How to Answer Theist Arguments

A seminar series for atheists and freethinkers

Note: This page has not been kept up-to-date. The arguments have been developed further since it was posted, especially in the 2007 NY Times bestseller God: The Failed Hypothesis.

A seminar series held in 2002 for atheists, freethinkers and their guests sponsored by the Boulder Atheists, Atheists and Freethinkers of Denver, Freeethinkers of Colorado Springs, and Atheists of Northern Colorado. The goal of the series was to provide nonbelievers with arguments, on a high intellectual plane, that can be use to counter the standard arguments of believers. These counter arguments could be used in personal conversations with theists or in writing thoughtful letters to the editor.

The seminars were presented by Vic Stenger, Ph. D, Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Hawaii and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, University of Colorado. Biography.


Introduction


This is not meant to be a course in the Philosophy of Religion. I am an experimental physicist by training and experience and think like an experimental physicist. For reasons I will explain, scientific responses to theist arguments can be among the most powerful. Furthermore, theists themselves are relying increasingly on science to make their case. They have discovered a receptive audience among laypeople who usually lack the training to examine scientific claims critically but have a deep respect for scientific authority. Recasting traditional beliefs in scientific language gives them greater credibility in the minds of many.

In books on the Philosophy of Religion you will find discussions on the arguments for the existence of God that go back to Plato and Aristotle. If you want a short, clear introduction, I recommend The God of Philosophy by Ray Jackson, a paperback that can be ordered from www.philosophers.co.uk/religion. This site has much useful material on the subject. I also recommend the Secular Web at www.infidels.org for many links to philosophical arguments against theism. Other useful links are given below.

The arguments you will hear from theist acquaintances or read in letters to the editor were more likely learned from church sermons and religious media than in a secular university class room. They are based more on "common sense" than deep logic and objective scholarship and usually presented as obvious conclusions--"self-evident" truths. However, sometimes they may also be based on the more sophisticated arguments of theistic philosophers and theologians. We will cover those one hears most often these days, where science play a much larger role in the discussion than it has in the past.

Theist arguments are usually presented in logical form. Initial statements are made that constitute the premises. Then, conclusions are deduced from these premises. We may question both the premises and the deductions made from those premises. The deductive process, in this case, is usually simple logic that anyone can follow and, by itself, is often not in error. However, even when the logic is impeccable, the conclusions rise or fall on the premises. Pure logic cannot say anything about the world outside our heads, and not much about what's inside either. Many of the tradition arguments for the existence of God, like the ontological argument, are ostensibly based on logic alone. But they still have premises that can be and have been challenged.

Even well-trained theistic philosophers will often declare their premises to be self-evidently true. However, if an argument is meant to support a statement about reality, then the premise must be based on some knowledge of that reality. Traditionally, revelation via scriptures or direct religious experience is asserted as the source of such knowledge. Science, on the other hand, while not denying revelation outright, uses only observations and measurements as its base of knowledge. While it may be argued whether the scientific theories that are developed from its empirical knowledge base have anything to do with ultimate reality, the great success of science makes a strong case that science does indeed deal with reality. Furthermore, since religion does make claims that have observational implications, such as the power of prayer, scientific method can be used to test these claims.

I will not present the arguments and responses in a formal way. Rather, I will envisage analogues between a theist (T) and antitheist (A) which summarizes in a few words the essence of each's position. I will try not to use the theist as a strawperson, but present his arguments as they are fequently heard. During the seminar sessions we will analyze and expand upon these dialogues. If new arguments arise, or better responses to these arguments are generated, these will be incorporated on this Web page.

Note on the burden of proof: A common debating ploy used by theists is to try to cast the burden of proof of the antitheist, asking her to "prove" that God does not exist or to "prove" that the universe is purely  material. When that happens, be sure to cast the burden back on the theist. Remember that he is making the more extraordinary claim--that an unseen power exists that created the universe and responds to human needs.

Comments invited. Mailto:vstenger@mindspring.com.


Seminar I. Design in the Cosmos


T: Where did the universe come from?
A: Why did it have to come from anything?
T: Everything has to come from something.
A: Then, you tell me. Where did the universe came from?
T: The universe came from God.
A: Where did God come from?
T: God did not have to come from anything. He always was.
A: Then everything does not have to come from something after all. Perhaps the universe always was.

