wager omit a crucial part of the mathematics: the probabilities of each of the two columns, which have to be multiplied with the payoff in each cell to determine the expected value of each cell. If the probability of God's existence (ascertained by other means) is infinitesimal, then even if the cost of not believing in him is high, the overall expectation may not make it worthwhile to choose the "believe" row (after all, we take many other risks in life with severe possible costs but low probabilities, such as boarding an airplane). One can see how this invalidates Pascal's Wager by considering similar wagers. Say I told you that a fire-breathing dragon has moved into the next apartment and that unless you set out a bowl of marshmallows for him every night he will force his way into your apartment and roast you to a crisp. According to Pascal's wager, you should leave out the marshmallows. Of course you don't, even though you are taking a terrible risk in choosing not to believe in the dragon, because you don't assign a high enough probability to the dragon's existence to justify even the small inconvenience.
32. The Argument from Pragmatism
(William James's Leap of Faith)
This argument can be read out of William James's classic essay "The Will to Believe." The first premise , as presented here, is a little less radical than James's pragmatic definition of truth in general, according to which a proposition is true if believing that it is true has a cumulative beneficial effect on the believer's life. The pragmatic definition of truth has severe problems, including possible incoherence: in evaluating the effects of the belief on the believer, we have to know the truth about what those effects are, which forces us to fall back on the old-fashioned notion of truth. To make the best case for The Argument from Pragmatism, therefore, the first premise is here understood as claiming only that the pragmatic consequences of belief are a relevant source of evidence in ascertaining the truth, not that they can actually be equated with the truth.
FLAW 1: What exactly does effecting "a change for the better on the believer's life" mean? For an antebellum Southerner, there was more to be gained in believing that slavery is morally permissible than in believing it heinous. It often doesn't pay to be an iconoclast or revolutionary thinker, no matter how much truer your ideas are than the ideas opposing you. It didn't improve Galileo's life to believe that the earth moved around the sun rather than that the sun and the heavens revolve around the earth. (Of course, you could say that it's always intrinsically better to believe something true rather than something false, but then you're just using the language of the pragmatist to mask a non-pragmatic notion of truth.)
FLAW 2: The Argument from Pragmatism implies an extreme relativism regarding the truth, because the effects of belief differ for different believers. A profligate, impulsive drunkard may have to believe in a primitive retributive God who will send him to Hell if he doesn't stay out of barroom fights, whereas a contemplative mensch may be better off with an abstract deistic presence who completes his deepest existential world view. But either there is a vengeful God who sends sinners to Hell or there isn't. If one allows pragmatic consequences to determine truth, then truth becomes relative to the believer, which is incoherent.
FLAW 3: Why should we only consider the pragmatic effects on the believer's life? What about the effects on everyone else? The history of religious intolerance, including inquisitions, fatwas, and suicide bombers, suggests that the effects on one person's life of another person's believing in God can be pretty grim.
FLAW 4: The pragmatic argument for God suffers from the first flaw of The Argument from Decision Theory (#31 above) — namely the assumption that the belief in God is like a faucet that one can turn on and off as the need arises. If I make the leap of faith in order to evaluate the pragmatic consequences of belief, then if those consequences are not so good, can I leap back again to disbelief? Isn't a leap of faith a one-way maneuver? "The will to believe" is an oxymoron: beliefs are forced on a person (ideally, by logic and evidence); they are not chosen for their consequences.
33. The Argument from the Unreasonableness of Reason
Reason is a faculty of thinking, the very faculty of giving grounds for our beliefs. To justify reason would be to try to give grounds for the belief: "We ought to accept the conclusions of sound arguments." Let's say we produce a sound argument for the conclusion that "we ought to accept the conclusions of sound arguments." How could we legitimately accept the conclusion of that sound argument without independently knowing the conclusion? Any attempt to justify the very propositions that we must use in order to justify propositions is going to land us in circularity.
FLAW 1: This argument tries to generalize the inability of reason to justify itself to an abdication of reason when it comes to justifying God's existence. But the inability of reason to justify reason is a unique case in epistemology, not an illustration of a flaw of reason that can be generalized to some other kind of belief — and certainly not a belief in the existence of some entity with specific properties such as creating the world or defining morality.
Indeed, one could argue that the attempt to justify reason with reason is not circular, but rather, unnecessary. One already is, and always will be, committed to reason by the very process one is already engaged in, namely reasoning. Reason is non-negotiable; all sides concede it. It needs no justification, because it is justification. A belief in God is not like that at all.
FLAW 2: If one really took the unreasonability of reason as a license to believe things on faith, then which things should one believe in? If it is a license to believe in a single God who gave his son for our sins, why isn't it just as much a license to believe in Zeus and all the other Greek gods, or the three major gods of Hinduism, or the angel Moroni? For that matter, why not Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy? If one says that there are good reasons to accept some entities on faith, while rejecting others, then one is saying that it is ultimately reason, not faith, that must be invoked to justify a belief.
FLAW 3: Premise 6, which claims that a belief in God is necessary in order to have a purpose in one's life, or to be moral, has already been challenged in the discussions of The Argument from Moral Truth (#16 above) and The Argument from Personal Purpose (#19 above).
