This post is inspired by some excellent remarks from Daniel Dennett in reply to William Lane Craig’s vigorous cosmological arguments for the existence of God (which you can see him make in a separate debate here). Here is the Dennett video, below it you’ll find a rough transcript I have produced of it, and then below that you will find my own arguments.
What Professor Craig does, brilliantly and with a wonderful enthusiasm, is he takes our everyday intuitions—our gut feelings about what’s plausible, what’s counterintuitive, what couldn’t possibly be true—and he cantilevers them out into territory where they’ve never been tested, in cosmology where whatever the truth is, it’s mindboggling. So we know in advance that whatever the truth is it’s going to be jaw-droppingly implausible and counter-intuitive in one way or another.
The simplest expression of this, I think, was due to the late Philip Morrison who pointed out: Perhaps we are alone in the universe, perhaps there is no other planet in the whole universe that has intelligent life on it, or perhaps that’s not true. Both alternatives are mind-boggling, the hypothesis that we’re alone is mind-boggling, the hypothesis that we’re not alone is mind-boggling. So you can’t use mind-bogglingness as your litmus test. The truth is going to be very hard to believe. And some of our home truths are going to have to be abandoned. We already know this from quantum physics, we already know this from Einstein. How do we get the leverage, find the epistemic leverage, to dislodge something that seems so crashingly obvious [that] we’re prepared to use it as a premise? It takes a huge scientific structure with complex mathematical arguments and a delicious sort of ‘conspiracy’ of confirmatory evidence and finally people shake their heads and say, ‘okay, however counterintuitive this is, we’re going to have to accept it.’
That’s the situation in quantum mechanics, as Richard Feynman, the late great physicist said, and he was as arrogant a scientist as there ever was—he had a black belt in overconfidence—and he says, I don’t understand quantum mechanics, nobody understands quantum mechanics, maybe nobody can. In those circumstances you come to trust the mathematical theory that you can’t interpret yet. Raging battles over how to interpret quantum mechanics—unsettled. But, as Feynman points out, the mathematical structure—which is just in some sense a black box that we can’t yet get to the bottom of—it predicts results of such breathtaking accuracy. His comparison, I won’t get it exactly right but I think it’s like being able to measure the distance between San Francisco and Miami to a hair’s breadth. Breathtakingly accurate predictions.
Those are the sorts of—just the weight of evidence that can overturn everyday intuitions that you just think ‘that couldn’t possibly be false.’ Ahhhhhh, but it turns out to be false! And what Professor Craig has shown us is how the arguments go and how if you start with a bunch of initially very plausible premises—and in each case he says, ‘Look this is a very plausible premise I don’t see how this can be false…’ ‘Boy this just stands to reason…’ and then you pursue it and pursue it and he does that—near as I could see, I had no quarrels with the relentless development he puts on those premises but we end up at really remarkably implausible conclusions. Now officially of course if you end up with a contradictory, a self-contradictory conclusion, you’ve got a reductio ad absurdum argument and something has to give. I cannot pin a formal reductio on anything—at least if I can, I can’t do it impromptu, there was an awful lot going on in that talk.
But I can point to some areas of suspicion. First, I want to address one of the points that came up late. Maybe I’ll just make that point and then that will be enough. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the cosmological argument (one of the cosmological arguments that he presents) does favor the conclusion that the cause of the universe is a timeless, changeless, abstract, immaterial “whatever.” At that point, we had no idea what that might be. But whatever it is, it’s the cause of the universe. Maybe it’s the idea of an apple. Maybe it’s the square root of 7. But no, he says it’s nothing like that because abstract things can’t cause things.
Who says? Who says abstract things can’t cause things? My favorite example of an abstract thing causing things is the principle of triangulation so that when you want to keep your house from going like this, you put a triangular piece on and you tack it down and thanks to the rigidity of triangles you create a rigid structure. It seems causal. It’s quite wonderful the effect of tacking that extra piece on and making the triangle and now we have a rigid figure. It’s Euclydean geometry, an abstract principle, being invoked in a causal way.
But you say ‘well that’s not really causation.’ Okay, it’s something like causation. And of course, we’ve already heard from Professor Craig it’s not really like causation when God causes the universe because it’s not physical causation. But what do we know about non-physical causation? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. So we’re really just guessing at what non-physical causation could be. Our intuitions just don’t carry us into that area.