T: Philosopher William Lane Craig has argued that the universe had a beginning, therefore it must have had a cause. That cause is God.
A: Quantum events can happen without cause. Perhaps our universe was a quantum event in a larger universe that always was.
T: You have no evidence for this.
A: You have no evidence against it. Current physics and cosmology allow for such a scenario.

T: How could this happen? Where did the matter and energy of the universe come from?
A: Matter was created from energy in the early universe. Observations indicate that the positive energy of matter is exactly balanced by negative gravitational potential energy. Thus, the total energy of the universe is zero and no energy (or very little--just the amount allowed by quantum mechanics) was required to produce the universe.

T: Where did the order of the universe come from?
A: It could have been produced spontaneously by natural processes of a type that are now beginning to be understood in physics. One such process is called "spontaneous symmetry breaking." It's like the formation of a snowflake.

T: Still, the second law of thermodynamics says that disorder, or entropy, must increase with time. It must have started out more orderly than it is now, as created by God.
A: An expanding universe allows increasing room for order to form. The universe could have started as a tiny black hole with maximum entropy, produced by a quantum fluctuation, and then exploded in the big bang.
T: You can't prove that. No one was there to see it.
A: You can't disprove it. Such a scenario is allowed by current scientific knowledge.

T: Many prominent scientists don't think the big bang happened. What does that do to your scenario?
A: The data from cosmological observ ations, which has improved enormously in just the last few years, has left no doubt among current working cosmologists that the big bang happened. The remaining holdouts are a few older astronomers who are gradually dying out. They are like some nineteenth century chemists and physicists who refused to accept the atomic theory to their dying days. Furthermore, the big bang is used by theists such as Craig and Hugh Ross to support their theologies. It does not, but I caution atheists not to argue against theism by saying the big bang did not occur. It very definitely did.

T: But isn't the universe fine tuned for life? Isn't it true that the slightest change of any one of a number of physics constants would make life impossible? Is this not evidence for a universe intelligently designed for life?
A: The universe is not fine tuned for life. Life is fine tuned for the universe. If we had a universe with different constants, we might have a different kind of life.
T : Doesn't life require carbon, which would not exist without a delicate balance of nuclear parameters?
A: Our kind of life, yes. We do not know about other kinds of life.
T: You can't prove that life is possible without carbon.
A: I do not have the burden of proof here. You are making the claim that only one kind of life is possible, carbon-based life. You have to prove that. I am simply saying that we do not know and so cannot say the universe is designed for life as we know it. It could have been an accident. Nothing in current science says that is impossible,

T: So, even if everything that happens is natural, as you claim, where did the laws of nature come from?
A: The laws of nature are misnamed. They are not necessarily rules that govern the universe, that sit out there in some kind of Platonic reality. They could just as well simply be human inventions, descriptions we have made of observations.
T: Then they are subjective. We can all make our own laws.
A: Not quite. We can make up different laws if we want, but they are not scientific unless they agree with observations. The laws of physics can be written in many different ways, but they agree so well with the data that we are confident they describe aspects of reality.
T: Well, then where did those aspects of reality come from, if not from God?
A: Why did they have to come from anything? But, that's how we started this discussion.

T: Still, you have to explain why there is something rather than nothing.
A: Define nothing.
T: Nothing. No thing. No matter, no energy, no space, no time, no laws of physics.
A: No God?
T: God is a separate entity who created matter, energy, space, time and the laws of physics from nothing.
A: I won't ask you again who created God. Rather, why was it necessary for the universe to have come from nothing?
T: It had to come from something.
A: But you just said it came from nothing!


Seminar II. Design on Earth


T: Do you really believe that you are descended from a monkey?
A: No. I  believe the evidence indicates that monkeys, humans, elephants, worms, peas, and all other known forms of life on earth descended from a common ancestor.
T: You can't prove that. No one saw it happen.
A: We cannot see everything with our eyes. Scientific data is accumulated in many other ways than visual observation. The existence of many identical DNA sections in all living things is very strong evidence for common descent.