34. The Argument from Sublimity
FLAW: An experience of sublimity is an aesthetic experience Aesthetic experience can indeed be intense and blissful, absorbing our attention so completely while exciting our pleasure that they seem to lift us right out of ourselves. Aesthetic experiences vary in their strength, and when they are overwhelming, we grope for terms like "transcendence" to describe the overwhelmingness. Yet for all that, aesthetic experiences are still, more than likely, internal excitations of the brain, as we see from the fact that ingesting recreational drugs can bring on even more intense experiences of transcendence. And the particular triggers for natural aesthetic experiences are readily explicable from the evolutionary pressures that have shaped the perceptual systems of human beings. An eye for sweeping vistas, dramatic skies, bodies of water, large animals, flowering and fruiting plants, and strong geometric patterns with repetition and symmetry, was necessary to orient attention to aspects of the environment that were matters of life and death to the species as it evolved in its natural environment. The identification of a blissfully aesthetic experience with a glimpse into benign transcendence is an example of The Projection Fallacy, dramatic demonstrations of our spreading ourselves onto the world. This is most obvious when the experience gets fleshed out into the religious terms that come most naturally to the particular believer, such as a frozen waterfall being seen by a Christian as a manifestation of the Christian trinity. One does not detract anything from the sublimity of aesthetic experiences by seeing them for what they are, namely sublime aesthetic experiences. Music, too, produces such experiences, though there we know exactly who the creators were.
35. The Argument from the Intelligibility of the World
Whenever Einstein was asked whether he believed in God, he responded that he believed in "Spinoza's God." This argument presents Spinoza's God. It is one of the most elegant and subtle arguments for God's existence, demonstrating where one ends up if one rigorously eschews the Fallacy of Invoking One Mystery to Pseudo-Explain Another: one ends up with the universe, and nothing but the universe: a universe which itself provides all the answers to all the questions one can pose about it. A major problem with the argument, however, in addition to the flaws discussed below, is that it is not at all clear that it is God whose existence is being proved. Spinoza's conclusion is that the universe that is described by the laws of nature simply is God. Perhaps the conclusion should, rather, be that the universe is different from what it appears to be — no matter how arbitrary and chaotic it may appear, it is in fact perfectly lawful and necessary, and therefore worthy of our awe. But is its awe-inspiring lawfulness reason enough to regard it as God? Spinoza's God is sharply at variance with all other divine conceptions.
The argument has only one substantive premise, its first one, which, though unproved, is not unreasonable; it is, in fact, the claim that the universe itself is thoroughly reasonable. Though this first premise can't be proved, it is the guiding faith of many physicists (including Einstein). It is the claim that everything must have an explanation; even the laws of nature, in terms of which processes are explained, must have an explanation. In other words, there has to be an explanation for why it is these laws of nature rather than some other, which is another way of asking for why it is this world rather than some other.
FLAW: The first premise can be challenged. Our world could conceivably be one in which randomness and contingency have free reign, no matter what the intuitions of some scientists are. Maybe some things just are ("stuff happens"), including the fundamental laws of nature. Philosophers sometimes call this just- is-ness "contingency" and, if the fundamental laws of nature are contingent, then even if everything that happens in the world is explainable by those laws, the laws themselves couldn't be explained. There is a sense in which this argument recalls The Argument from the Improbable Self. Both demand explanations for just this-ness, whether of just this universe or just this me.
The Argument from the Intelligibility of the Universe fleshes out the consequences of the powerful first premise, but some might regard the argument as a reductio ad absurdum of that premise.
COMMENT: Spinoza's argument, if sound, invalidates all the other arguments, the ones that try to establish the existence of a more traditional God—that is, a God who stands distinct from the world described by the laws of nature, as well as distinct from the world of human meaning, purpose, and morality. Spinoza's argument claims that any transcendent God, standing outside of that for which he is invoked as explanation, is invalidated by the first powerful premise, that all things are part of the same explanatory fabric. The mere coherence of The Argument from The Intelligibility of The Universe, therefore, is sufficient to reveal the invalidity of the other theistic arguments. This is why Spinoza, although he offered a proof of what he called "God," is often regarded as the most effective of all atheists.
36. The Argument from The Abundance of Arguments
FLAW 1: Premise 3 is vulnerable to t he same criticisms as the Argument from the Consensus of Humanity. The flaws that accompany each argument may be extremely damaging, even fatal, notwithstanding the fact that they have been taken seriously by many people throughout history. In other words, the average probability of any of the arguments being true may be far less than .2, in which case the probability that all of them are false could be high.
FLAW 2: This argument treats all the other arguments as being on an equal footing, distributing equal probabilities to them all, and rewarding all of them, too, with the commendation of being taken seriously by history's greatest minds. Many of the arguments on this list have been completely demolished by such minds as David Hume and Baruch Spinoza: their probability is zero.
COMMENT: The Argument from the Abundance of Arguments may be the most psychologically important of the thirty-six. Few people rest their belief in God on a single, decisive logical argument. Instead, people are swept away by the sheer number of reasons that make God's existence seem plausible — holding out an explanation as to why the universe went to the bother of existing, and why it is this particular universe, with its sublime improbabilities, including us humans; and, even more particularly, explaining the existence of each one of us who know ourselves as a unique conscious individual, who makes free and moral choices that grant meaning and purpose to our lives; and, even more personally, giving hope that desperate prayers may not go unheard and unanswered, and that the terrors of death can be subdued in immortality. Religions, too, do not justify themselves with a single logical argument, but rather set themselves up to minister to all of these needs and provide a space in people's lives where large questions that escape answers all come together and co-mingle, a co-mingling that, in itself, can give the illusion that they are being answered.