When I first picked up Tim Keller‘s The Reason for God, I did not expect that out of fourteen chapters he would devote only one of them to offering arguments for the existence of God. I’m not sure what I expected, but after all the hype from my Christian friends and their pleading with me to read it for myself, it wasn’t that.
A Very Brief Case Indeed
Keller spends the first seven chapters responding to what he calls the most common objections to the Christian faith, leaving out the most important one: a request for tangible evidence. He saves that for the Intermission wherein he dismisses the need for it entirely on principle (read my response here). True to his presuppositionalist colors, he intimates that there’s something wrong with our asking for evidence, overstating our case as if we were demanding epistemic perfection.
Overreactions like this tell me a lot. They’re acting like Chandler from Friends right after he and Monica got together and Joey asked him if he knew where Monica was. For no apparent reason, Chandler started shouting “No! Okay? What’s with the third degree? Why don’t you just shine a light in my eyes?!”
In Chapter 8, Keller finally proceeds to lay out for the reader four positive arguments for the existence of God. There will be a fifth later on which will take the longest to explain, and then there will be one last argument woven into Chapter 9 (the Argument from Morality). After that you will have to make your way through five chapters of, well…preaching.
By my count, he devotes only around 33 pages out of 250 (excluding the introduction) to giving actual reasons for God, admitting throughout that any one of these arguments taken individually will come up short on its own. He says the reason he won’t spend any more time presenting either evidence or arguments (two different things) is that deep down inside ourselves we already believe in his God.
I don’t want to argue why God may exist. I want to demonstrate that you already know that God does exist. (p.147)
That’s a strident claim, but Calvinists believe that devoting too much time to presenting reasons for faith runs contrary to the Bible since it asserts that people already know enough to believe (see Rom. 1:18ff). Perhaps that’s why Keller keeps his positive reasons for God to such a minimum. I’ll review the first four arguments he gives below, giving them my own names to make a point. Keller admits they are full of holes but he insists that if you put them all together, they make a convincing cumulative case.
Personally, I don’t think a bunch of bad arguments can be combined to make up one good one, but I suspect his target audience is far too emotionally invested not to find them persuasive; the cost of changing their minds is far too high.
The Argument from Inexplicability
In essence, every form of this argument follows the same pattern, reasoning from an unknown thing to a presumed cause, which invariably invokes what I call the Giant Invisible Person Hypothesis. Why it always has to be that specific cause is beyond me, and it’s never really demonstrated why that hypothesis is superior to other alternatives (e.g. Why does it have to be a single person? Why not several? Or maybe an impersonal force?). The argument from inexplicability can always be boiled down to the same template:
We do not understand how X happens, therefore there is a Giant Invisible Person behind it.
You wouldn’t believe how many theistic arguments distill down to this one. In Keller’s case, he started with the Unmoved Mover argument, which dates back at least to Aristotle if not further. I would argue that all belief in invisible spirits traces back to asking where everything came from. How can something come from nothing? There must be a person! As Keller says:
Everything we know in this world is “contingent,” has a cause outside of itself. Therefore the universe, which is just a huge pile of such contingent entities, would itself have to be dependent on some cause outside of itself…What could that be but something outside of nature, a supernatural, noncontingent being that exists from itself. (p.133)
Just because we can’t explain how the universe got here doesn’t mean there must be an invisible being behind it all. This is an example of the God-of-the-Gaps argument, an argument from ignorance which asserts that anything we cannot fully explain is another point for theism.
Even preschoolers know what’s wrong with this argument. If God made everything, then what made God? It’s an infinite regress, and I’ve never heard a good explanation for why it always has to trace back to a person whose emotional makeup is so shockingly similar to our own.
The Argument from Fabricated Probabilities
Also known as the Argument from the Fine Tuning of the Universe, this argument puts humankind in the center of the universe (which they say we do) and it then reasons backwards from there to see how perfectly the universe seems to have come together to produce life, and more to the point, to produce us.
For organic life to exist, the fundamental regularities and constants of physics…must all have values that together fall into an extremely narrow range. The probability of this perfect calibration happening by chance is so tiny as to be statistically negligible. (p.134)
The first problem with this argument is that it asserts that it is possible to calculate the probabilities associated with a whole host of natural phenomena which it is in fact impossible to calculate because, for any calculation of such probabilities, you would have to know the total number of possible outcomes. But we cannot know that.
Exactly how many other ways can the constants of physics in the universe be combined to produce variant results which are still favorable to life? Do we know that has not in fact happened trillions of times before, only just this time producing the right combinations to bring about matter, gravity, and organic life? Statistical models need controls in order to be meaningful. We have no such things available to us in this case, which makes this an Argument from Meaningless Statistics.
The anthropocentrism of this argument strikes me as highly hypocritical coming from a religious tradition so obsessed with calling everyone else egocentric. Doesn’t it stand to reason that, regardless of causation (accidental or purposive), the only way we could be here discussing these things is if the universe we inhabit had all the necessary conditions to produce our existence? For this, I know no better counterargument than the one put forth by Douglas Adams years ago, his analogy of the puddle:
This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’
I took a shot at this topic in my response to the Wall Street Journal article entitled “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” In my response, I borrowed yet another analogy, this time from The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins in which he showed that some scenarios strike us as impossible which are not at all.
