A Deist Argument Is Inadequate

Do the Christian apologetics point to God any more than Zeus?The arguments for God in vogue among the Christian apologists that I listen to have a curious flaw. I’m surprised when they take little notice of this.

Consider the following popular arguments and see if you can find the common feature. In-depth discussions of these arguments deserve their own posts, but I’ve added brief (and incomplete) summaries to remind you what these arguments claim.

Popular Christian Apologetics

  • Cosmological Argument: “Someone had to get everything started, therefore God”
  • Moral Argument: “Objective morals exist, and who but God could create them?”
  • Transcendental Argument: “What grounds logic? God does.”
  • Ontological Argument: “If ‘God’ is the greatest possible being that we can imagine, and a being existing is greater than being imaginary, then this greatest being must exist.”
  • Design Argument: “Just look around you and you’ll see the marvelously complex design of a Designer.”
  • Fine Tuning Argument: “The constants that define the universe are fine-tuned for life, therefore God.”
  • Argument from Incredulity: “It’s all just so … so incredibly complex! Therefore, God.”

What’s the common feature? It’s that these are all deist arguments. If I bought into any one of them, I’d only be agreeing that some deity (or deities) created the universe. But which one? These arguments are as good for Islam or Shintoism as Christianity and Judaism.

(This reminds me of the famous Sidney Harris cartoon with the punch line “I think you should be more explicit here in step 2.”)

And yet the apologists are often unaware of the problem. They finish their deist argument with a “Ta-dah!” and a sweep of the hand and think that they’ve made a sale, but they’ve got a long way to go to convince me that their particular deity is the real one and it’s actually all those other ones that are mere human inventions.

Maybe they count on ambiguity to help. They conclude that God created everything and—whaddya know?—their god is named “God.” I’ve written before about this odd confusion of names. It’s like a cat named “Cat.”

One noteworthy exception is John Warwick Montgomery, an apologist from an earlier generation. He takes the opposite approach and first uses the New Testament to argue the resurrection of Jesus. From there, he tries to build the rest of the Christian worldview. This approach is no more convincing, but at least it avoids this problem with deist arguments.

How Can We Access the Supernatural?

If we explain the world in a Christian way, God is active in our natural world, and we can see his hand in Nature. This runs into a problem that (IMO) is for Christians at least as big a problem as the Problem of Evil: the Problem of Divine Hiddenness. If God enters into our world and is eager for a relationship, why the mystery? Why make things so difficult? Why make our world look exactly like a world without a god?

And if we imagine the opposite, that God isn’t particularly eager for a relationship or isn’t motivated to provide compelling evidence that he exists, then we’re back in the deist camp. We have a deity who indeed exists, but we’re on our own to show that he exists anywhere but in our minds. And if the deity hasn’t provided a conduit between the Natural and the Supernatural, why imagine that natural techniques (prayer, meditation, or logic, say) could prove the existence of the supernatural? If God is just sitting there and not helping us out, how can we show that he exists?

Christians sometimes argue that science is incapable of detecting the supernatural. But keep in mind that the boundary of “natural” expands with time. Seeing through opaque objects was supernatural before X-rays, for example. And even if science can’t detect supernatural beings, what makes those Christians imagine that they can?

A couple of analogies come to mind. Imagine using integers (1, 2, 3, …) with addition and subtraction and trying to creating anything but more integers. You couldn’t reach 7.65, the square root of 2, or pi, for example. Or, imagine a two-dimensional Flatlander trying to prove the existence of three-dimensional space. Sure, he can imagine it, but that’s hardly a proof.

It seems to me that our pointing to evidence of the supernatural with a deist argument is like creating all real numbers using addition and subtraction on integers, or a Flatlander proving the existence of 3-space. Sure, we can imagine something more, but that’s no proof and not particularly compelling evidence.

Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man;

But will they come when you do call for them?  
— William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I, act III, scene i

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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  • James

    I’m very surprised that you failed to mention that William Lane Craig – arguably the most respected Christian apologist in the world – always provides a conduit into Christian belief with a fact based argument on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. The fact that you aren’t aware of, or for some reason don’t include, Dr. Craig is mind boggling to me. In addition to Dr. Craig I could also add immanent Christian apologist, Richard Swinburne, from Oxford, who argues likewise to Dr. Craig. These are just glaring omissions from your article.

  • David Allan Carnes

    You can’t see God’s hand in the world because you are not looking rightly. Did you ever watch the movie “The Truman Show”? As an intellectual exercise, try pretending you are Truman for about six months and try to find evidence to refute or confirm it. Study statistics to keep your skeptical mind sharp (so as not to attribute purpose to meaningless coincidences), and see if your personal observations can defeat your skepticism. They can. That much will establish intelligent design, a nice first step. If you want more detail (“Are you Zeus or Jehovah or Allah?”) try to make two-way contact. Everyone who does it this way gets exactly the same answer, so I won’t spoil the surprise for you.

