“Only humans are aware of having a stake in the moral and ethical parameters within which we live our lives. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to shape them over thousands of years, using various forms of authority from self-contained logic to force to claims of divine backing to support one adjustment over another.”
The argument, as straightforwardly put by the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:
1. Moral facts exist.
2. Moral facts have the properties of being objective and non-natural.
3. The best explanation of there being objective and non-natural moral facts is provided by theism.
4. Therefore the existence of moral facts provides good grounds for thinking theism is true.
A common opinion of the religious is that a person can’t be good without God. This argument goes a step further and says that because we know what is good and right and what is wrong, there must be a God.
A more widely used name for a “moral fact” is a “moral absolute” or “absolute moral”. It’s a standing judgement that something is either right or wrong, no matter what. In practical terms, it is what it is regardless of what people think. It’s true anywhere in the world, at any time. It’s the moral equivalent of a logical axiom or a fundamental universal constant.
Since the existence of moral facts is the first premise, and the second premise depends on it, the whole thing hinges on whether they can actually be established. So how do apologists go about doing this? Most of the time, they point out moral judgements which nearly everyone agrees on, such as that murder, rape or an event like the Holocaust is/was bad and wrong.
This won’t do, because moral facts or absolutes as described in these arguments are supposed to be independent of human beings. They’re specific properties of the universe like the laws of physics or logic, written into it by a god. If every human being on Earth disagreed with one (from the religious perspective, if all of humanity turned against God), it would still stand. Therefore the true moral absolutes (if any) could be completely at odds with near-universal human opinions, and so the fact that there are near-universal human moral opinions doesn’t make them absolutes. It just means humans have things in common.
A blogger arguing for moral absolutes challenged me to come up with a reasonable way to see the Holocaust (among other horrible actions) as a good thing. The implication was that if I failed, our near-universal condemnation of the Holocaust had to be based on a moral absolute. That’s wrong, as I’ve just explained, but I took him up on it anyway. All I had to do to contradict him was step outside of the human race and consider the Holocaust from the perspective of ants, or termites. Fewer Jews in Germany meant more abandoned houses in the ghettos, so more food and living space for bugs of all kinds. The Holocaust was so obviously wrong to humans, but if it loses its tragedy when exclusively human concerns are ignored then that’s hardly an absolute.
Only humans are aware of having a stake in the moral and ethical parameters within which we live our lives. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to shape them over thousands of years, supporting one adjustment over another with various forms of authority from self-contained logic to force to claims of divine backing. It appears that we’ve done it all ourselves, completely independent and ignorant of what any true absolute moral facts might be.
“The fundamental constants are set in one of potentially infinite combinations which permit life.”
Argument by Robert O’Brien, based on Probability, Statistics and Theology by David J. Bartholomew:
“As far as I know, there is no reason to believe the values of the physical constants are necessary, in which case, we have the following likelihood ratio:
P(physical constants and the universe in which we exist|God)/P(physical constants and the universe in which we exist|no God) =
P(physical constants|God)P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and God)/
P(physical constants|no God)P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and no God)
“Now, P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and God)/P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and no God) is essentially one since it does not seem likely that our universe depends on whether the physical constants we observe arose by design or not. Therefore, the likelihood ratio takes the form:
P(physical constants|no God)
which I argue is large since it is easy to conceive of God wishing to create a particular universe and choosing the appropriate values of the physical constants whereas a random selection would be very unlikely to achieve the correct values.”
The point of the argument doesn’t actually require most of the mathematical notation, so we can skip a lot of the above. We’ll concentrate on the last expression of the ratio of probability:
P(physical constants|no God)
For those who haven’t seen this kind of thing before, here’s a crash course. P(something) means the probability of that thing happening. If you toss a fair coin, P(heads) is one half or 0.5 and so is P(tails). The | in the middle, which is called a pipe, means “given” or “given that” or “in the case of” or just “if”. For example, if you take the bus to work, P(getting to work on time|catching the bus) is higher than P(getting to work on time|missing the bus and walking).
