Friday, 25 March, 2005

In the past few months, I've been hanging around on looking at the debates about the existance of God. A little more recently I've started to look at what the professional philosophers actually say on this issue and I've been suprised that the arguments put forward are not any more sophisticated than what is touted in these forumns.

So having pondered the question in some details, do I believe in that God exist? When asked this question I generally say no but in reality it's not really a question I can answer either way. The problem with God is there isn't a generally accepted definition of the word. While it is true that, in England at least, "God" generally invokes the image of the Christian God this is certainly not the only God theory put forward. Just take a look at the other religions out there and you'll see there is quite a lot of disagreement on what exactly God is. If we look through history we see the picture is even more diverse. Just to take one example of this diversity, compare the ideas behind the Greek Gods to ideas behing God as described in Christianity.

There are logical "proofs" that God exists but these all refer to the theistic belief that a God of somesort exists, not that a particular God as described in a religious text exists. So the question "Does an all powerful, all loving, all knowing being exist that created the universe?" is different from the question: "Does the Christian god exist?" since we can use the Christian texts as material for argument in the latter case but not in the former.

This is a key problem with the theist arguments I've seen. Suppose that someone managed to prove that the an all powerful, all loving God exists. How does someone get from that position of that knowledge to being able to show that that the description given in the Bible or the Koran or any other religious text follows from that definition? At the moment no-one is addressing this in the theistic community and this hurts everyone. It's my belief that true understanding of our own position is obtained through the critique of the counter position. In having no argument on this topic, I feel that nobody really understands it.

Consequently, my brief survey can only extend to the logical arguments proposed for the existance of a supreme being of some kind, rather than the being described in a particular religious text. There are many arguments for the existance of God but the most popular proposals are listed below.

  1. Ontological Argument
  2. Intelligent design
  3. First Cause
  4. Pascal's Wager (not really a proof but a justification)
  5. Transcendental Argument

There are problems with all of these except the Transcendental argument but as we'll see it isn't a proof in any real sense of the word. The rest can all be attacked in some way shape or form and in the remainder of this document I will show how each of these approaches fails and finish with a discussion of the Transcendental Argument.

So what is the Ontological argument? It goes something like this:

  1. We define God as the omnimax. By this we mean that this God is omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (knows everything) and omnibenevolent (always good) within the constraints of logic.
  2. I can imagine such a God existing in a imaginary, but possible, world.
  3. There are infinitely many possible worlds where such a God exists.
  4. I can concieve of a God that is omnimax in more than one world.
  5. We can say a particular God is "greater" than another God if it is omnimax in more possible worlds than the other God.
  6. I can imagine the idea of a "greatest" God which is omnimax in an infinite number of possible worlds.
  7. Our real world must be contained with this set of infinite possiblities.
  8. Therefore, God must exist in our universe.

A lot of this argument is logically correct. The key failing is in the seventh point as it is simply not true. There are an infinite number of even whole-numbers but being infinite doesn't make it contain all the numbers, as it can never contain any of the odd whole-numbers. Here's another slightly more advanced example, I can say quite correctly that zero perecent of the set of whole numbers are square numbers even though there are infinitely many examples of square numbers.

A modification a theist may make is to replace the sixth point with a definition that describes the greatest god as the God that is omnimax in all possible universes. However, This is impossible because I can concieve of a universe that by definition does not contain a God of any sort. It is therefore impossible for a God be omnimax in every possible universe.

Another objection can be made on the grounds that it is impossible for a God to occupy two possible worlds simulatenously. Since the universe is defined as everything that exists everywhere, if God existed in both universes then that would mean the universes are connected through God and are actually both in the same universe. This is really the mortal blow against the Ontological Argument and from there can be no recovery.

Okay, next up is Intelligent design. Proponents of this theory simply claim that there is evidence of the universe being designed by some intelligent being. There isn't a lot wrong with the basis of this argument. There is no way to know if the universe was indeed designed or whether it simply the product of chance.

The problem with this argument occurs when it gets morphed in a creationist argument, that is, they say that the universe has been "designed" with life as its central purpose. This is quite a bold conjecture and there isn't a terrible amount of data to back it up. First of all, if the inflationary model of the Big Bang is correct then the universe is much, much bigger that the fourteen billion or so light years that we can see. Recent evidence suggests that it may be as big as a hundred billion light years. So far, we are the only planet that we know of with life of any kind, if life is the universes purpose then why is all this space required?

I've seen it argued that there may be life all over the universe and God created all this space to house it. There isn't any intrinsic problem with this retort but it would discredit many popular religions because they single out man as having a special relationship with God. If other life existed then clearly this proposition would need to be re-evaluated.

