Arguments for the existence of God: put up or shut up

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been doing a series of posts on arguments for the existence of God. I was thinking the next post would be on Bayesian arguments for the existence of God, but I’ve already done that post. While I may want to tweak it at some point, the current version is already there for anyone whose interested, so I’m going to move on to revisiting some points I made in the first post in the series, “There are no good arguments for the existence of God.”

Here’s the deal: I’ve spent a huge amount of time listening to and reading about various arguments for the existence of God and Christianity specifically (along with a smaller amount of time on arguments for Judaism, Islam, and Mormonism). I’ve read Anselm, Aquinas, Augustine, Collins, Craig, Leibniz, McDowell, the McGrews, Plantinga, Swinburne, van Inwagen, Wright, and many lesser names, as well talking with many people who aren’t names at all.

And too often, I see them making the same mistakes over and over again. Even when I’m reading writers who’ve received other people’s highest recommendations. Even when I’m reading writers who use seemingly sophisticated strategies like Bayesianism.

So if you think I’ve missed something important in reaching my assessment that there are no good arguments for the existence of God, you know what you need to do? Tell me what that argument is and why you find it compelling. Anything else is wasting my time.

Not that I mind reading recommendations, or requests to write about a certain subject. Being able to get those easily from readers is one of the great things about blogging. But when what you want to say is that I’m wrong about God, don’t use demands that I spend my time differently as a substitute for actually defending your view.

It doesn’t matter how important you think your favorite apologist is. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s unfair of me not to deal with your favorite apologist, or that I must be ignorant because why else would I doubt his greatness? It doesn’t matter if you think your favorite apologist knows more than me, or even if you think he’s a genius.

Because you know what? I’ve heard it all before, and been consistently unimpressed with the apologists who believers think are so important for me to deal with. And by the way, sentences of the form “Everyone knows [my favorite religious apologist] is great,” are always false, and only shows the sample you’ve taken of “everyone” is too small (which is to say, you don’t know what you’re talking about).

So again, if you want to tell me I’m wrong, you need arguments to back up your position–not demands that I spend my time differently. In other words, put up or shut up.

My debate with Randal Rauser is out!
Avoiding divorce doesn’t make you a traditionalist
I’ve read Draper’s paper, and I am puzzled
Notes on Robert Fogel’s Without Consent or Contract
  • Improbable Joe

    .. and like I keep saying, why can’t any of these arguments produce a single Christianity, let alone a single theism? If one group of theists can’t convince another, how could any of them convince me?

    • Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc

      Ah yes, I just wish that we could lock all theists in a room until they work it out and then come to us with a best suggestion… Won’t happen, though. :-/

      • N. Nescio

        Pretty sure that resulted in the Nicene Creed.

        Which as far as I’m aware is the LAST thing a diverse group of Christians ever agreed upon, and that was in the 300s.

        • Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc

          Um I was talking about theists not Christians.

          Note: See the Orange Catholic Bible in the Dune series!

  • karmakin

    They can’t even agree on defining God…even with themselves I find.

  • Tim

    I’ve heard some good arguments for the existence of God. The trouble is, they work just as well with Bigfoot…

    The strength of the argument seems directly proportional to the vagueness of the definition. this point drives me crazy when it comes to ID debates. Ok, so theres a creator? Brilliant, i’ll accept your hypothesis, now prove it wasnt Zeus

  • left0ver1under

    “Put up or shut up” can be accompanied by other short but succinct terms:

    Show it or stow it.

    Demonstrate, don’t remonstrate.

  • Ryan

    I’d like to see you do a nice long post on the fine-tuning argument. Something on the objections to it that you think are the best and why.

    • Chris Hallquist

      It depends a lot on what you mean by the fine tuning argument, whether the argument is set up in a Bayesian way or some other way, whether it’s presented as an argument for the existence of God or sincerely presented as an argument for some generic designer.

      As an argument for the existence of God, I’ve said much of what I have to say here and here, though I’m also planning a post on William Lane Craig on fine tuning. Though it might be interesting to do a post on fine-tuning as an argument for a generic designer.

    • mnb0

      Fine-tuning isn’t worth a long post, no matter in what form. It is basically a special case of the cosmological argument. It’s only virtue is that it manages to add a few more problems to the ones of the latter (causality and linearity).
      1) If we are going to assume causality (and I don’t) please let’s have the order right. It’s a travesty to say that the universe is adapted to (human) life. As there was first the universe and then (human) life it’s obviously the other way round. Teleology hardly ever has sucked more.
      2) Fine-tuning is based on probability calculation based on one sample. If you in some town know only one person and that person appears to have red hair, how are you going to calculate the probability of having red hair in that specific town/
      3) This one applies even more than on the cosmological argument. If some generic designer had fixed the constants of physics, why has he bothered to design all those galaxies other than the Milky Way? One – our – galaxy would have been more than enough.
      In the end fine-tuning displays an enormous amount of human arrogance.