So, O’Brien’s final expression is the probability of the universe’s fundamental constants having their present values if there’s a God (note the capital G – he means a god like the Christian one) divided by the probability of the same constants if there’s no God. The reason why the former is much higher than the latter, he argues, is that “it is easy to conceive of God wishing to create a particular universe and choosing the appropriate values of the physical constants whereas a random selection would be very unlikely to achieve the correct values.”
Let’s transfer the argument sideways. Which is higher,
P(last week’s lottery numbers|God) or
P(last week’s lottery numbers|no God)?
One would have to argue the former using O’Brien’s logic, because whether or not it happened, it’s really easy to conceive of God wishing to make a particular person rich and choosing the right numbers whereas a random selection would be very unlikely to match a given person’s numbers. Many winners do thank God, after all.
So why are there winners all the time, then? Because any combination could be a winner, and you don’t necessarily need last week’s specific lottery numbers.
Similarly, while some combinations of the fundamental constants are unworkable, many others are. Most who argue that they aren’t make the mistake of varying just one constant at a time. Even within that limitation, the gravitational constant for example would have to vary by a factor of about 3000 to preclude the formation of stars.
Without the limitation, as Victor Stenger discovered, “changes to one parameter can be easily compensated for by changes to another, leaving the ingredients for life in place.”
The fundamental constants are set in one of potentially infinite combinations which permit life. They don’t even seem terribly conducive to life, given that it has only apparently emerged on the surface of this one rock within hundreds of light years. They’re no better than a Division 3 lottery win.
One may consider it a low or even negligible probability that an unsculpted universe will be life-ready. Assuming there are six major fundamental constants (and you may want to consider others), the entire six-dimensional sample space would have to be analysed, not just slight variations of our set, or there’s no basis for this.
And that’s without even considering a multiverse or the anthropic principle.
“You’ve gone very wide, so I’ll be very shallow initially.”
Question from Matthew:
I don’t have any friends who claim to be atheist and I simply like to understand the position better. If you have any other input in addition to these questions I would appreciate it. Thanks.
1. Do you believe that a personal God exists? Why or why not?
2. Do you believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate? Why or why not?
3. What is the purpose of human existence?
4. How do you know what is right and wrong?
5. What happens to a person at death?
I assume you know the answers to some of those, but I appreciate that you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth. You’ve gone very wide, so I’ll be very shallow initially. If you want more detail, comment and ask for it, and/or better yet read through some older questions.
1. An atheist does not believe that any god exists, let alone a personal capital-G God. The reason is generally lack of evidence or convincing arguments supporting the existence of such a god, and that’s the case with me. Check out The Great Big Arguments #1-#6, consisting of most of the early pieces on this new site, to see why the well-known arguments you might be in the habit of using have not proved convincing.
2. If one does not believe in gods, why would one believe despite this that Jesus was the incarnation of a specific god?
Leaving the basic position of atheism aside, the claim that Jesus was God does not stand on its own merit. The New Testament was written by people who all wanted people to believe it, whether or not it was true. The prophecies supposedly fulfilled by Jesus were available to his chroniclers, making them candidates for #5. Made to Order (in my terminology) on the list of explanations that must be considered besides the false dilemma of pure chance and true prescience. Surviving extra-Biblical documentation of Jesus, for instance that passage by Josephus, has its own issues.
3. Since the human race developed on its own and needed no creator, there was no external purpose for its emergence. The reason for the existence of humans is that life arose on a planet saturated with its building blocks, and then competed with itself over billions of years. During this demanding competition, more and more complex forms became the standard until we were the next evolutionary step.
If you mean to ask why we bother to keep existing now, it’s because we want to. There isn’t much of an alternative that we know of. As for giving purpose to individual human lives, humans can do that themselves.