A common argument used in support of intelligent design is that the universe is "fine-tuned" to support life. It is true that if many of the fundamental constants of the universe were tweaked only slightly then life as we know could not of existed. The problem with this line of argument is that we don't know if totally different physical laws could spawn life. In fact, using the current laws of physics we can't simulate even a simple reaction such as the burning hydrogen in the presence of oxygen at the atomic level let alone the processes involved in life. We simply don't have the tools to evaluate if a different set of laws could support life or not. Without this knowledge we can't say that the universe was designed for life as we don't know how many possible universes could support life.

Another criticism of intelligent design comes from theoretical physics. According to accepted theory, at the begining of the big bang the universe was a singularity and it has been shown that the process of transforming a singularity into a universe is random. This is strong evidence to suggest that the laws of physics were determined at random from the output of the singularity transformation.

Another common objection to intelligent design is that if the universe is too complex and intricate to have arisen by chance then surely God is too. After all, God seems to be sentient and that would imply complexity. Does this mean God was designed too? If so, who was his designer's designer? And of course we can repeat this process up to infinity. If we abhore this infinity then we might decide that God was not designed but this begs the question of why God is exempt from the argument when the universe is not. Why not just remove God from the equation and declare that universe was undesigned?

I think we've posed a lot of questions for the Intelligent design community, so now we'll move on. Let's take a look at the argument called "First Cause". This argument goes like this:

  1. Everything must have a cause
  2. The universe must, by definition, have a cause.
  3. The only logical cause is God.
  4. Therefore God exists.

This is wrong on a lot of counts. First of all, not everything has a cause. Quantum Mechanics contains many processes that are uncaused at a fundamental level, the decay of a Uranium atom for example.

Another objection comes from physics, again. The universe has a finite age but it has always existed. What do I mean by this? Well time itself was created with the big bang. There has never been a time when the universe did not exist so there is no "before" the big bang. On these grounds, it doesn't make sense to talk about a cause for the universe.

A third objection can raised simply from logic. If everything must have a cause then what caused God? What caused the thing that caused God? and so on. If we don't like this infinity then just as above we might be forced to assume that God was not caused but if God is not caused then why should anything else be? This is much like the above argument, if God needs no cause then why not just remove God and say that the universe needs no cause.

So that pretty much wraps up the first cause argument. What's next? Pascal's Wager. Pascal's Wagner is the often used phrase that goes something like this: "It makes more sense to believe in God than to not believe. If you believe, and God exists, you will be rewarded in the afterlife. If you do not believe, and He exists, you will be punished for your disbelief. If He does not exist, you have lost nothing either way."

On the face of it, this is quite a rational proposal but it commits the sin of being a false dichotomy because after all, which God do you choose to believe in? There are at least a hundred recognised religions practiced across the planet and most of them have some notion of an after-life in paradise. So, assuming there is a God and the afterlife exists, which religion describes the correct entry criteria for heaven? Moreover, will God send me to hell if I don't believe in the correct religion? If not, then why send the atheist to hell, I suppose it comes down to the question of whether disbelieving in god is really worse than believing in the wrong one? And remember, most accounts of God describe it as an omnibenevolent being so this poses yet another question: If God is omnibenevolent, wouldn't it be a contradiction to send an an otherwise good man to hell simply for choosing to disbelieve?

The other problem with Pascal's wager is the notion that you don't lose anything through beliving. Practicing a religion is both costly, since you're essentially required to donate to your church, and also time consuming. While most theists probably find both experiences enriching it is a fallacy to say there is no expenditure of effort involved in believing in a religion. In conclusion, Pascal's Wager is a clever catch-phrase that disintegrates on closer inspection.

To bring my whirl-wind tour to a close, we will finish with the Transcendental Argument. This is the only logically sound approach to God that is ever really presented. Unfortunately, it doesn't tell us anything useful as a atheist. The argument goes like this:

  1. If reason exists then that implies an original reasoner, or one who gives ultimate reason to things.
  2. Reason exists.
  3. Therefore God exists

This version of the argument is certainly flawed as reason existing does not imply an original reasoner. However, since this argument was originally forwarded, it has developed into something a lot more fundamental. There are many way of stating the argument but all of them amount to saying "all reason comes from God, so you can't use reason to disprove God" in other words, they've made the existance of God in to an axiom.

I'm fairly happy with this approach as it is logically consistent with reality. We know that there is nothing (obviously) inconsistent about a belief in God because if there was that would form the basis of an elementary proof for its non-existance. The only problem with the axiom of God is that like any assumption, I can simply choose to believe the opposite is true. So this is really a formal way of saying "we agree to disagree" and that's why I'm quite fond of the this approach. Of course, to convince a believer to disbelieve or visa-versa is very difficult under such a rigid system of logic. You would have to show that God is impossible (or necessary) using sound logic based on assumptions that are agreed to be true by both parties. Most will agree that this is a very tough challenge, after all we have been trying to solve this very question since recorded time began.

So there you have it, I'm an athiest because there are no compelling arguments for the existance of God. I'm unwilling to assume the axiom of God because it simply isn't neccessary to describe the world in an intelligent way.


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