T: What about all the scientists who don't believe in evolution?
A: All believe in some kind of change in the development of life on earth. Disagreements on details exist, and the theory has developed enormously since Darwin, so don't expect every detail to be unchanged from Darwin's time. The overwhelming majority of biologists regard the basic mechanism of evolution by natural selection as confirmed to a very high probability.
T: But, still, evolution is just a theory, not a fact.
A: It is both theory and, to a high degree of confidence, a fact as well. In science, theory is not equated with speculation. Established theories are made of hypotheses and deductions drawn from those hypotheses that are strongly supported by empirical evidence. Evolution by natural selection is as much a fact as gravity. Indeed, it is observed in nature and the laboratory. In a beautiful recent example, African elephants are evolving without tusks as those with tusks are killed for their ivory.
T: But only revolutionaries is observed. Macro evolution is not.
A: Define macro evolution. I would call elephant evolution macro!
T: Macro evolution is evolution of one species to another.
A: The evolution of species has been observed. See www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-speciation.html.
T: But no transitional forms have ever been found in fossils.
A: Transitional forms have been observed. See www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-transitional.html. Actually, every species is, in a sense, a transitional form.

T: If I find a watch, I can tell by looking at it that  it was designed by an intelligent being. When I look at a human organ, such as the eye, it also shows evidence for design.
A: True, the watch was intelligently designed. Human organs, on the other hand, are not like watches. They show definite signs that they evolved with a large element of chance. For example, the light receptors of the human eye point backwards! See The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins for details on the evolution of the eye, which apparently occurred several times independently. Furthermore, what competent engineer would place waste disposal systems in a recreation area?
T: Didn't the famous astronomer (and atheist) Fred Hoyle compute a very tiny probability for a bacterium to be assembled by chance? He said it is as if a tornado swept through a junkyard and assembled a 747.
A: Yes. His estimate was one part in ten raised to the 40,000 power. But bacteria did not evolve by chance processes alone but by chance and natural selection. Hawking's books show how natural selection greatly improves the odds for functioning organisms to evolve.

T: Biochemist Michael Bethe has shown that certain biochemical systems are irreducibly complex and so could not have evolved. In these systems, if you take away one part they no longer function, so the parts could not have evolved separately. One example is the bacterial flagellum.
A: Evolutionists have shown the errors in Bethe's reasoning. He neglected to account for the well-known fact that the functions of biological parts can change as evolution proceeds. Thus a part can evolve having one function, and then develop a new one as it becomes part of another system. For critiques of Bethe, see Finding Darwin's God by Kenneth Miller (a Christian). Also, look at the website www.talkorigins.org/faqs/behe.html.  This has links to much more.

T: Darwinian evolution is only one scientific theory for the development of life on Earth. An alternative theory called intelligent design is equally good at explaining the data. Furthermore, this theory is superior to evolution because it shows mathematically that complex, specified information, such as contained in biological structures, cannot be generated by material processes alone.
A: The most prominent design theorist is theologian William Lambskins. Lambskins has a degree in mathematics but has published only one paper in a mathematical journal, not about intelligent design. Neither Lambskins nor others promoting intelligent design have published their theory in a scientific journal. From what has appeared in the lay media, intelligent design is not a theory on the par with evolution. It offers no alternative to evolution other than "Some powerful intelligent being did it." Design theorists insist that the "intelligent being" need not be God. Still, Dembski's book Intelligent Design is mostly theology, suggesting that his motive is to promote his religious beliefs rather than develop a scientific theory. Of course, he protests otherwise. Read the book for yourself and decide. In any case, Dembski makes fundamental technical errors in information theory and physics.His definition of information is not conventional. His definition of complex specified information is ambiguous. His "law of conservation of information" is provably incorrect. In his latest effort, No Free Lunch, he again misappropriates scientific results. As with his colleague Behe, many critiques can be found of Dembski's work. The following site contain links to essays on both sides of the subject: www.freethought-web.org/ctrl/intelligent-design.html. More material can be found in the links below.

T: The fact that intelligent design theory is not published in the scientific literature does not mean it is not science. The editors of scientific journals could be biased against it. In fact, Dembski's theory classifies as science because it is testable. He has proposed a filter that successfully picks out objects that we know are designed. Applying that filter to biological organisms, he shows that they are designed.
A: I am willing to allow for the sake of argument that intelligent design, in some aspects, is science. However, as I have indicated, it is bad science, indeed, provably wrong science in some instances. As for Dembski's filter, a scientific theory is not regarded as successfully tested when it simply agrees with already known empirical facts. When the filter tells us that a watch is designed and a rock is not, it is telling is nothing we did not already know. When the filter tells us that a mouse is designed, we cannot say whether this is correct or not based on other observations. Thus, it is incorrect to say that Dembski's filter is tested. The only way this can happen is if the filter makes some prediction that  is later empirically verified. For example, suppose the filter is applied to Moon rocks and identifies some stucture within one as designed. Geologists looking at the same structure say it was produced by natural processes. Then, sometime later after all all independent analyses have been published, we are visited by aliens who inform us that they had designed that particular Moon rock. Then Dembski's filter would pass the test.