      • Alexander

        Ok, I’ll bite with my faux apologetic hat on ;

        1. “With a god, causality can still lead to a wanted result, in much the same way that a builder builds a house and somehow managed to build it so that the plumber could fit the toilet and sink exactly where it’s supposed to go. One could say that god put the universe together in a casual way to produce us, and with omnipotence that’s exactly how an amazingly powerful god would do it!”

        2. “Fine-tuning is a whole lot of different tunings, and only one of them need to be slightly off-kilter to render the universe all wrong! Probabilities don’t come into it; these are facts! If gravity was a smidgen stronger, we wouldn’t be here, and we are, so the dial of gravity was obviously fine-tuned for us otherwise we wouldn’t be able to have this conversation.”

        [hat temporarily off] Btw, instead of claiming it to be bad probability (which may indeed be true, only I don’t see probability calculations rate high on the apologetic’s list of tricks), I’d rather chalk it up to not understanding the anthropic principle, which works perfectly well even without the lofty many-universes idea. And if successful life is the argument, the counter-argument is of course that the universe rather seems designed for bacteria, as it survives in more places, are more plentiful, and there are some indicators of it surviving and possibly even originate or exist extra-Terra. You have to show that humans are special and not only just different from other species, but amazingly so, however evolutionary development and psychology, neuroscience and a deep understanding of evolution itself render this very doubtful. [hat back on]

        3. “The universe is so big as to humble us deeply with the vastness, emptiness and complexity, and isn’t it amazing that it was all needed to create us humans. That is evidence of god-scale causality!”

        And of course I agree with your last statement, as referred to in my 2nd answer. :)

      • mnb0

        First of all we should keep in mind that it’s not our goal to convince believers – that there is no god. Our position is defensive, so we can expect that believers who come up with arguments like fine-tuning show some crap. I always keep an imaginary neutral bystander in mind. In debates with Dutch believers – mainly creacrappers – I have met this argument quite often. It’s fun to show how crappy it is.
        Acknowledging you’re playing the devil’s advocate:
        - you don’t really address my objection to final causes (Causa finalis).
        1) you present a false analogy. I never have seen a builder who collects many stones and then watches the stones building the building themselves. That’s what fine-tuning says.
        2) “If gravity was a smidgen stronger, we wouldn’t be here”
        Possibly some other form of intelligence would have been. Victor Stenger has written a book about this subject, including a computer simulation. I refer to TalkReason.
        3) human imagination, including yours and mine, doesn’t go beyond a million. One galaxy would have been enough to impress us and teach us to be humble.

        Still your “hats off” remarks are useful, but hey, my reaction was already getting too long.

        • Alexander

          Continuing with my hat on ;

          1. No, no, no, your initial assertion was this; “It’s a travesty to say that the universe is adapted to (human) life. As there was first the universe and then (human) life it’s obviously the other way round.”

          I was pointing out that there is no flaw in assuming that an all powerful god could have set the universe in motion in such a way that it would be towards a specific goal, ie. human life on a given planet. This is what a omnipotent god-scale causal universe looks like!

          You now say “I never have seen a builder who collects many stones and then watches the stones building the building themselves. That’s what fine-tuning says.”

          No, fine-tuning is all about creating the right kind of environment that promotes the creation of certain things. This god obviously fine-tuned this universe so that we could be created. Our very existence is evidence of the success of this plan. Also, Aquinas. QED.

          2. You write; “Possibly some other form of intelligence would have been.”

          Irrelevant; we *are* here, and as far as we know, there is absolutely no one else here. And, as far as we can tell, there is no other configuration that supports life; you cannot prove otherwise, so it’s all just speculation!

          3. You say “human imagination, including yours and mine, doesn’t go beyond a million. One galaxy would have been enough to impress us and teach us to be humble.”

          This is just speculation; don’t assume that I am as easily impressed as you.

          [hat off]

          As to not trying to convince the believers, there’s psychology that lends weight to either or, I think. Some needs to be Hitchslapped, others needs convincing arguments, and then there are others who just needs a hug.