4. From many different sources – the law, historical precedent, varying philosophies (including religious ones) formulated over the centuries, common sense, simple concepts such as fairness and the minimisation of harm, etc. – we have built a very good picture of what is right and wrong to humans. Obviously we don’t agree on everything, but we do agree on most things.
Any of the above sources could be wrong, and any could be challenged, but they’re there and each one tends to be consistent. The alternative is to appeal to an absolute morality, one independent of humans, which may not even exist and simply cannot be tested. I don’t need the whole universe to agree with me that what I do is right, but if most of the human race agrees based on real concepts that can be reasoned through, then I literally have a reasonable basis for my actions.
5. At death, a person ceases to exist. The person’s condition is often described using that rare and fascinating antonym of “existence”, namely “oblivion”. What happens to a person after death is therefore not worth considering, because after death there is no longer a person for anything to happen to. There is only a body. We have one life. Good thing it’s an interesting life.
Chew on that lot and speak up if you’d like to explore anything.
“Without some kind of evidence that you really have been contacted by God, it’s not much use discussing His motives with someone who doesn’t think He exists.”
Question, verbatim, from Peter:
Why did god save my life when evil attack me and give me knowledge of his existence and his power over evil.And told me I was to be a Seer and give me strength and showed me the strength of love and how to used it as a shield for other poeple to stand behind for strength.I was a atheist a sinner.
The real question isn’t why God chose you, it’s whether God chose you. Only if this were establshed would the why be of any use.
In short, how do you know? How would you demonstrate to someone else that you had been chosen by God? For example, as a “Seer” are there things you know that others don’t, and could you prove yourself to be in possession of information you couldn’t have gotten any other way?
Without some kind of evidence that you really have been contacted by God, it’s not much use discussing His motives with someone who doesn’t think He exists.
“The burden is on believers to provide answers to questions which assume the existence of their gods, even hypothetically.”
Why does God allow/cause bad things to happen to good people? Why doesn’t God heal amputees?
Beats me. The burden is on believers to provide answers to questions which assume the existence of their gods, even hypothetically. I brought up these questions because I think they and others like them are useless in certain situations, but they’re being used anyway.
whywontgodhealamputees.com has been around for a while now. Apologists get a lot of mileage from actually being able to answer the questions it poses, including the main one.
The answers they give stand on scriptural authority, and cannot be debunked from any other angle. If someone says God allows evil as part of free will, and/or that amputations are an effect of the wages of sin (to evangelicals, there is only pain and disease because of the Fall), there’s no way to categorically deny it. Like so many religious answers, they may not be right but the fact that answers exist can be enough to boost the faith of the already-faithful.
I worry that holding these questions aloft as unanswerable by the faithful is too similar to the apologist/creationist technique of repeatedly asking questions atheists and “Darwinists” supposedly can’t answer, e.g. “Why are there no transitional fossils?” or “If there’s no God, why is it wrong to kill?” Of course there are answers to these (if you don’t know them, ask) and atheists and others take confidence from having these answers, and the answers are actually likely to be correct, but the few seconds immediately after the questions are posed are all some believers need to get a warm, smug feeling of superiority. After that, they’re free to stop listening or reading.
I’m not saying that questions like this about gods are entirely useless. They can be devastating to an individual’s faith. I know Christians who struggle daily with the problem of evil. They’re still Christians, but on an intellectual and emotional level they just can’t reconcile the perfection of God with the tragedies they see on the nightly news. They can go and find answers, but they’re likely to find several answers to the same question coming from the same religion, which erodes its authority on the matter somewhat. In this fashion, I went from Christian to agnostic a long time ago. (Atheism took longer.)
I’m just saying that questions with answers, any answers at all, make bad rhetorical questions. In the larger debate we imagine, with all the big arguments for each religious or irreligious position fighting an ethereal battle in the air above us, questions that don’t keep the top apologists stumped are counter-productive when posed to anybody as stumpers. Just let people mull over them, arbitrary answers and all.