T: Still, it is hard for me to imagine how the complexity of life could be all the result of purely material processes.
A: Perhaps that is just a failure of imagination. Let me ask you a question: Why do you object to evolution?
T: Actually, it is Darwinism I object to, which I take to mean the notion that all life evolved from its origin by purely material processes including a large element of chance. If that is the case, then humanity is an accident. This deeply conflicts with my religious faith which teaches that humans were put on Earth for a divine purpose.
A: You make several good points here. Many theists accept evolution as scientifically sound and compatible with their faith--the Catholic church, for example. But this does not mean they accept Darwinism as you have defined it--a definition, by the way, with which I agree. Evolution-theists still believe in some kind of God-guided evolution. For example, God had to step in a million years or so ago to make sure homo sapiens sapiens evolved they way he wanted. This is not Darwinism; it is a form of intelligent design. You are absolutely right that Darwinism conflicts with the belief that humanity is special. Some theologians have argued that humanity is just one of many different ways that God may fulfill his purposes. That cannot be ruled out, but it is hardly the traditional belief of the great monotheistic religions.
T: You are trying to invoke God as a "scientific explanation." This is not the way I view God. To me, God is continually sustaining the universe.
A: Yes, I understand the theology and am not saying that such a God is logically impossible. I am simply pointing out that whether God acts continually or lets things run along and just occasionally pokes in his finger, such actions are incompatible with Darwinism. Any God who plays an important role in the universe must prouce observable effects, and observations fall in the realm of science.


Seminar III. Claims of Evidence (a)


T: My belief in God is not based on blind faith. It is based on evidence. How can you deny the countless reports of miracles going back thousands of years?
A: They are all anecdotes. Anecdotal evidence alone is never sufficient. It must be supported by controlled experiments and observations.
T: But how can you explain all those reports?
A: Without details on the observations, I can only offer possible explanations.
T: OK, what are those?
A: Delusions, hallucinations, even outright lying and fraud.
T: You cannot prove any of these. And how unjust of you to accuse people of fraud without proof! Whatever happen to the principle that you are innocent until proven guilty?
A: That principle may be fine in a law court, but these are not legal questions but scientific ones. In science you are guilty until you prove yourself innocent. Besides, I made no accusations. I only said I was going to offer possible explanations. Fraud is one possible explanation among the others. That is the problem with anecdotal tales. Not enough data are available to determine the true explanation.
T: Then your possible explanations are no better than my equally possible explanation--that God enacted these miracles.
A: No, I disagree that your explanation is equally possible. My explanations are based on well-established facts: People have been known to be deluded, have hallucinations, and lie. These explanations are unexceptional and so must be ruled out before you can consider extraordinary explanations that are not based on well-established facts.
T: Well, many miracles are well-established facts. Take weeping icons and stigmata, for example. They have been witnessed by many people, including skeptics.
A: Yes, these phenomena have been observed by skeptics. But they are not miraculous. Natural explanations have been given and the effects dupicated by investigators. They could be honest psychological effects. Or, they could be faked. For example, go into a church early in the morning and rub some Mazola oil on a stained glass window, say on the face of the Virgin Mary. When the sun later shines through the window, the oil will warm and trickle down like tears. Other substances placed on statues in churches produce a similar effect, looking like tears or blood. As the church fills with worshippers, it warms and the substance melts. As for stigmatists, many have been discovered to wound themselves. For detailed explanations of these types of miracles, see Looking for a Miracle by Joe Nickell.

T: I understand that hundreds of scientific studies have been reported showing the health benefits of religious behavior.
A: These cannot be taken as evidence for the existence of God. They merely indicate that certain types of behavior can be good for you. Going to church may lower your blood pressure for a few hours, but so can many other, secular relaxation techniques.  What's more, much religious behavior is not beneficial. Many innocent children die each year because their parents rely on faith healing rather than modern medicine.
T: I heard of a study that showed that church-goers specifically are more healthy than non-church-goers.
A: I have heard of  such studies too. One failed to account for the fact that a lot of sick people are too immobile to go to church. When the authors later corrected for this, no differences were found.
T: Still, there are many such studies. There must be something to it.
A: Epidemiological studies are notoriously difficult to interpret because of all the so-called "confounding factors" that are not controlled for. Just because a correlation is observed, that does not mean a causal connection has been observed. For example, if a study revealed that people who carried around matches had a higher rate of lung cancer, that would not mean that matches cause lung cancer.

