May 19, 2008
The end of god-14: Sleight-of-hand arguments for god
(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
When religious apologists like D'Souza appeal to Augustine's statement that the universe had a beginning as evidence that Christianity is right, they do not spell out the full implications of what they are saying because that would show the ridiculousness of the argument. If they really believe that Augustine's 'prediction' is not just a lucky guess but is really an argument in favor of god, that must mean they are saying that god whispered this revelation in his ear.
But if so, why is god so stingy with revealing information, only telling Augustine something that he had a fifty percent chance of guessing right anyway? Why didn't god tell him, way back in the 4th century, something that would have made for a truly spectacular prediction, such as that the universe is bathed in a cosmic microwave background radiation at a temperature of 2.7K? Why is it that every one of the 'predictions' of Augustine or the Bible that apologists point to is entirely consistent with what any person living at the time the Bible was written could have guessed at with high probability?
The fact that in the 21st century religious apologists are using such weak arguments in favor of religion is a sign of desperation.
The current use of arguments initially proposed by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century is another example of this. Aquinas is often quoted as the source of the 'first cause' argument, that every created thing must have a creator and that thus one can argue backwards to the existence of an ultimate creator.
Aquinas thought that by starting from the recognition of the distinction between what things are, their essences, and that they are, their existence, one could reason conclusively to an absolutely first cause which causes the existence of everything that is.
Thus Aquinas's ideas are the foundation of the new apologists' argument for a God of the Ultimate Gaps. But as I have argued, the theories of evolution and big bang cosmology have shown how complexity can naturally arise out of simplicity and thus that the fact that some things in nature appear to be created is just an illusion. So while the origins of the universe and of life still have no satisfactory answers, the chain of reasoning used by Aquinas to argue that they must have a creator is no longer valid. Aquinas' argument has ceased to be an argument in any meaningful sense of the word and become merely an ad hoc assumption.
A notable feature of the new apologetics is the use of sleight of hand arguments. One saw this on full display in the way John Lennox argued with Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion Debate. Lennox has impeccable academic credentials, and thus makes an ideal, sophisticated, religious apologist. He is a mathematician and philosopher of science, a Reader at Oxford University ('Reader' is a very senior academic rank in the British university system and equivalent to a full professor in the US), and a practicing Christian. He is not some third-tier pundit like D'Souza. He is a serious person so when he says that it was his study of science that brought him to Christianity, his arguments are worth listening to.
Lennox stated right at the beginning of the debate that the god he believed in was not a God of the Gaps. As I have said before, all sophisticated religious apologists now routinely make this disavowal because modern science has explained all the old gaps that earlier religious people had depended upon as evidence of god at work. Then for nearly the entire debate, Lennox argued on a highly sophisticated plane, arguing that science has not provided convincing answers to the big questions of how the universe was created and how the first life forms came into being. He also invoked the anthropic principle (that the universe seems to have just the right properties necessary for us to exist) as a further argument.
I have dealt with the flaws of anthropic principle argument before and will not repeat them here, except to quote physicist Bob Park who ridicules the anthropic principle (that "The fundamental parameters of the universe are such as to permit the creation of observers within it") saying, "I believe an equivalent wording would be: "If things were different, things would not be the way things are.""
What Lennox says about the unanswered big questions is, of course, true, and any atheist would concede that. He also argued that god was a possible explanation for these two unsolved problems and that there was no logical basis by which science could rule that explanation out. Of course any atheist would concede that point too. (He also suggested that since the Bible spoke of the world having a beginning, it could be said that the Bible predicted the big-bang theory. This is, of course, a common but worthless argument, as I have pointed out earlier with respect to Saint Augustine's similar 'prediction'.)
So throughout the debate, Lennox was arguing for the possibility of the existence of what I have called the God of the Ultimate Gaps, some non-sectarian, powerful, amorphous entity who acted just twice in all of time: who created at one instant the universe and its laws with just the right properties to produce the universe we have billions of years later, and at a later instant created the very first form of life to set evolution in motion, and then did nothing else at all after that. This is a logically defensible position, given our current state of knowledge, and one can understand why sophisticated apologists are fond of it.
Of course, such an argument does not really add anything to our knowledge. Can one think of anything more useless than invoking god to explain the unexplained, such as the origin of the universe or the creation of the first replicator? This is the basic problem with theology. As H. L. Mencken said, "Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing." (Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 560).
But as we will see in the next post, after to going to all this trouble to establish the logical possibility of the existence of the God of the Ultimate Gaps, sophisticated religious apologists abruptly switch arguments on you, hoping no one will notice.
POST SCRIPT: Weird videos
The BBC has compiled ten weird videos for the week, including a short clip of the robot Asimo conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.