          Anyway, I find my faux hat a great way to sharpen our tools. :)

    • josh

      What I’m going to say is mostly covered by the commenters above, but here’s the problem with fine-tuning:

      1)The current versions of fine-tuning tend to be about relatively fundamental physical constants and large-scale features. E.g. claims that atoms couldn’t exist or galaxies wouldn’t form if this or that number was different by a fraction of a percent. I take these claims with a grain of salt since changing a fundamental constant would have huge and far-flung consequences that aren’t easy to predict, but let’s accept them for now. They take this form because the previous versions, on the planet level, are defeated by the anthropic principle. There are a lot of planets but only one universe (that we can unequivocally point to, although multiverse theories have a lot going for them and aren’t at all motivated by religious arguments). The problem is, at a universe scale, things aren’t very fine-tuned for human life, they are ‘tuned’ for diffuse gas and weak radiation.

      2)This brings us to the fundamental problem with fine-tuning arguments, regardless of the specifics about the distance to the sun or the strength of the strong coupling constant or the shape of a banana. These arguments always have the same flaw, and that is that you can’t assume a consequence is the goal of a design. So, humans, beetles, space dust, active galactic nuclei, etc., etc. these are all consequences of the fundamental physics that govern our reality. If you could have different physics you would have a different set of consequences and a different looking reality. But we don’t know what sets those physics as they are, we don’t even have any evidence that they can be anything other than they are. If they are just a brute fact, then obviously they can’t require a designer as an explanation.

      On the other hand, if they aren’t just a brute fact (and I doubt they all are), then the question is: what is a good explanation for them? A good explanation would be one that, in retrospect, makes the values of whatever physical constants or features we’re talking about expected. They would be where they are because it follows inexorably from the more fundamental theory we would have discovered. For example, if Grand Unified Theory ideas turn out to be true, then the 3 currently independent coupling constants of the quantum forces are all related and derivable from a more fundamental theory.

      Now it is conceivable that something like a mind, with goals it aims at and an ability to predict outcomes, somehow has control over physical constants in our universe. Its desire to produce humanity could lead it to set those constants as they are because that’s one way of making humans. That could be an explanation (for the sake of this analysis anyhow), but it is one we have absolutely no reason to think is correct. It is an attempt to explain one very narrow set of consequences when we are looking for an explanation of a much more fundamental set of features which result in those consequences among a multitude of others. The only reason to argue that A designed B to achieve X is if we have independent reasons to think that A designed B. But it is an unwarranted assumption to argue that B exists for the purpose of X, therefore there must be an A with X as a goal.

      You can’t argue that B has to be a certain way because it achieves X, you have to argue why B is what it is for its own sake/on its own terms. Making X the sake for which B exists is simply an unjustified assumption and not an argument. It’s like arguing that pi is irrational so that there would need to be a special button for it on our calculators.

      • Alexander

        [faux apologetic hat on]

        1. You say “The problem is, at a universe scale, things aren’t very fine-tuned for human life, they are ‘tuned’ for diffuse gas and weak radiation.”

        But that is only a anthropic observation in itself, a circular argument where you as a human have decided that the emptiness and vastness of space isn’t needed or important to human life. You cannot tell whether this seemingly unfriendly large impenetrable universe is exactly what was needed to put into casual order in a way to create a creation as magnificent as humans.

        2. “Its desire to produce humanity could lead it to set those constants as they are because that’s one way of making humans. That could be an explanation (for the sake of this analysis anyhow), but [...]”

        Exactly! And by evidence of human existence this only proves it; if god didn’t have us in mind, the universe probably *would* have looked otherwise. In other words, the fact that the universe created sinful humans proves that there *had* to be a god involved. That’s not extrapolating cause from symptoms, but admitting that it certainly looks god-made because we *are* here, and many of us know god to be true, so what else could it possibly be? You atheist don’t see this argument because you don’t want our wonderful existence to have any meaning.

        “It is an attempt to explain one very narrow set of consequences [...]”

        What? The intelligence and complexity and wonder of human existence is not “narrow”, it is single-handedly the most amazing complex and intelligent thing this universe has to offer. We can do the most amazing things, including have a complex discussion of philosophical and scientific nature such as this.

        “The only reason to argue that A designed B to achieve X is if we have independent reasons to think that A designed B.”

        I thought it was rather obvious by now that fine-tuning created us. Of all the millions of other outcomes the tuning of the universe could have had, we got this one, with humans in it, humans that are so complex and amazing that that itself is evidence that an intelligent creator must be in charge of it. Nature on its own can not create life, and certainly not intelligent life, that’s just you atheists guessing that that’s the way it happened; all evidence point the other way.

