Saturday, January 21, 2012

Notes on "Contending for the Truth" (Pt. 10)

[Series explanation and index here.]


The Existence of God
a talk by Ravi Zacharias


Zacharias reads Nietzsche's famous Parable of the Madman which beautifully expresses the feeling of losing what was once the central point that made sense of life. More specifically, Nietzsche seems to have been alleging that his contemporary society had done something which would — in time — lead to a fundamental shift away from the living theism of the past. Perhaps the rise of modern science or even German biblical criticism is what he had in mind; both have certainly inflicted grave wounds on the public assumption of theism in Europe.

Another way to read this parable is to conclude, as Zacharias does, that "the implications of a godless universe" are grim. I would suggest this imagery is more about the shock of changing worldviews than about life without theistic belief in general.

Atheism & Morality

The first of three philosophical problems of atheism, according to Zacharias, is the impossibility of morality without a moral law giver.

Now, I do grant the fact that atheists disagree quite a bit about the nature of morality. But then so do theists! Some theists say moral rightness is whatever God commands. Others say moral rightness is consistency with whatever God's nature is. An especially popular theistic theory of morality these days is that moral rightness is what is commanded by a loving God.

See the shift from arbitrary power to the concept of love? From here, it would be a small step to say moral rightness is what a loving person — with a grasp of relevant facts — would do without being commanded.

This is one plausible way of understanding morality without invoking God.

I suppose an apologist could say, "You atheists aren't doing what is morally right, you're just being loving to others!" But that wouldn't play quite as well to certain audiences as the way Zacharias associates atheistic morality with baby raping in this talk. Yes, he does that. It reminds me of how William Lane Craig in Reasonable Faith associates atheism with Nazi vivisections of pregnant women, before he gets around to arguing for the existence of God. This is called poisoning the well, a rhetorical tactic intended to make fair discussion impossible from the outset.

Atheism & Meaning

It is apparently of great importance to some people that the human species was created on purpose, and that each individual person has a life-task assigned by God. I've played enough task-oriented vs. open-ended videogames to understand the comfort of strict direction and the unease — at first — of finding one's own tasks.

Atheism, according to Zacharias, "takes you out of the realm of meaning." It really only takes a person out of the realm of certain kinds of meaning. It does not remove, e.g. the life-meaning found in developing friendships, in learning about the world, and in raising children.

If we look back to Nietzsche's parable, it's important to notice that life still goes on. Carl Sagan left us with prose poetry along similar lines, which I heartily recommend: A Universe Not Made For Us.

Atheism & Hope

Atheism supposedly offers "no hope" because it doesn't feature an afterlife. That's an amazing statement to make right after a talk about how God will put most people in Hell forever with no hope of relief.

Would it be nice to live a good life forever? Certainly! But it doesn't follow that we can reject a worldview just because it lacks this amenity.

Positive Argument #1: Contingency

Quoting Dallas Willard, Zacharias claims:
"However concrete physical reality is sectioned up, the result will be a state of affairs which owes its being to something other than itself."1
This flagrantly begs the question against physicalism. Sure, if we assume physical reality is explained by something else, then we can safely conclude that something besides physical reality exists.

We could even agree that something besides physical reality exists and not grant that a supernatural person exists, because it is possible that the natural world itself extends beyond the sort of things studied by physics.

So we have a non-argument against physicalism, when an irrefutable knock-down argument against physicalism would still fail to show there is a God.

Positive Argument #2: Finite Series of Causes

From Willard again:
"[E]very physical state, no matter how inclusive, has a necessary condition in some specific type of state which immediately precedes it in time and is fully existent prior to the emergence of the state which it conditions."
Zacharias lays out the implication, "You cannot have an infinite series of causes in time, because if you had to have the infinite series of causes it would never have arrived at this moment."

There are at least two difficulties with this argument. First, it confuses the nature of finite and infinite quantities. For any particular event in an infinite past, there would be a way to "get here from there." I believe the intuition here is that you can't construct an infinite series from a non-infinite series by adding one item, then another, and so on. So it sounds to me like a hidden assumption of a finite past is being brought in conflict with the question of an infinite past.

Second, the philosophy and science of causation in time is not — to my knowledge — a remotely settled matter, especially when it comes to the cosmological issues under question here.

Positive Argument #3: Design.

Zacharias briefly touches on the argument from design by citing cosmological fine-tuning: the apparent fact that certain values in physics have to be precisely right for a world like ours to be possible.

The chief problem I have with fine-tuning arguments is that they rely on the assumption that not having a good natural explanation of these values today means there isn't a good natural explanation to be found tomorrow. Scientific discovery often turns up new questions without immediate answers. It may even be a religious disservice to insert God wherever humans are currently ignorant, then shoo God back into the darkness whenever we figure something out.

Positive Argument #4: Gospel.

Basically, the words and deeds of Jesus resonate with people in a way that demonstrates (to Christians) that he could have only been divine.

I've noticed that Muslims tend to feel the same way about the Qur'an. Mormons have spoken to me about the witness of the Holy Spirit in their heart when they read their relatively new scriptures. Having positive feelings about one's own religion is not a reliable indicator of truth.

...