T: Evidence has been reported that prayer helps healing.
A: That can be explained by people feeling better because others care for them. Although, the data indicate that this does not work for mental patients and alcoholics, who seem to recover more slowly because of the stresses caused by family interference.
T: But carefully controlled studies have shown that prayer has healing power even when the patients do not know they are being prayed for.
A: There were two recent studies that made such a claim, but neither was statistically significant. Other studies, such as a larger recent one from the Mayo Clinic, have failed to confirm these claims.
T: You say they were not statistically significant, yet they were published in reputable medical journals.
A: Medical journals have a low publication threshold which may be suitable for their purposes of quickly disseminating information about possible therapies but are unsuitable for extraordinary claims.
T: Who are you to say they are unsuitable?
A: I am simply stating a fact. Let me make it precise. Medical journals, and those of other healing sciences such as psychology, typically allow a paper to be published if it has a statistical "p-value" of 5 percent or lower. At this level, 1 in every 20 experiments will report effects that are nothing more than statistical artifacts. Since only positive results are often reported, 19 similar experiments showing no effect could easily  be lying around unpublished for every one that is published. By contrast, in my field of physics the typical p-value threshold in 0.01 percent. That is, of every 10,000 experiments where there is no real effect, only 1 (on average) will be published. No
claim is made about the proportion of experiments that are published with p<=0.0001 where the effects are real. Moreover, no new phenomenon is accepted until it is independently replicated several times with the same quantitative effect size. This has not happened for prayer or other alternative therapies. Even when replication is reported, you will find it does not duplicate exactly the results being claimed, often referring to a totally different observation. The science here is very bad and undeserving of so much attention.

T: I don't see how the prayer studies can prove anything anyway. How could you ever control that a patient is not prayed for? The Pope prays daily for the ill.
A: I agree that a negative result can be explained away in this fashion. But you raised the argument that the efficacy of prayer provides evidence for the existence of God. I agree that, in principle, the existence of a supernatural power who answers prayers could be demonstrated by a well-designed experiment that produces a huge effect that cannot be explained naturally. This has not happened.
T: OK, but if even if the absence of convincing evidence is a fact, it does not prove that God does not exist.
A: True, but you would think that with the billions of prayers that have been made over thousands of years, we would by now have some evidence that they work. This seems to be a pretty good indication that a God who answers prayers is highly unlikely to exist. And, of course, it says nothing about a god who does not answer prayers.

T: What about psychic phenomena? I read that the existence of ESP is now solidly confirmed. Does this not indicate that the human mind is more than a purely material phenomenon of the brain, that "spiritual forces" beyond matter exist?
A: This claim is incorrect. ESP is far from confirmed. Like the prayer studies mentioned above, no ESP report meets the standards for the acceptance of a new phenomena that are conventional in physics and other "hard" sciences.
T: But the ESP reports are published in peer-reviewed journals.
A: Yes, but almost all of these journals are produced by believers and the "peers" who do the reviewing are also believers. Few reports of ESP have been published in reputable journals which utilize a wider selection of peer reviewers. Those reports that have managed to get published in top scientific journals like Nature have all been refuted in those same journals.

T: What about the results from Princeton in which the mind has been shown to affect the output of a random number generator? They have a a very low p-value. And, they have been replicated.
A: These results have never been independently replicated at the same effect size, which is extremely tiny. Such a small effect can be produced by any number of plausible systematic errors and their experiment has many flaws that the investigators refuse to correct.

T: In his book The Conscious Universe, Dean Radin reports a meta-analysis of many ESP experiments which shows that, while none themselves may be significant, taken together they comprise a body of data that establishes the reality of the phenomenon beyond the shadow of a doubt.
A: Meta-analysis is notoriously unreliable because it is so sensitive to how it is done. Garbage in, garbage out. Besides, Radin's meta-analysis method has been proven to be in error.


