Arguments for the existence of something that sounds kind of like a god

A close cousin of god-of-the-gaps arguments are arguments that argue for something that sounds kind of like a god, but which wouldn’t actually have to be a god. A good example of this is the argument from design, which claims that we can somehow show that the life on Earth and/or the universe was designed, and from there infers God. Now, I don’t think that life or the universe was designed, but even if they were, that wouldn’t show that any particular god exists.

This is something Hume pointed out brilliantly in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The limitations and imperfections of our world , Hume argued, suggest a limited and imperfect designer. But even if we grant the greatness of the world, this does not prove the greatness of the designer. Perhaps He learned the art of world-making by copying others, or by trial and error. And why a He? Why not a She or a They?

Hume goes on: for all we know, the world is an early work of an “infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance.” Or the work of an “inferior deity… the object of derision to his superiors.” Or “the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him.” Finally, Hume argues, the “strange mixture of good and ill which appears in life” suggests a morally indifferent designer (see chapter 5 for more on that).

Today, we can get even more creative than Hume, who was mainly thinking that the designer(s) might be like the Greek gods rather than the god of the Christian theology. But instead, think of the final scene in the movie Men in Black, where the camera zooms out from our universe to reveal the entire thing contained inside a marble, being used in a game by a funny-looking green creature. The scene is a bit silly, but that’s because the creature is relatively human-like. If there are super-beings outside of our universe (designers or not), they may be stranger than we can imagine.

Another alternative is suggested by Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument, which argues that more likely than not, we are living in a computer simulation. I won’t get into the details here, in part because the argument isn’t really interesting until you accept that we probably will be able to create computer-simulated people in the future. If you’re interested in that topic, I recommend reading “Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap,” which Bostrom co-authored with computational neuroscientist Anders Sandberg. Here, it’s enough to point out that if you think you’ve got an argument that the universe is designed, one way for it to be designed is for it to be a massive computer simulation (or in some other way a massive, carefully-crafted illusion), rather than the work of anything like the gods of theology or mythology.

The argument from design may be the most obvious example of bad arguments for the existence of God of this sort, but it’s not the only one. Believers are also guilty of making this mistake when they tell you they’re going to give you an argument for the existence of God, and then start vaguely talking about “something beyond the physical realm” or somesuch. This raises a bunch of interesting philosophical questions: are mathematical facts physical? What about moral facts? Are all mental properties ultimately physical? Those questions are interesting, but just don’t have much to do with the existence of a god or gods.

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  • Improbable Joe

    You know, I can skip right to your last bit…

    I’m not a philosopher, so maybe I’m missing some deep and sophisticated philosophical point here, but as far as I can tell Christians are arguing for a super-powerful person who exists right now and can affect the world in measurable ways. Mitt Romney is a “super-powerful person who exists right now and can affect the world in measurable ways” and yet no one proposes a sophisticated argument for his existence. Considering that the Christian belief is in a super-powerful person who is bigger, better, and more impressive and influential, why is it harder to establish the existence of “God” than Mitt Romney?

    Things that actually exist in reality are easily demonstrated: here’s my brother, there’s that mountain, let’s make reservations to visit Australia. “God” supposedly exists but requires some sort of special leap of faith to accept its existence.

    • mnb0

      Not all christians claim that that powerful being can influence the material world. That’s the problem with CH’s book, as he has explained elsewhere. There are too many arguments christians use to back up their convictions. You cannot really address them all.
      Most christians know there is no measurable evidence for any god. Only fundies and IDiots claim this and CH has countered them.

  • julian

    Total layman speaking

    Just picked up Newton’s Principia and what really strikes me about his design arguments (especially after dealing with American Creationists) is how it bleeds into not just gap arguments but complexity arguments as well. What makes Lord God the default above lesser gods and concepts is how all encompassing He is. God not only captures the perfect rest to which all matter is relative to, He must stand sovereign over every mechination and every movement of planets, stars and moons.

    Arguments from complexity, ignorance and design all seem to be the same argument just stressing different aspects of whatever creator is being imposed by the speaker.

    And that’s one of their biggest weaknesses. As your post shows when you remove them from their religious context, where we look to design, complexity and our ignorance, a million explanations pop up each as likely as the next and each readily supplying the designer or missing particle. Our understanding is never hindered by a dismissal of gods however easy it would be to impose them on our explanations.

    Anyway, those are my 2 cents. Thanks for the read.

  • machintelligence

    In honor of the July 4th holiday, and with the smell of gunpowder from (illegal) fireworks wafting through my window, I am going to propose the cosmic fireworks hypothesis: Our entire expanding universe, from the big bang onward, is one shot in a huge fireworks display put on by pyrotechnicians of almost inconceivable size and duration. I hope the audience enjoys the show.

  • Dunc

    The First Cause argument is another classic example… As “Jesus and Mo” put it: “Everything that has a beginning must have a cause. The Universe has a beginning, so it must have a cause. Therefore no bacon.” (

  • josh

    The thing is, God is supposed to be infinite in order to be God. From an empirical point of view, whatever alleged evidence you have for God, it would be better evidence for a lesser being/explanation. God is always an infinitely superfluous explanation for any finite phenomenon, and we don’t really know of any non-finite phenomena.

    • sqlrob

      we don’t really know of any non-finite phenomena

      Human stupidity.

      • josh

        Argument from Existence of Religious Believers?

        1)People believe God exists.
        2)No one could be that dumb.
        3)Only God could have the power to make someone that dumb.
        -> God Exists. QED

        I like it. (Though I’m not sure it will go over well, maybe if I dress it up with modal operators and latin.)

  • Ace of Sevens

    The simulation hypothesis makes no sense to me. It completes ignores that there or limits on simulations. I don’t mean that current computers are limited, but that there are severe theoretical limits. A simulation cannot contain more data than the computer that runs it. This means that even if the top level universe had 100% of its resources dedicated to simulations for some unfathomable reason, and the simulations are 100% efficient, at best there is the same amount of simulation and reality. You can’t get to any point where you estimate there’s a high probability we are living in a simulation.

    • DSimon

      What contextual optimization? For example, no need to waste CPU cycles simulating every single molecule of air when the vast majority of their effects can be figured out statistically at a much coarser scale.

      Put in some exceptions for the tiny percentage of molecules being examined by clever apes with microscopes (or more generally: simulate individual molecules in any case that falls outside the known preconditions where the coarse statistical method is known to work, then have your coders carefully check and add preconditions until performance is acceptable) and Bob’s your uncle.