While Pascal’s own Pensees is more in-depth, this is the basic version presented by most evangelists: If God exists and you live as if He does, your reward is infinite. If God does not exist and you live as if He does, you lose nothing. If God does not exist and you live as if He doesn’t, you gain nothing. If God exists and you live as if He doesn’t, your punishment is infinite. Therefore if there is the slightest chance that God exists, by any analysis of benefit it is better to live as if He does, in other words believe in and worship Him.
The same argument is often expressed in shorter form: “What if you’re wrong?”
This is an argument I’ve been answering constantly ever since I started on the original ATA. No matter how many times it comes up, there are always those who think it’s a brand new, ingenious zinger which will take us by surprise. I’ll refer back to here in future.
There are five main issues with the Wager, any one of which would render it nonsensical or inadequate.
1. It presents a false dilemma: that either God exists or no god does.
There is an obvious third option, namely that any deity besides the expected god exists. If the real deity is Thor, for example, the punishment for Christians is infinite (possibly worse than for atheists, who at least do not worship a rival god).
Humans have imagined something like 20,000 different major deities or equivalents so far. Together with the countless ones we haven’t thought of yet, there are an infinite number of possible gods. Without evidence for any particular god, all gods share equal probability of practically zero, and the probability of a particular god existing is infinitesimal compared to the probability of one or more rival gods, so worshipping any god is a hugely bad bet.
The response to this, I know, is to argue that there is evidence for your particular god and not for any of the others. That’s a valid response, if true. However, if you have proof positive that your god is the one and only there’s no need to mess around with probabilities, so you don’t need to use Pascal’s Wager in the first place. Just push your evidence instead.
2. If there are no gods, you don’t lose nothing by living as if there is one. You lose plenty.
You spend hundreds or thousands of hours attending religious services. You give money to organisations whose primary purpose is not to help people but to convert them. You prevent yourself from doing some things you enjoy, not because they hurt anyone but because a book told you to. And so on.
3. Belief in gods is not a choice.
A person either believes there’s a god or doesn’t. This may change, but it’s not a conscious decision by the person. Her or she has to be convinced, or else no longer convinced, one way or the other. The idea that it’s beneficial to believe in a god does not support the idea that there is one. They’re two independent issues.
4. Any decent god would spot a faker.
This is related to the third point. If an atheist were convinced that it’s beneficial to believe in and worship God, he or she could certainly worship, but would still not believe. The worship would therefore be insincere on a fundamental level. It’d be a farce, maintained to give the appearance of belief. Would the Christian god, for example, accept this lip service?
It’s said by some religious folks that if you pray with doubt, but pray with sincerity, belief will come. I don’t doubt it; if you pray as if there’s a god there for long enough, you may manage to forget that there isn’t. If brainwashing yourself like this is the only way to believe, however, are you really doing the right thing?
5. Is belief really the key?
What if one specific god does exist, but the important thing is not that one believes in Him/Her? Counter to the evangelist perspective, but what if works trump grace/faith/being “saved” in terms of brownie points in the real Heaven?
In short, Pascal’s Wager uses an incomplete and incorrect premise, and is useless to nonbelievers even if they agree with it. Blaise Pascal himself supports it in the Pensees by arguing separately for the existence of the specific Christian god from several angles, which is exactly the response to issue 1 I’ve described which makes the Wager redundant. By itself, it’s just pointless.
“…false dilemma: either the authors took wild guesses and were correct multiple times purely by chance, or they were divinely inspired and therefore granted knowledge the rest of humanity didn’t have at the time.”
The basic form of this argument is that the Bible or some other holy text predicted some event or phenomenon its author(s) could not possibly have known about without divine inspiration. Examples: Jesus’ life and death fulfilled hundreds of prophecies made about him in the Old Testament, every detail of the 9/11 World Trade Centre attack was laid out in Revelations, the Bible or Quran describes scientific facts only discovered later by scientists themselves.