        [hat off]

        Correlation vs. causation needs to be more explicit, and it certainly needs to be explained easier to a crowd that has no real interaction with science. It would be great to refine the argument to make the anthropic principle stronger, as I think it’s the only good way to show the correlation to those who insist on causation. Also, I think logic doesn’t work on minds who have had little to no exposure to it, or even understand its purpose.

        • josh

          I realize you’re trying to play devil’s advocate here, but it’s a massive failure. (‘Their’ would-be rebuttal, not your imitation thereof.)

          1)No. It’s simply not in evidence that humans need an unobservably vast universe to exist, that would be an anthropic assumption. But moreover, my argument wasn’t that humans don’t need it, it’s just that you can’t assume one small outcome, the existence of humans in a negligible fraction of the universe, is the purpose for which the whole schmeer exists. Whether humans need the whole schmeer or not is irrelevant.

          2)”if god didn’t have us in mind, the universe probably *would* have looked otherwise.” But also, if God had wanted anything else in the universe otherwise, it would have probably looked otherwise. Which just shows the superfluity of ‘God’ without a solid independent argument that he exists and created the universe with some goal in mind. You still can’t assume that a consequence is a reason for the preconditions. If this were actually a good argument then we should be looking for the most fine-tuned thing in the universe, which isn’t going to be humanity.

          After this you kind of give up and start bloviating.

          “The intelligence and complexity and wonder of human existence is not “narrow”, it is single-handedly the most amazing complex and intelligent thing this universe has to offer.”
          Statement not in evidence. If we can’t know that a huge universe is necessary for human life, then we certainly can’t know that we are the most intelligent thing out there. And if one human mind is complex then two minds are more complex and two minds plus a frog brain is more complex yet. The great red eye of jupiter is more complex than the sum of events on Earth. The fact that we are more interested in human doings is no argument for any intrinsic amazingness or complexity compared to the rest of the universe.

          “Of all the millions of other outcomes the tuning of the universe could have had, we got this one,…” There are no other tunings that we have evidence of, as far as we know this is the only state the universe ever could have been in. If we knew a mechanism or principle that set the currently ‘fundamental’ constants, it would explain why we have the ‘tuning’ that we have, but it would require independent evidence to argue that that mechanism is a designer, evidence which can’t come from the outcomes of those constants.

          Anyhow, at the end of the day it will always be hard to show people the flaws in a fixed idea they’ve latched on to. The argument I’m making isn’t exactly anthropic in the sense people often use the term, since it isn’t that we can only observe that which permits our existence and it doesn’t rely on the existence of numerous examples where circumstances don’t favor us, like multiverses or other planets. It’s also not exactly correlation vs. causation since we only have one example for the universe as a whole, hence no correlation established in any statistical sense. It’s just that a consequence, however fine-tuned it may appear, can’t be argued to be a goal based on the fine-tuning.

  • Alexander

    Somehow I think a list of arguments categorized would be immensely helpful, like a Wiki of apologetics, with counter-answers and showing of why the arguments are weak. If people think it’s a good idea, I’m sure we could work something together.

    • Loqi

      Something like this, perhaps?

      • Loqi

        Gah, link fail.

      • Alexander

        Ah! Yes! Indeed, exactly like that. Thanks for the pointer, I might actually get involved there.

        Perhaps a page from this blog that points to that blog, or an update to the various blog posts here where we link to the arguments in the Wiki? The reason I say this is because we spend a lot of time repeating ourselves, and if we are to find better arguments we need to more quickly point out what the old ones are. “Are there any good arguments for God? Check these first, then come back to us. We’d love you to!”

        In fact, I’m seriously wanting some challenges in this domain; I desperately want the other side to take this seriously above the level of regurgitation.

      • Makoto

        Great, now I’m going to lose hours on that wiki. Thanks for the link, this’ll be fun!

  • den1s

    Oh please don’t even think about Craig, let alone write about him. It only inflates him needlessly. He’s best left alone imo, much like one should avoid Deepak Chopra. Too easy to fall into an intellectual black hole when you deal with these cranks. I have gone cold turkey on those two in particular, and the air is much fresher without them influencing my emotions. These peoples’ popularity exists only as long as we keep extending their 15 minutes of fame. Cut them loose!

    • Chris Hallquist

      I wish it were possible to treat Craig like Chopra, but Craig gets taken seriously by too many people, unfortunately.