Seminar IV. Claims of Evidence (b)

T: Science is supposed to rely on empirical evidence. What about the empircal evidence of religious experience? Throughout history to the present day, individuals have experienced the existence of a transcendent power during prayer or meditation. They insist that what they experiences was no a simple dream but a real oneness with the universe.
A: Why should we believe them?
T: Are you saying they are lying?
A: No, in most cases they are probably not lying. But it still could be all in their heads.
T: They are witnesses, just like the witnesses in a law court. We base legal judgements on the testimony of witnesses, why can't we base scientific judgements on the same?
A: Many studies have shown the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. I, for one, would never convict someone of a crime based on eyewitness testimony alone. It has to be supported by physical evidence, like DNA. Since DNA testing, many convicted people have been found innocent.
T: Let's get back to the relgious experience. Physical evidence has been found, in brain scans, which show that something unique happens in the brain during religious experiences.
A: Yes, and  they have even been induced by electromagnetic pulses in the brain. As I said, it could be, and indeed looks as if, it's all in the head. The mystic never returns from his or her trance with information that could not have been there all along. Why don't they come back with predictions that can be tested? Not a single psychic or mystic predicted the 9/11 tragedies (though many may claim so after the fact).

T: What about out-of body experiences (OBE)? I have heard of a controlled experiment where a woman lying on a table was able to read numbers on a shelf above her head, not visible from the table. She said she floated above her body and read them.
A: I know of that experiment. It turned out that she could see the numbers reflected from the glass of a wall clock.
T: Dr.Larry Dossey has documented many cases of OBEs and other evidence for spiritual claims in his best-selling books. In one case, he reports that a blind woman floated up out of her body during surgery and was able to read the name tags of the medical staff in an adjoining room.
A: Dossey admits he made up that story.

T: And, how about Near Death Experiences (NDE)? People have been revived after being clinically dead and talked about seeing a light at the end of the tunnel and a very general, pleasant experience that has convinced them not to fear death, that there is a world beyond.
A: First, they were probably never really "dead" or else they would not have been resucitated. And, as in OBE, they bring back no revelations that can be later tested. The "light at the end of the tunnel" is a common experience of oxygen deprivation and observed in the laboratory, such as in high-g centrifuge tests of jet pilots.

T: You spoke earlier about predictions. I agree that predictions are a major way to test scientific theories. Well, the Bible and other scriptures have their predictions too, called prophecies. Many authors have documented their success. Take one example: hundreds of Old Testament prophecies foresaw the coming of Jesus.
A: Prediction is meaningless when they are made after the fact.  How do you know that the stories in the New Testament were simply written to conform to those in the Old Testiment?
T: The New Testament stories are not inventions, they are facts confirmed by witnesses.
A: Witnesses, right. What about the all the prophecies that never happened, like Jesus telling his disciples that he will return to Earth and establish his kingdom before all of them were dead? But let us not get off into the endless debate on the Bible. I want to stick to science. In science a prediction has to be made ahead of time, before the predicted event happens. And, it has to be risky. Not a simple triviality such as "The sun will come up tomorrow." Risky predictions have been successfully made thousand of times in science, not once in religion.

T: What about the Bible Code? Michael Drosin was able to predict the assasination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin including the year it would happen. He and others have found many other predictions coded in the Bible.
A: Statistics experts have shown the the skip-sequence method they used will produce many apparent correlations by chance. They have shown similar concordances in other long books beside the Bible, such as Moby Dick and War and Peace. Drosnin's Rabin prediction was very vague and not very risky. given the violence in the Middle East. It was not published until after the fact and he admits that the date prediction was made while "Israel mourned Rabin."
T: But they quote very high odds against chance, thousands to one.
A: These calculations have been shown to be wrong. The fail to account for the data selection that was done in their analyses.


Seminar V. Logical/philosophical/historical/moral arguments.


T: I have heard theologians argue that God exists because he necessarily exists.
A: Why necessarily?
T: As St. Anselm explained, things that exist in reality must be greater than things that exist in the mind. So, the fact that we can conceive of an all-perfect being means that such a being, even more perfect than we can imagine, has to exist.
A: I can imagine a perfect pizza. Does that mean that a perfect pizza exists?
T: You can always make a better pizza, but you can never make a better God.
A: But how does any of this make God necessary?
T: Let me present the argument as a series of propositions:
    1. The existence of God is not a logical contradiction;
    2. If God exists, he must exist necessarily;
    3. Therefore God must exist.
A: Let me present an alternative series of propositions:
     1. The non-existence of God is not a logical contradiction;
     2. If God does not exist, he does not exist necessarily;
     3. Therefore God does not exist.