    • Greg G.

      You can’t see God’s hand in the world because you are not looking rightly.

      You can’t see that we are plugged into the Matrix because you are not looking outside the program.

      Everyone who does it this way gets exactly the same answer, so I won’t spoil the surprise for you.

      It may surprise you that many of us have done that and found that claim to be completely false.

      • David Allan Carnes

        “Try it yourself and see” is all i have to offer I am certainly not asking for trust. Either you are blind or I am hallucinating. I’m content to leave it at that

        • Greg G.

          Been there, experienced that. You are hallucinating.

        • Pofarmer

          What an isolated doofus.

        • David Allan Carnes

          You have been hallucinating this entire conversation welcome to the matrix

        • epeeist

          Either you are blind or I am hallucinating.

          Can I suggest a couple of things to look at. The first would be Justin Barrett’s ideas on a Hyper-active Agency Detection Device and the second would be Oliver Sacks book Hallucinations.

        • David Allan Carnes

          Some conditions such as autism and aspergers are marked by deficient agency detection such as the aspergers teenager who discovered at seventeen that houses and cars didn’t grow out of the ground naturally

        • epeeist

          Some conditions such as autism and aspergers are marked by deficient agency detection

          That there is variability in agency detection doesn’t surprise me, there is variability in just about every other property associated with humans.

          However this doesn’t take away from Barrett’s idea, namely that we have a tendency to assign agency, even when there is no evidence of such.

          And of course this couples with Sacks’ book which demonstrates that our senses are not necessarily reliable.

        • David Allan Carnes

          So then for all I know you are nothing but an automated computer program I thought you were real but apparently my mind has been playing tricks on me. Maybe yours has too

        • Greg G.

          For all you know, you are nothing but a computer program, if you want to go solipsist.

        • David Allan Carnes

          That’s not solipsism, it’s functionalism (the idea that consciousness can be embodied in any medium, whether biological or digital, as long as the configuration is right). Functionalism allows for many minds to co-exist, like in the Matrix except the brain os part of the Matrix too. A solipsist believes that he is the only conscious being in the universe and that everyone is is simply a character in his dream. I have read that severely autistic people experience the word this way (not Asperger’s people, but people so autistic they can’t even talk).

        • Greg G.

          Cool! Those are interesting distinctions. Is there a blanket term for all beliefs and theories of a “super-reality” to the version of reality that is presented to us? Something that would include “brain in a vat”, the Matrix, ” the universe as a dream of Vishnu”, “the universe as virtual in a Kurzweilian computer program”, and the like? I have tended to use “solipsistic” to mean “solipsism-like”, plus various misspellings, typos, and other manglings of it.

        • David Allan Carnes

          There is also the Simulation Argument https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RoGtWUMi4w

          and the Botzmann Brain Paradox: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kii-s2eDZps

        • David Allan Carnes

          I think the accepted term is “Idealism” or “Philosophical Idealism” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idealism

        • epeeist

          s there a blanket term for all beliefs and theories of a “super-reality” to the version of reality that is presented to us?

          There’s a whole stack of stuff, from the various types of dualism, to behaviourism, non-reductive monism, Aristotelian embedded minds…

          I would recommend the book I mentioned in my post above for a good introduction to philosophy of mind and Peter Imwagen’s Metaphysics for other ideas.

        • epeeist

          That’s not solipsism, it’s functionalism (the idea that consciousness can be embodied in any medium

          Nope, the idea of minds being able to be embedded in different kinds of medium is multiple-realisability.

          Functionalism is the claim that mental states can be treated as functions, there are a number of different versions (metaphysical and psycho-functionalism), multiple-realisability is simply a consequence of this.

        • David Allan Carnes

          Apparently you are correct, at least if Wikipedia can be trusted:

          “Since mental states are identified by a functional role, they are said to be realized on multiple levels; in other words, they are able to be manifested in various systems, even perhaps computers, so long as the system performs the appropriate functions. While computers are physical devices with electronic substrate that perform computations on inputs to give outputs, so brains are physical devices with neural substrate that perform computations on inputs which produce behaviors.”

        • epeeist

          Apparently you are correct, at least if Wikipedia can be trusted:

          I don’t know about WIkipedia, my information comes from Maslin’s An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind.

        • David Allan Carnes

          There is something called the Chinese Nations argument, referenced by Searle, that attempts to refute multiple realisability by reduction to absurdity — if yu had a nation with a large enough population (zillions and zillions of people), could you use people as the fundamental unit and create a “national consciousness” if you arranged them all just so?