Claimed predictions by the Bible (from which my examples will be drawn, since they’re what I’ve mostly received) and other old texts are presented along with a false dilemma: either the authors took wild guesses and were correct multiple times purely by chance, or they were divinely inspired and therefore granted knowledge the rest of humanity didn’t have at the time. There are a number of other possibilities for each supposed prophecy or prediction, which are generally more likely than either. The names below aren’t universal, they’re my own.
1. High Probability of Success: the event predicted was likely almost to the point of certainty, especially given unlimited time in which to occur.
In Jeremiah 49:16, the fall of the city of Edom was prophesied. Edom had many enemies, including Israel, and was regularly at war. Which was more likely, that it would triumph forever or that at some stage it would be destroyed?
2. Still Unknown: the fact given by the text is in dispute even today.
Christians credit the Bible with foreknowledge of cosmology for saying that the universe had a beginning. Even if this is correct, it had a one in two chance which is hardly imposing odds. Importantly, though, the Big Bang might be the very beginning or it may have been caused by some precursor. There’s still the possibility of an eternally old universe or multiverse. Claiming credit for predicting a beginning at this point is like trying to collect your winnings from a horse race before it’s ended.
3. Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: the very existence of the prophecy assists in its fulfilment.
There were prophecies, at least as told in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that the captive Jews would return to their homeland of Israel. Assuming for now that the non-supernatural parts of the stories are true to begin with, the Jews themselves knew of this prophecy. They believed God had stated directly that they would return. To do so was to obey His will. No wonder they did everything they could to get back.
In a more general sense, the Bible lays out a complete future history of Israel and Jerusalem. The Jews there do everything in their power to follow the instructions as far as rebuilding and protecting it, and largely use the actions of the Muslims to fill in the bits about invasion, destruction and exile.
4. Shoehorned: the text only applies to reality or to the present day through an unwarranted act of lateral interpretation.
Isaiah 40:22 says, “It is He that sits upon the circle of the earth.” Some take this as a signal that the author knew ahead of everyone else that the Earth is a sphere, when the word “circle” seems more likely to refer to the apparent disc one sees when one looks out from atop a mountain. The now-all-but-defunct Flat Earth Society, which believed the statement as much as any other Christian group, maintained their position of a flat Earth because they interpreted it as I do.
5. Made to Order: accounts of a subsequent event were in fact tailored to fit the prophecy.
This possibility is most often applicable to the story of Jesus. The authors of the Gospels had access to the writings of Isaiah et al, and had every opportunity to make sure their own accounts lined up with the old prophecies. Jesus, after all, would have been just one of an army of self-proclaimed Messiahs at the time. He needed everything possible to make him stand out, and that meant fitting the bill to the letter.
This list is not a direct accusation that any of the above is in fact the case for any given prediction in an ancient text (extending beyond religion, to writers like Nostradamus). However, any given prediction in texts I’ve read can be explained by one or several of the above. These extra possibilities must therefore be considered in addition to the false dilemma of chance or God. In this company, divine inspiration is less of a sure thing to say the least.
So what kind of a prediction would bypass all of the above and appear truly, plainly supernatural in its accuracy? Simple: one that we are able to test ourselves, without any prior knowledge. An obvious example is the Rapture: if it happens, those of us who are left will know that prediction was right. You can’t engineer the Rapture, or interpret the bodily disapparation of every Christian (of only one denomination, you would assume) any other way.
For a less extreme example, say that instead of interpreting dates gone by to match counts of days in the Bible, someone uses Revelations to predict the day of a future earthquake in Los Angeles, far in advance of seismologists. It could still be coincidence, but it couldn’t be Shoehorned or Made to Order. Further, the chances are low, the outcome is known and the prophet couldn’t fulfil it him/herself without a nuclear weapon.
That, therefore, is what believers in Biblical prophecy need to do in order to score credibility: use the old texts to make new and accurate predictions, instead of cultivating awe for those gone by. Many do try this, of course, and so there’s a growing list of dates for the Rapture, the Tribulation, the Second Coming and lesser events like the collapse of the United States. So far, all of these dates have passed by uneventfully.