T: Let us look at the world around us. Everything that exists was caused to exist by something else. Someplace that chain of causes must end. God, is by definition, the First Cause, Uncaused.
A: Not everything is caused, but let me not get into that but rather accept your first statement as a working assumption. Why does the First Cause have to be God? Why can't it be the universe itself?
T: You can't show me how the universe caused itself.
A: You can't show me how God caused the universe.

T: What about morality? God must exist as the source of morality.
A: Humanity could be the source.
T: But, then, morality is relative. Everyone can do what they want.
A: Humans societies have developed of moral rules and expect their members to conform as part of the price paid for the benefits of society. Everyone cannot do what they want.
T: Those rules have arisen out of religion.
A: That is a questionable historical assertion. Religions may have adopted them from society. In any case, even if some moral notions were introduced by religious leaders, that does not mean their origin is supernatural.

T: Justice is another concept that could not exist without God.
A: Where in the Bible can you find justice, democracy, human rights or other enlightened social concepts?
T: Noble ideas such as truth, justice, beauty, love are spiritual. They cannot have arisen out of matter alone.
A: You have too low an opinion of matter. How do you know it is not capable of such achievements?

T: Why would so many people down through the ages believe if it weren't true?
A: Many  people down through the ages believed the earth was flat.

T: How can one possibly be happy without religion, without life after death?
A: By ridding themselves of self-love. Religion is supposed to teach humility but, except for Buddhism, most teach that humans are special creatures destined to live forever. These religions thus thrive on human arrogance and self-centeredness. I submit that people would be happier if they tossed off their fantasies and lived their lives as individuals free from any imaginary strings hanging down from heaven.

T: But why not practice religion anyway? You have everything to gain if it that belief is right and nothing to lose if it is wrong.
A: That's called Pascal's wager. I have my self-respect to lose. And would a just God prefer to be joined in paradise by an honest, brave person who believed what his eyes and reason told him about reality or a dishonest, cowardly one who did whatever was necessary to gain immortality?


Seminar VI. Non-overlapping magesteria.


T: In his book Rocks of Ages, Stephen Jay Gould claims that science and religion are two "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA) and so should have no conflict. Science deals with observations of the material world while religion deals with "spiritual" matters, in particular, moral behavior.
A: Gould has redefined religion as what is normally called "ethical philosophy." That would be fine if it were what most religions practiced. But they do not. They make claims in which God or other transcendent powers exist as part of objective reality that have over-riding control over all events. The resulting phenomena should be observable by science. The fact that they are not makes a strong case that such powers do not exist.

T: Science is just another religion, anyway. It accepts things on faith just like religious people.
A: There is a big difference. Science does not accept things on faith, if by faith you mean the acceptance of a belief despite the absence of evidence.
T: Science accepts the scientific method on faith.
A: On the contrary, scientists believe that the scientific method works because of its track record of success. That's is a belief based on evidence.
T: Science can be just as dogmatic as religion.
A: Individual scientists may be dogmatic on occasion, but dogmatism is the very antithesis of science. Scientists must commit themselves to accepting whatever the data say, even when it contradicts their own pet theories. There is no apologetics in science, as there is in theology, where unquestioned presumptions are made and then explanations sought to make the data conform to those presumptions.

T: I do not see why science and religion cannot live side-by-side.
A: Surely they can, and have done so for centuries. However, if theists are going to make statements such as "there is ample scientific evidence that God exists" or try to force sectarian beliefs to be taught as science, then scientists have a right to enter into the discussion and examine the arguments critically. If the data indicated that God exists, then scientists would accept it. The data so far do not. If a sectarian belief was at the same time good science, then scientists would teach it in class. No such belief has yet been found.



 

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Details on many of the arguments presented in the dialogues and references will be found in

Has Science Found God?
The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the Universe.

Published by Prometheus Books, 2003. 

Sample chapters and related work. Go here to read a discription of book.



The Wedge Strategy of the Center for Renewal of Science and Culture

Go here for a real eye-opener.


Links to Useful Resources on Web

The Skeptics Annotated Bible
The Skeptics Dictionary
Science or Myth? Resources
Biblical Errancy
Secular Web
Talk.Origins
Evolutionary Biology Resources
The Philosophers Magazine
 

Return to VJS Home Page where you will find links to much relevant additional material.