This is a guest post by Kathy Orlinsky. Kathy writes at The Stochastic Scientist blog.
I listen to a lot of theological discussions and debates. Often, someone will mention the name of a common argument for God’s existence… but I can never seem to remember which argument is which. Maybe you’re in the same boat.
Accordingly, I’ve prepared the following guide for distinguishing five standard apologetics, along with my counterarguments. This isn’t a comprehensive list of arguments, nor does it cover the many nuances of arguments for or against God. Rather, it’s a guide for people like me who just can’t keep the arguments straight.
The Ontological argument: God is the greatest thing ever. Things that exist are greater than things that don’t. Therefore, God must exist.
In essence, this argument is asserting that nonexistence is a flaw. Since God, by definition, has no flaws, he must exist.
Objections: There are a couple of problems with this attempt to “define” God into existence. First, this is what’s known as a circular argument. I define God a certain way, and then proclaim that God must have the specific properties that I defined him to have.
Suppose I define chicken soup as “all-curing soup.” Would I then be justified in insisting that chicken soup can cure all ailments? After all, it can’t be “all-curing soup” if it doesn’t cure everything, but we know it’s “all-curing soup” because that’s the definition of chicken soup.
Second, this argument makes the unsupported assumption that things that exist are better than things that don’t exist. That’s a rather peculiar way to look at the world. Are unicorns more flawed than horses? If I don’t accept that God can have no flaws and/or that nonexistence is a flaw, I’ve defeated the ontological argument.
Transcendental argument (TAG): The goal of this argument is to show that God is the source of logic. This is easily the most confusing of the arguments for God, in part because it requires an understanding of logical absolutes. It also relies on some language sleight of hand that I’ll explain in a minute.
First, what are logical absolutes? These are simply truth statements that can never be contradicted. A is always A; A can’t ever not be A. A cat is always a cat and can never not be a cat.
Neither theists nor atheists take issue with the fact that logical absolutes exist. The question is, why do logical absolutes exist? A typical theist argument (abridged from Matt Slick) goes as follows:
- Logical absolutes are transcendent; they are not dependent on time or space
- Logical absolutes are conceptual; they have no physical properties.
- Concepts are the product of a mind.
- Logical absolutes can’t be the product of human minds, which are variable and limited.
- Therefore, logical absolutes are the product of God’s mind.
Objections: You may not have noticed, but this argument is no more than a giant play on words. TAG conflates the fact that logical absolutes exist with our ability to recognize that they exist. It’s a bit like confusing the word “cat” with the animal “cat.” The word “cat” may not exist without a mind, but the animal “cat” certainly can. By the same token, the application of logic may require a mind, but logical absolutes are independent of any mind. A cat is still a cat when no one is around.
The same can be said for any abstract idea. Jupiter was still larger than Neptune before anyone understood the concept of size comparison.
There’s no need for an external mind to bring those concepts into being.
Cosmological argument (Kalam argument): Why do we have something rather than nothing? If the universe began in a Big Bang, then what caused the Big Bang? Something must have started the ball rolling. That something could only have been God.
Objections: This argument makes two broad and incorrect assumptions. First, cosmologists today can account for several ways in which our universe could have “come from nothing.” Not being a physicist, I won’t try to do them justice, but I direct your attention to some excellent books by Brian Greene, Victor Stenger, Lawrence Krauss, and others. To name one possibility, our universe may be just one of an infinite number of universes, each in a different stage of formation or destruction.
Anthropic principle (fine-tuning argument): There are several universal constants, such as the speed of light, that have specific measurable quantities. If these constants varied by the slightest amount, stars would not form and there could be no life. The chance that all those constants happen to be exactly right for intelligent life to develop on Earth is so infinitesimal, the constants must have been preset by God.
Objections: Proponents of this argument make a lot of unwarranted assumptions about the probability of the existence of life in our universe. For example, they may say, “There’s a one in a thousand chance that constant A has its current value, and there’s a one in a thousand chance that constant B has its current value, so the chance that both have their current values is one in a million.” When they’ve finished with all the constants, they end up claiming that there’s something like 1 chance in 10138 that our universe ended up with the physical properties we require. That sounds highly unlikely, doesn’t it? Too bad there is no basis for either the individual probabilities used or the fact that each constant is independent of all the others.
No one knows whether it’s even possible for physical constants to differ, let alone how likely that would be. Perhaps our universe had to have those exact constants. Or perhaps the constants are all linked in some fashion, such that if one were altered, the rest would have to be changed in some compensatory manner that would also be conducive to life.
All you can really say is that the chance of the physical constants of the universe being exactly right for life is not zero, and may be 100%. After all, the one example we have to study does in fact contain intelligent life.
Argument from design: Living things are so perfectly adapted to their environments and have such intricately amazing inner workings, they must have been purposefully designed. That designer was God. How else can you explain the beauty of a flower or the power of a jaguar? Those things could not have arisen by accident.
Objections: This argument also makes two assumptions, both of which are wrong. The first is that living organisms are perfectly formed. Unfortunately for the argument, and for living creatures, this just isn’t so. Our bodies have many design flaws that no engineer would have allowed. For example, the mammalian laryngeal nerve, which connects the brain to the larynx, does so via a detour around the aorta. In giraffes, it takes over fifteen feet of nerve length to cover the few inches from brain to larynx. Would you choose to loop an extension cord through the middle of your kitchen and back to a plug six inches from the end of your toaster?
Besides, arguing that creatures are perfectly designed for their environments points to a lack of imagination in my opinion. If dolphins were really perfectly designed for their watery environment, wouldn’t they have gills? Or extendable snorkels?
The second assumption is that even if the design is poor, it’s still the only explanation for how living things came to look the way they do. Wrong again. There’s a much better explanation for the diversity of life, and that is evolution. It’s thanks to our common ancestry with fish that our laryngeal nerves shoot off in the wrong direction and have to make a u-turn. In fish, this nerve goes to the last of the gills at the back of the head. As mammals evolved, the gills moved around and became other organs (such as the larynx) but the laryngeal nerve still had to start out in its original direction toward the bottom of the neck.
So those are a few of the most common arguments for God. I’m indebted to the Iron Chariots counter-apologetics wiki maintained by the Atheist Community of Austin for helping me sort them out.