“…theists may claim that anything natural with any quality to it whatsoever must have been deliberately crafted with humanity in mind.”
Here’s a sample of the many different ways in which the same basic question is posed: How did all the beauty around us come to be? How did intelligent people come from monkeys, or oranges, or sludge, or nothing at all? How did life begin if the chances of the necessary proteins assembling was one in ten to the power of hundreds? (The next one’s taken from an actual wall poster:) How can anyone witness a sunset and not believe in God? Why is there any order to the universe? Why are the fundamental constants of the universe tuned so that matter, and humans, can exist at all? How is it that we live, and live in such a wonderful world, if it all came about by chance?
From the development of the eye to the beauty of a waterfall to the exact value of the gravitational constant, theists may claim that anything natural with any quality to it whatsoever must have been deliberately crafted with humanity in mind. This is the Argument from Design.
Even if it were correct, it’s a terribly egotistical way of looking at the world. And even if it were proven to be correct, no religion would have any basis upon which to claim that the designer or creator was its particular god or gods.
The basic answer to the argument from design is that there is no substantive evidence for it and therefore 1. to assume design in the presence of alternative theories supported by substantive evidence is putting one’s head in the sand and 2. to assume design even in the complete absence of alternative theories is an argument from ignorance.
Beginning with evolution and the development of intelligent humans, there is a huge amount of geological, genetic and observed evidence to support the currently held view of the “tree of life”. Evolution of subspecies is observed all the time, and contrary to a common objection whole new species have been seen to emerge, and recently. (This article on speciation has some examples.)
Contrary to another creationist talking point, there are tons of known transitional fossils. Contrary to Kirk Cameron, these don’t look like half of one animal joined to half of another (like his famous Croco-duck). They’re more like what you get if you morph a whole picture of one into a picture of the other, but stop halfway.
To dismiss evolution as a useless series of random changes is an argument from personal incredulity, which is a type of argument from ignorance. It’s also wrong. The mutations are random, but only the beneficial mutations tend to be passed on by sheer survival and procreation skills. Evolution doesn’t just try random things and get it right every time, it tries everything and goes with what works. It’s like trying to hit a dartboard by spraying the whole wall with a machine gun. You’ll miss a lot, but you’ll hit it too.
Intelligence came about because at every stage in the development of primates, the ones who are just that little bit smarter than everyone else will always have the advantage. Over millions of years, it all adds up. Along with this comes morality (since good deeds are often rewarded), an appreciation of beauty (since it helps if what’s pleasing to the eye is usually not diseased, poisonous or dirty) and emotions (to motivate us to do what’s helpful to us and others).
Going back to the origin of life, abiogenesis as it was called could have occurred by a number of different chemical processes. So far scientists have used electricity (lightning) and a replica of the ancient atmosphere to create amino acids, which are pretty close. With a whole world full of chemicals being blown and washed into each other and billions of years to work, there was ample time and material for the components of the first replicating organism to slowly accumulate. The huge odds against this often given by folks like Hoyle generally assume firstly that they all had to come together at once, and secondly that only one version of it could possibly work. Once one little bit of DNA was off and running, evolution and exponential growth took over.
Before we tackle the whole universe at once, let’s consider Earth. Someone might claim that God put Earth exactly where it needed to be relative to the Sun so that liquid water and therefore life could form. We now know, however, that there are a lot more planets out there, and probably huge numbers of undiscovered ones. It’s not that Earth was placed where liquid water could form. Rather, liquid water only forms on planets of the right temperature and Earth happened to fit the bill. Lots more planets might. This is called the anthropic principle: places aren’t made for humans, humans just have a chance of turning up in hospitable places. Even on Earth there are many places we can’t survive, like inside volcanoes and kilometres under the sea. So, we didn’t emerge from there. Big surprise.