Now, contemporary cosmology is a fascinating area and I must say it completely twists my head up and I have no confidence about anything in that area. I am delighted Professor Craig mentioned my colleague Alex Vilenkin, who is one smart dude. And I wish I could get to the bottom of all the stuff that Alex does. I wish Alex were here to respond. Because I know that Alex and Alan Guth and some of these other people would have an awful lot to say and, unfortunately, it would be highly technical and I don’t think I would understand it or you would understand it. But first of all they wouldn’t agree. Contemporary cosmology is in a wonderful snarl. And those of us who are not mathematicians and physicists are going to have to wait on the sidelines and wait for something to percolate out of this.
The intrepidness with which Professor Craig leaps in there and chooses sides is a wonderful thing. I just don’t have his courage on that point. But back to the question of this changeless God. The trouble with a changeless God is that it is changeless, it is outside of time, don’t bother praying to it or don’t expect it in time to hear your prayer and answer your prayer. A changeless god is a deist god at best. So that’s why I don’t think that most people in the world who believe in God need take anything more than the most passing curiosity, [or] interest, in the battle of cosmology because it doesn’t really reflect a response to their curiosity at all.
Now Professor Craig says that he’s got some arguments that this is a personal god. And one of the premises is that there are two kinds of causation, scientific causation and personal causation. I submit that that’s just false. That’s as good as my life’s work to show how personal causation reduces to scientific causation. So that’s where I would drive the wedge in there, but that’s a long story. Thanks very much.
In the above video (and the transcript thereof), Dennett nearly exactly mirrors my own attitudes towards fundamental cosmological questions, including the question of a possible abstract ground of all being principle or “God”. First, the questions at hand are for cosmologists—mathematicians, physicists, astronomers with knowledge of how reality works on the most fundamental levels which far exceeds and often contradicts our “common sense.” Genuine expertise well beyond that of philosophers and other non-specialists in cosmology is required to form anything like a real opinion on these matters and so the most technical position that all of us non-experts should have is one of agnosticism. It’s the same agnosticism we should have about any other scientific question. The question of God’s existence is no longer really in the province of philosophers—or at least not the cosmological investigation of it isn’t. Common sense intuitions about what makes sense to us is really beside the point and a guide to nothing.
Secondly, I think it’s worth stressing that Dennett demonstrates exactly how it’s a lie to say that atheists have “faith” just like the way theists do. Dennett simply declares himself agnostic about how cosmological debates are going to settle. He leaves them to the qualified scientists and shows no sign of threat at the idea that possibly an abstract cause (that Craig wants to call “God”) is necessary for the universe to be. Like I argued last weekend, at least most atheists do not have the kind of investment in such abstract physical and metaphysical issues as religious people do because to us this is a bare fact about reality with no existential bearing. It’s as indifferent to me whether there is some single principle of ultimate causation separable from the universe (a ground of all being of some sort) or whether there is some principle of being within the universe or whether some various combination of principles explain being, etc.
It’s an interesting topic the way the problem of universals is or the way philosophical puzzles about what constitutes personal identity are. But these puzzles are abstract and philosophical and how they’re settled has little to no bearing on things like morality or religion or personal meaning in life. This is different for theists who are not only metaphysically or physically persuaded to posit a ground of all being but who are religiously committed to faith traditions. Such a religious faith leads you to the intemperance which Dennett attributes to Craig. When Craig looks at cosmological debates he leaps in and sides with whatever will bolster is preexisting commitment to Christianity.
That’s how a faith commitment is inherently prejudicial. Craig does not rest content to say, “let the scientists and mathematicians guide the way while we all humbly admit our lack of knowledge in the meantime.” Dennett does say that. Because, as with nearly every atheist (including all the prominent “new” ones like Stenger, Dawkins, et al.) concede that some metaphysical or physical conceptions of a “God” are at least minimally likely to be true and cannot be ruled out beyond a shadow of all doubt.
What the real issue is that makes most atheists atheists (or at least makes me self-identify as an atheist rather than an agnostic) is what Dennett stresses in pointing out that the kind of God plausible from contemporary cosmology is only an abstract entity of some sort which has neither necessary nor likely relationship to a personal being like you or me. At best all that can be argued with plausibility is a deist god that may be real. But a deist god of this sort is as impersonal as the number 3 or the law of gravity. It’s just an abstract principle.