      • Alexander

        I couldn’t agree more! It’s Craig and Plantinga, over and over again, especially from the new wave of apologetics. To understand this new thrust, read this book ;

        Craig is one of the authors of it, and this is apologetics using Reason, no less. Now, having read snippets I can tell you that their Reason really is “reason”, but most uninformed people can’t tell them apart. People who already have set aside a huge area of their brain for irrational thought have very little capacity to sift the irrational from rational. In fact, I think books like this one is kinda dangerous because it solidifies irrationality at the edges of rationality, enforcing irrational beliefs through the power of rational thought.

        Like the argument from first cause, it never occurs to those making it that they are making exceptions for their first cause that aren’t part of the reasoning process, or making claims on the universe with constraints that are privileged (like something being outside the universe, without defining the universe), and so on.

        Anyway, Craig, Plantinga and their likes has got a lot of support and a lot of people take them seriously, but there’s a good side to this as well; as their strongest arguments gets demolished, so does all their weaker ones who build up the wall of apologetics, and who knows how the uninitiated are going to react to that? Of the smart ones, I suspect a greater divide between fundamental and agnostic, and to some degree I’d consider that a great win.

  • Fundalicious

    “In order for life to have appeared spontaneously on earth, there first had to be hundreds of millions of protein molecules of the ninth configuration. But given the size of the planet Earth, do you know how long it would have taken for just one of these protein molecules to appear entirely by chance? Roughly ten to the two hundred and forty-third power billions of years. And I find that far, far more fantastic than simply believing in God.”

    • James Gentile

      Fundalicious: Let’s assume your math is correct (I’m sure it ain’t), and let’s assume that number is more fantastic than the possibility of god (it isn’t for me.) OK, now what do I do? You’re going to tell me what god wants me to do? No, that’s just you telling me what to do. A priest is going to tell me what god wants me to do? No that’s just some other guy telling me what to do. The Pope? Just another guy trying to tell me what to do and pass it off as divinely inspired for all I know. The bible? Just a book written by guys I know nothing about. If god wants my eternal love and devotion, the least he could do is show himself for 30 damned seconds and explain that. Otherwise how am I to know the true messengers of this god from con-artists and impostors who only pretend to be such. If he is all powerful, it will cost him no effort and no relative time to do so. Yea, I’m not doing what something wants, and the only way it is communicated to me is by some random joe blow dressed in black and a white collar, who could be a fake for all I know. And for all you know, the creator of life on earth that you find so unlikely was whatever the scientologists believe in. Little difference between one unverified supernatural belief and another. So you sleep on that.

    • Iain Walker

      You haven’t said why you find this particular chestnut convincing. Or why you would expect anyone to find it convincing, given that basically every assumption it makes is, well, wrong.

    • sqlrob

      Well, other than the fact that it’s not by chance, that’s a good argument. And given that’s the primary assumption, guess that means it’s crap.

      I’m trying to remember where I saw this, I think “Drunkards Walk”:

      Take a double elimination tournament with a million entrants (e.g. something like March Madness but a lot bigger). Every pair of games knocks the team count by half. Given equal teams, the winner had a one in a million chance of being the winner. Notice the odds at any given point were never worse than 1 in 2. Ignoring the process gives you the wrong odds.

    • anteprepro


      Anyway, to pile on as if this quote were serious:
      -”Protein molecule” is redundant.
      -”Ninth configuration” of proteins is a nonsense phrase.

    • David Evans

      It’s a quote from a movie “The Ninth Configuration”, 1980.

      The character speaking is insane, in a mental hospital and has lost his memory. I think his conclusion is less than authoritative.

  • Jodi.

    Well, rather than burden you with my ‘favorite apologist for God’, I wish I can get you to offer some response to a tireless blogger who, over a series of hundreds of posts, is claiming to have demonstrated that atheism as a worldview is impossible to defend either empirically or logically, and is, therefore, incoherent as well as irrational.

    • DSimon

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like the entire linked argument boils down to “Skepticism implies that one can’t be completely certain about anything”, to which my response is: So where’s the problem?

      The author of the post seems to think that you can’t usefully act on any information unless it’s absolutely certain, but poker players, stock market investors, and insurance companies make decisions successfully every day using uncertain information.

      I’m not 100% certain that the Sun will rise tomorrow morning, or that I’m not in the Matrix, or so on… but I don’t need to be. 99.9999% confidence is more than enough to get the job done.

      • stan

        Then you don’t understand the argument.

        • DSimon

          Could you elaborate?