The largest design claim has to do with the fundamental constants of the universe. Six major ones are usually mentioned: those pertaining to gravity, electromagnetism, spatial dimensions and other less famous concepts. As is repeated endlessly, the slightest difference in any of them might result in matter being unable to form or stay together. This is the “fine-tuned universe” argument.
The problem is that even if this is true, there could still be other values of the constants which support matter. Perhaps instead of changing one or two slightly, you need to shift four of them by a huge amount. Considering that some of the constants could even be negative, you’ve got an infinite six-dimensional sample space in which to test hypothetical universes. We may never know whether our values are the only valid ones. Or, we may stumble upon another valid combination and that’ll be the end of this argument.
Besides, the anthropic principle applies again if you consider the theory of a multiverse. If there are multiple (perhaps infinite) universes each with its own set of constants, of course we’re going to turn up in the universe with a friendly combination. Other life forms may be thriving in universes where we wouldn’t last for a second, and understanding how would require us to re-learn physics from scratch.
Contesting the argument from design is hard work, because to be most effective you need to know the going theories for whatever phenomenon is in question. I’ve tackled the most common ones, but be prepared for just about anything useful or pretty to be presented as direct evidence for gods. Then you need only find out where it really came from.
“My aim is make this a reference for any subsequent “origin” questions.”
This is the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God, in the form of the popular Kalam Cosmological Argument:
1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe had a cause.
Following on from that, the cause of the universe must have been eternal and therefore without cause. Besides being eternal, this Uncaused Cause must have been all-powerful and all-knowing, as it literally created everything else. It must be God.
My aim is make this a reference for any subsequent “origin” questions.
The Cosmological Argument or Argument from First Cause is the proper form of the common argument that the universe must have been deliberately created, and you can’t get “something from nothing”. It predates Christianity, as Plato and Aristotle had their own versions.
That’s the first issue with the argument: it only attempts to prove the existence of a Creator. It is therefore a deist argument, so when a theist uses it to prove a specific god with no further logic it’s a step too far. Keep an eye out for this.
The basic premise that everything finite requires a cause is the least controversial part, but even this isn’t rock solid. Possible exceptions are found in quantum mechanics, where particles move about in a probabilistic fashion. Until observed, a particle may be anywhere in a small area, and in a sense is everywhere in the area. When you observe it, it picks one spot and stays there. This is of course a gross oversimplification, but the point is that there’s no known force moving the particles around. There may actually be no cause as such, and the universe may be far more spontaneous than we think.
Even “something from nothing” is plausible according to a related theory that “nothing” is really a quantum foam from which matter may emerge. This is purely theoretical at the moment (it makes mathematical sense, but there’s not much physical evidence), but it’s worth remembering that science is actually considering ways like this in which matter could just pop out of “nothing”. It can’t be dismissed entirely.
Causality may also be irrelevant if time wasn’t linear at the beginning, if it had a beginning. An effect must follow its cause, but this is meaningless if chronological order hasn’t settled down yet.
The universe is widely regarded by lay people (who aren’t young-earth creationists) to have begun with the Big Bang. This may seem counterintuitive – how can something be created by an explosion instead of destroyed? – but it was no ordinary explosion. All the matter and energy in the universe was compressed into a singularity, a point so small it had no volume at all. (Absurd as this sounds, it happens today with large amounts of matter in the centres of black holes.) Then it expanded outwards, and it’s still expanding to this day. Once the matter was in that singularity, nothing was created or destroyed, only distrubuted.
How did the matter get in there? Was the Big Bang the true beginning, or a continuation of something else? We haven’t a clue. A god is one hypothesis. Other universes, with their own separate systems of time and space, are another. The quantum foam is an outside chance. Who knows what else we haven’t thought of.
I like the idea of a multiverse, an eternal group or series of universes setting each other off. It’s got one up on gods because it’s multiple instances of a known object. We know there’s at least one universe (this one), while we don’t have a single example of an established god. If you see a huge cabbage patch where the whole crop’s been eaten, and you find one fat little rabbit in the corner, do you assume that Bigfoot must have done most of the damage? No, you wonder where all the other rabbits are hiding.