So is there a God? I don't know. The evidence appears consistent with both atheism and deism. Choosing between these positions seems to be a matter of personal philosophy in the face of insufficient evidence either way.

On the other hand, I'm quite sure there isn't a God who is interested in everyone responding to him in some appropriate way. Such a God would have the motive, intelligence, and power to unmistakably communicate his desire to all human beings. Since this has not happened, such a God does not exist.


1. I found the quote here: http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=42

5 comments:

  1. "The chief problem I have with fine-tuning arguments is that they rely on the assumption that not having a good natural explanation of these values today means there isn't a good natural explanation to be found tomorrow."

    I guess a theist could reply: "Why should I rely on the assumption that all phenomena have natural explanations, isn’t that at least equally dogmatic?" Moreover, I don’t think it’s necessary to assume that there can be no natural expalation to be found in this case, a theist might say something like: "I don’t say that good natural explanation is impossible and I’m ready to change my mind after someone finds one, but for now the evidence points to theism rather than naturalism".
    It seems to me that such objection can be valid only if you’re ready to show that there are good reasons to assume that every single phenomenon has some good natural explanation to be discovered, and yet you don’t seem to believe that. And anyway, wouldn’t it be more fair to say that’s the chief problem with all theistic arguments (with the possible exception of the ontological one) rather than only with the fine-tuning argument?

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  2. Tomasz,

    It seems to come down to this: what do we do when we have something unexplained? It sounds like we both agree that we shouldn't say, "We don't have an explanation, therefore we do have an explanation!" In other words, we shouldn't play God-of-the-gaps or naturalism-of-the-gaps.

    At least, we shouldn't expect others to go along with these philosophical inclinations. I personally do tend toward naturalism-of-the-gaps, but I don't fault people who personally lean the other direction. Maybe it's not such an intellectual fault to jump to conclusions, so long as we realize when we're doing so.

    Is jumping to the conclusion of God a common factor in nearly all theistic arguments? Maybe. But some jumps are larger than others. Merely having something unexplained by current science is a pretty big jump to God. If we had a thoroughly unmistakable example of superhuman foreknowledge accompanied by a claim of divine authorship, then — all else being equal — it would be a much smaller jump to God as opposed to alien tricksters or something like the Gnostics' demiurge.

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  3. Garren,

    You wrote: It seems to come down to this: what do we do when we have something unexplained? It sounds like we both agree that we shouldn't say, "We don't have an explanation, therefore we do have an explanation!" In other words, we shouldn't play God-of-the-gaps or naturalism-of-the-gaps.

    I actually think there is little symmetry between GOTG and NOTG. While finding a good natural explanation usually takes much effort and can never be ad hoc, a theistic explanation is always there to be picked immediately. One can always say: "There must be some kind of very powerful personal being that wants it to be exactly this way and uses its power to make it happen". So we practically never have an situation when we can say "We don't have any explanation for this puzzling phenomenon, neither natural nor theistic". Theistic explanations seem to be irredeemably ad hoc and this is one of the few reasons I don't think they can really compete with natural ones.

    At least, we shouldn't expect others to go along with these philosophical inclinations. I personally do tend toward naturalism-of-the-gaps, but I don't fault people who personally lean the other direction.

    Well, I tend towards naturalism-of-the-gaps too, but I'd also fault people for leaning the other direction, to put it provocatively.

    Is jumping to the conclusion of God a common factor in nearly all theistic arguments? Maybe. But some jumps are larger than others. Merely having something unexplained by current science is a pretty big jump to God.

    Jumping from "some puzzling phenomenon has no natural explanation" to "there can be no natural explanation" and "a theistic explanation must be true" would be a clear example of ad ignorantiam fallacy, but I don't think people who defend usual theistic arguments actually commit it (well, at least academic philosophers). It seems like it's usually something more like "we have searched for a natural explanation for long enough to suspect there is none", so it's rather a kind of ex silentio reasoning.
    But anyway, all those arguments have a premise in the form of "current science cannot explain x (consciousness/religious experience/irreducible complexity/miracles/objective moral facts/origin of the universe/general orderliness of the universe and so on) and a conclusion in the form of "God did it". I seems to me that the jump in the case of the fine-tuning is no bigger.
    Back to your beef with the fine-tuning arguments: I don't think it's a good idea to criticize people for not taking into account what you perceive to be the future state of knowledge, unless you have some good argument supporting your view of the future. But it's not necessary to assume that all phenomena have some natural explanations to be found to show there's something wrong with theistic explanations anyway.

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  4. Tomasz,

    What I'm hearing is that there's a big difference between not having a natural explanation then finding a natural explanation…compared to not having a theistic explanation then finding a theistic explanation. In the first case, there is a significant change from not having to having an explanation. In the second case, no definite change actually occurs; theistic explanations have pretty much the same nature as the lack of explanations.

    Is that about right? If so, I would contend that it's easy to think of theistic explanations as being a hopeless category of explanation, but only because they have such a poor track record. Theistic explanations could be quite strong if God were more talkative, for example.

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  5. Garren,

    You're absolutely right, theistic explanation surely would not be hopeless in the case of, say, something like universal, direct, unambiguous divine revelation. I only meant that theistic explanations are hopeless when it comes to the puzzling phenomena we actually encounter, not hopless in principle. I wasn't clear about that.

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