        • epeeist

          I thought you were real but apparently my mind has been playing tricks on me.

          As my mother would have said “now you are going from the sublime to the ridiculous”.

          Did I say that each and every percept was suspect, or just that the perception was not necessarily reliable?

          For example:

          https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/45/Duck-Rabbit_illusion.jpg

          and

          https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/52/Necker_cube_and_impossible_cube.svg/402px-Necker_cube_and_impossible_cube.svg.png

        • David Allan Carnes

          Yeah, but why stop there? Why not question everything? It seems arbitrary to stop only at a point that supports a pre-existing and comforting point of view. Kind of like cherry-picking philosophical concepts to reach a desired conclusion.

        • epeeist

          Why not question everything?

          There is a difference between questioning everything and going nuclear.

        • David Allan Carnes

          My, my, it does seem like I’ve heard that accusation before from other people — that I am too prone to “go nuclear” on ideas. Even my sister says that. But, in my own defense, I want to say that the reason we don’t go nuclear in real life (in war) is because of a practical reason — you can’t win a war that nobody is going to survive anyway. I don’t really believe that, for example, there are no other minds in the universe but mine. It is important, though, that I acknowledge the reason I believe in the existence other minds, such as yours for example, is not that I can prove that they exist or even muster convincing evidence, but for a practical reason — I would get awful lonely if I took that idea to heart. So that means my belief in other minds is a belief I take on faith. And that’s why I like to draw a distinction between faith and dogma — dogma is blind acceptance of a creed presented to you by some human authority, while faith means going as far as your reason can take you, and then placing a bet, based on rational and sometimes practical considerations. If, for example, I witnessed the second coming of Jesus with my own eyes, I could always suppose that I live in a Matrix and that the administrator of the Matrix was just hosing me down with his own BS religious beliefs. So, given what I know, what does it make the most sense to bet on?

        • David Allan Carnes

          What you said just strikes me as a form of gaslighting like a religious person telling you “You THIMK your point of view makes sense only because that’s what the devil WANTS you to think The devil is very tricky you see” The secular version is “The human brain is very tricky you see “

        • epeeist

          What you said just strikes me as a form of gaslighting

          Did I attempt to manipulate you into reading the references I gave, or did I simply suggest that they might be of interest?

          One has to wonder why you seem to feel threatened at the mere suggestion that something might be of interest to you.

        • David Allan Carnes

          Again you gaslight. Insinuating there’s something wrong with the speaker rather than responding directly to his statements. It’s a logical fallacy known as an ad hominem attack, or “poisoning the well”.

        • adam

          “The secular version is “The human brain is very tricky you see “”

          No, the brain is a real thing.

          https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/05cafdf4e54d70a9410dfd45f846304eb9891592e53b7561d59d1be03b899362.jpg

          The devil is a literary creation.

        • David Allan Carnes

          What’s more dangerous than believing that your enemy doesn’t exist?

        • adam
        • Susan

          “You THIMK your point of view makes sense only because that’s what the devil WANTS you to think The devil is very tricky you see” The secular version is “The human brain is very tricky you see “

          The difference being that we know human brains exist and we know humans who have them are prone to thinking errors.

          That is, the statement “the devils WANTS you to think” is entirely unsupported.

          While human brains making thinking errors is well supported.

        • David Allan Carnes

          ” we know human brains exist and we know humans who have them are prone to thinking errors” — implying that we don’t know there’s a devil. But, you see, that’s what the devil WANTS you to think! haha

          My point is that I can always turn around and tell you that you’re the one who is wrong, based on my assertion that you are the one making the thinking error, and that your lack of realization that you’re making a thinking error is a consequence of your erroneous state of mind, regardless of the source of that error. It’s an objection that anyone can use to refute anything, that’s why I call it gas-lighting.

          If I said, for example, I know that God exists because I saw an image of Jesus on the pattern of grease stains on the side of my refrigerator (one woman actually made this claim), you could refute me by saying that grease stains all of the world form millions of patterns, and that just by chance a few of them are going to form an image that vaguely resembles Jesus. Of course, I think your objection would be on-point. Or if I said that I was thinking about an old high school classmate that I hadn’t thought about in years and just at that moment, lo and behold, that very classmate telephoned me, I think you could appropriately object that although that was indeed a coincidence, coincidences are bound to occur from time to time, and that this in in itself means nothing.

          If, on the other hand, I said that people all over the world have measured the speed of light to be 300,000 km per second, and that I had concluded that this “coincidence” added up to a conclusion that light moves at a constant speed, you probably wouldn’t claim that I am reading meaning into a meaningless coincidence. Likewise (fictionally), if I calculated the value of Pi to a trillion places and found the digits settling into a pattern of ones and zeroes far too early in the string than statistics would predict, and if these ones and zeroes added up to a perfect digital recreation of the Hindu scriptures (Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact” expresses a similar idea), it would probably be appropriate to attach meaning to that, instead of writing it off as a mere coincidence.