The theory of expansion and contraction, of many Big Bangs and Big Crunches, has fallen apart recently with the discovery that the expansion of the universe is apparently accelerating. That means it will never return to the singularity, and it is not cyclical in the way we thought. That doesn’t stop it from being cyclical in other ways, for example stretching until it tears a hole and then draining out to somewhere else.
The point is that if you do accept that everything finite must have a cause, something must be eternal. Either it’s the universe/multiverse, or it’s a god. There are many theories, and potentially many more, which allow for an eternal universe which needs no cause. Therefore an eternal god is not the only option, and anything which says so is a poor attempted proof of its existence.
Note: The argument that a god created the universe based on the universe’s nature, order, awesomeness, etc. is not related to causality. It’s the Argument from Design, which is next on the GBA hitlist.
The Ontological Argument: “…the equivalent of trying to win a lawsuit on a technicality.”
There are many forms of the Ontological Argument for the existence of God. The following is Wikipedia’s optimal modern description.
1. God is that entity than which nothing can be greater.
2. The concept of God exists in human understanding.
3. God exists in one’s mind but not in reality.
4. The concept of God’s existence is understood in one’s mind.
5. If God existed in reality, it would be a greater thing than God’s existence in the mind.
6. The final step to God’s existence is that God in reality must exist.
The Ontological Argument strikes me as the equivalent of trying to win a lawsuit on a technicality. It’s a full-blown a priori attempted proof which assumes only that a perfect being is conceivable. I won’t argue this point, because although definitions may differ everyone gets some image in mind upon hearing the phrase “perfect being”.
The thrust of the argument is that it’s greater and more perfect to exist than not to exist. Since God in theory is the greatest and most perfect thing ever, He must exist.
The most obvious problem is that the argument is not the least bit specific about which God exists. Even if the argument were unassailable and the existence of a god were proven, we would still know absolutely nothing about the god’s identity or nature. Jumping immediately from the existence of a god to the existence of your god is an unsupported assertion.
If you really wanted to be annoying, you could argue that since the argument can be used to prove the existence of multiple mutually exclusive gods (say, the God of Abraham and Ahura Mazda of the Zoroastrian faith) it’s obviously a flawed argument. The theist reply is of course the above point that the argument makes no comment on the god’s identity and most religions just have the wrong guy, but it’s a good way to make people think.
The real problem is the premise that to exist in reality is greater and/or more perfect than to exist only in the mind. Something which doesn’t exist isn’t more perfect than something which does, but it isn’t less perfect either. It has no qualities by which this can be judged. An apple which doesn’t exist isn’t red, but neither is it purple. Therefore it can’t be redder or less red than a real red apple.
Existence isn’t a property as such either. Even if it were, it wouldn’t necessarily be a positive property, or something a perfect being must have. Something destructive like an earthquake might be better if it didn’t exist.
There are plenty of objections along these lines by a great many people, the most famous being Bertrand Russell and Immanuel Kant. As stated in the question, there are also a great many rephrasings of the argument which try to circumvent these objections.
The net result is that major apologetic organisations have advised that the Ontological Argument in its current forms does not stand up to scrutiny, and other arguments like the Transcendental and Cosmological Arguments (the favourites) should be used instead.
That doesn’t stop a lot of YouTubers from reciting obscure forms of the Ontological Argument and expecting them to be invincible. Look it up, and enjoy the logical knots both sides get themselves into when discussing it.
I always worry when someone uses this argument, because it may mean a few things. Maybe they don’t think people have the intelligence to fully comprehend such a complex-sounding argument and will accept it by default. Maybe they haven’t read the objections and don’t expect anyone to look them up. From a big-picture perspective, they’re using a less well known argument thinking it will take people by surprise, not considering that it’s less well known for a reason. It just plain doesn’t work.