To impute to it intelligence or interest or, worst of all, some magical communications with ancient peoples whereby it revealed a personality, jealousy, a will, commands for our behavior and for genocides, etc. is wholly ludicrous. The bare abstractions of a source of all being or an ontologically necessary perfect being, etc. have no necessary or analogously truthful relationship to the ignorant superstitious anthropomorphic projections of ancient peoples’ values and fears into the heavens.
It is, to my mind, one of the most disasterously misleading equivocations in world history to use the same word “God” to refer to both the metaphysical notion of a ground of all being and to the thoroughly anthropomorphic deities of the world’s mythologies—deities who express only humans’ values, fears, and desperate wish for a means to change their situation beyond naturally available recourses.
Such personal gods dreamed up by vivid, passionate, self-centered, projective human imaginations are at minimum irrelevant to whatever “divine” explanatory principles may some day prove helpful (even as presently, none seem to be such, and all seem to be worth ignoring as settling no questions of consequence) and, at worse, the personal gods are not only irrelevant but outright incompatible with those possibly formulable abstract entities which may some day yield an actually cosmologically confirmable “ground of all being” or “divine principle.”
The disconnect between metaphysics and mythology is far greater than can be solved by saying that—again by some magic trick—some particular ancient tradition’s personal deity myths mythically represented the same truths about the divine that may one day receive a confirmable formulation and actual confirmation. It stretches language and intention beyond recognition when theologians try to reconcile the maniacal, blood-thirsty, jealous, tyrannical biblical/koranic God into a myth for some deeply abstract concept of fundamental being. It is also wholly arbitrary to posit by faith that any specific tradition’s myths will accurately represent the unrevisable truths of the ultimate reality. Not only is that arbitrary but it’s a disastrous invitation to stop thinking about the truths of ultimate reality since we have decided in advance that a certain set of myths with their particular interpretations and emphases will have to be borne out no matter what reality is like. Or on the other hand, we might find ourselves substantively changing our views of ultimate reality or morality but if we are religious, instead of just saying that the old myths were wrong we have to just bend and contort the religion’s symbols so as to say they really all along said what we now think is true about the world.
Both of these options are intellectually disingenuous and facile. The one strategy leads creationists to say that genuinely objective science must simply be wrong since the biblical account must trump all else. The other makes the biblical myths so malleable as to be true no matter what science says. When the earth was thought young, that’s what the Bible was taken to really mean. Now that it’s revealed to be quite old, that’s what the Bible metaphorically must mean. Never is the simple conclusion just drawn that the Bible often says flat out false things with no redeeming metaphorical intent, that all it provides are myths and the baseless or superseded guesses and inferences of ancient superstitious tribespeople with a penchant for interpreting their own petty existences (and not to mention their brutal local warfare) as matters about which the divine itself took personal, furious interest.
But that’s the most rational conclusion to an objective, non-faith committed observer willing to suck it up and acknowledge that centuries old traditions can be systematically false and deserve to go extinct when they are (or at least to unqualifiedly reject both the literal and metaphorical content of those parts of themselves which prove literally and metaphorically false).
So, in short, it’s only honest to be agnostic about unsettled cosmological puzzles and to acknowledge that there may be some metaphysical formulations reasonably tagged as “God” concepts that might have philosophical or scientific merit. And honesty also entails recognizing that in matters of fundamental reality our common sense intuitions are simply poor guides at best (and possibly not guides at all). And faith that not only prejudices one’s conclusions about these matters best left to the most sophisticated reasoning we have is both unhelpful and counterproductive. And, far worse, faith that moves from the mere possibility of a future workable, compelling formulation of some cosmological principle of fundamental being to the inference that the anthropomorphic deities of existing religious traditions have specially revealed literal or metaphorical truth to them is wholly unjustified.
What the atheist does (or should do) is admit to technical agnosticism as far as cosmological debates go. In the absence of clear conclusions in that area of study, point out the need for those without expertise to refrain from positive affirmations, but rather settle into a position of de facto atheism. And then embrace full, unequivocal atheistic rejection of the intellectually bankrupt idea that the transparently imaginary and anthropomorphic mythic deities of the various existing supernaturalistic religious traditions somehow are real (or that even only one of these deities, or one “triune” one of these deities, is real).