          So, between these two extremes — measuring the speed of light at the exact same value time after time on one extreme, and finding an image of Jesus in the pattern of grease stains on the side of my refrigerator at the other extreme, well, somewhere between these two extremes lies an invisible line — one one side of the line, the attribution of meaning to “coincidence” is invalid, and on the other side, the degree of the coincidence calls for an explanation beyond coincidence.

          When I said that I was attributing meaning to coincidence of everyday events around me — well, this statement is too vague to conclude that I am over-attributing agency to events, because it doesn’t tell anyone which side of that invisible line I am on. For all I know I could be under-attributing agency.

        • David Allan Carnes
        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          When the Scientologist tells you to “try it yourself and see,” do you take him up on it?

        • David Allan Carnes

          “Try it yourself and you’ll see” doesn’t mean you’ll see that Jesus rose from the dead or that “there is but one God and Mohammad is his prophet.” It means try looking for agency at a very subtle level of your environment and see if you can establish agency in a manner that refutes your own most potent objections. If you can, then try communicating with the agent and see if it works. If you start receiving intelligible content from this agent — well, it will be up to you whether to believe this content or not. It could be from aliens, you could live in a Matrix, you could be talking to God, you could be talking to the devil, you could have gone insane and not realized it, or you could have a brain tumor. At that point it will be up to you whether to trust what this agent tells you. Kind of like the Oracle in the Matrix, you’re going to have to make up your own mind. I used a primitive version of decision theory to make up my mind. Kind of like a complex version of Pascal’s Wager (my sister told me it is more like playing Russian Roulette with my soul!) By the way I found two agents this way — one hateful and one loving. Guess which one I chose to believe?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Was my provocation too powerful to respond to directly? I’ll try again: When the Scientologist tells you to “try it yourself and see,” do you take him up on it?

          By the way I found two agents this way — one hateful and one loving. Guess which one I chose to believe?

          God in the Old Testament is an asshole, so I’m guessing the former.

        • Somebody

          The latter

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Dang! I always get that wrong. Maybe you’re seeing his soft marshmallow center that I’m missing, seeing only his hateful bastard outside.

          And I noticed that you again ran away from my provocation. OK–a little too hot to handle, I guess. I’ll avoid it in the future.

        • Greg G.

          Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
                –Buddha

        • David Allan Carnes

          I couldn’t agree more. That’s exactly why I said try it for yourself. Ironically, though, that’s also why I rejected Buddhism (even though I am living in a Buddhist country right now)

    • adam

      “You can’t see God’s hand in the world because you are not looking rightly. ”

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/432d2d0f061a75e798dd98b009edc524a744a11cab0e268a8d5ec46762c0c7a4.jpg

      • David Allan Carnes

        Like many Christians I believe humans wrote the Bible not God my faith is not based on a book any more than your atheism is based on The God Delusion just as your atheism isn’t threatened if Dawkins makes asinine claims about women and Muslim’s my faith is not threatened when ancient Israelites make asinine claims about god to justify their own barbarism

        • adam
        • Greg G.

          Wasn’t it written by the most educated, ignorant, racist, sexist, superstitious barbarians who exploited the goat herders?

        • David Allan Carnes

          ” So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” — Jesus

          He came to straighten out the screwed up ideas of racist, sexist, superstitious goat herding barbarians, and they crucified him for it.

        • adam

          “He came to straighten out the screwed up ideas of racist, sexist, superstitious goat herding barbarians,”

          You mean the ideas that HE gave as Jehovah.

          The Unchanging God of Abraham.

        • David Allan Carnes

          And most of the church, unfortunately, would crucify him again if he returned in the 20th century.

        • adam

          Nope,

          They would just ignore him, like they do the poor, the old and the weak.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Why have an exercise to support the idea that God exists? How about the reverse: you spend 6 months finding natural explanations for everything you see.

      Everyone who does it this way gets exactly the same answer, so I won’t spoil the surprise for you.

      • David Allan Carnes

        That’s exactly what I did. For decades not months when it didn’t add up I began looking for God

        • Joe

          Where did you look?

        • David Allan Carnes

          Patterns in everyday “coincidences”. That’s why I mentioned The Truman Show. “Serendipity” is another film that illustrates the basic concept.

        • Joe

          Those are movies. Fictional. Where did YOU look?

        • David Allan Carnes

          All around me. Everything that happens every day.

        • Joe

          I see the same things. One of us is right.