Dawkins imagined a card game in which each player is dealt 13 cards only to discover that each player acquired all 13 of his own cards in the same suit. This would seem to us so highly improbable as to be nearly impossible, leading us to think this must have happened on purpose. But in reality the chances of that happening are exactly identical to any and every other combination of hands you could possibly calculate.
In other words, the appearance of design which we see when we look out into the universe tells us more about ourselves and our own egocentric way of seeing things than it does about the universe itself. We can’t seem to stop projecting ourselves onto the universe until it seems designed exactly for us, but that’s getting our reasoning backwards.
The Argument from Regularity
This argument, if it can be called an argument, asserts that the presence of regularity in the universe (e.g. laws of physics, math) necessitates that behind it all there must be a God—an Intelligent Designer if you will. I’m not sure why this was included as a separate argument since it’s merely an extension of the ones before it. For Keller, the presence of natural laws means that a person must exist who made them happen.
I’m at a loss for why this ever seemed so persuasive to me. Why exactly does regularity require that a person is behind it all? No one ever demonstrates why that’s a necessity. Perhaps it’s really a variation of the Unmoved Mover argument, but I find it so weak I can’t justify spending much time responding to it.
The Argument from Wishing
Leaning heavily on C.S. Lewis—as Keller often does throughout his apologetic works—this argument says that because we want more from the world than we get, there must be another world where we finally get it. It’s a terrible argument, even if Switchfoot did make it sound appealing for a while. Keller puts it this way:
Isn’t it true that innate desires correspond to real objects that can satisfy them, such as sexual desire…physical appetite…tiredness…and relational desires?
Doesn’t the unfulfillable longing evoked by beauty qualify as an innate desire? We have a longing for joy, love, and beauty that no amount or quality of food, sex, friendship, or success can satisfy. We want something that nothing in this world can fulfill. Isn’t that at least a clue that this “something” that we want exists? (p.139)
First of all, no…wishing a thing is true doesn’t make it so. Does the fact that we don’t want to die in any way prove that we are not supposed to? I have always wanted to fly. Does that mean I am supposed to expect wings? Isn’t this yet another example of taking ourselves and our own desires and building our concept of the world around ourselves in such a way that we—and our own felt psychological needs—are at the center of it?
Far from presenting a persuasive case for the existence of the Christian God, these lines of reasoning illustrate how fundamental psychological projection is to religion. Here we have an entire enterprise so perfectly crafted around the human psyche that it fits us as well as the clothes that we wear. It never occurs to us that the clothes are made to fit us, and not vice versa.
When we experience wonder and beauty that overwhelm us, our cognitive faculties break down and our emotions take over. It’s a wonderful experience, and I wouldn’t ever want to live without it. But just because there are things in the world which strike us as beautiful, that doesn’t mean there have to be deities. If you really want to go there, you will have to allow that the presence of terrible, ugly things in the world makes the opposite case, that there cannot be a God. That’s the unintended consequence of the argument from beauty. It’s a knife that cuts both ways, if you’re being consistent, that is.
Preaching to the Choir
Arguments like these illustrate how much apologetics relies on personal sentiment. If you’re already inclined to accept the claims of the Christian faith, each of these arguments will resonate with something inside you. I know this because I remember once responding favorably to these ideas myself.
But for those of us who have left (and even more so for those who never subscribed to these beliefs), these arguments are untenably weak and unpersuasive. They help those who already believe feel validated, but they’re not so useful for changing the minds of those not already so inclined.
Apologetics isn’t for the lost, it’s for the saved. It exists to convince believers they are not being foolish for believing what they do.
— Neil Carter (@godlessindixie) June 24, 2014
After making these points, Keller goes on in Chapter 8 to give a fifth argument which I will call The Argument from Misunderstanding How Natural Selection Works. I’d like to devote a separate post to that one, but you’ll hear it brought up during one of the times I was a guest host on The Atheist Experience (link to that here). About 23 minutes in, we get introduced to the Famous Hamish. Reposting here also as a regular reminder to myself that, over a certain age, guys really shouldn’t keep coloring their hair.
[Image Source: StudyCentersOnline]
(Other Posts in this Series)
- Introduction: “Revisiting Tim Keller’s The Reason for God“
- Chapter One: “Christian History, Revised“
- Chapter Two: “The Problem of Evil in The Reason for God“
- Chapter Three: “Straw Skepticism and The Reason for God“
- Chapter Four: “Whitewashing Christian History in The Reason for God“
- Chapter Five: “The Evolution of Hell in The Reason for God“
- Chapter Six: “Believing in Evolution, But Not Too Much“
- Bonus: “What’s Wrong with Asking for a Miracle?“
- Chapter 7: “For the Bible Tells Me? No.“
- Intermission: “Changing Gods Midstream“
- Chapter 8: “Four (Bad) Reasons for God“
- Bonus: “The Argument from Misunderstanding Evolution“
- Chapter 9: “Tim Keller and the Argument from Morality“
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