Is Belief in God Rational? Part Two
In the previous column I described in general terms the concept of belief and its place on the axis between the experiential-emotional and the intellectual. I presented a position according to which belief in God is a factual argument. I concluded with the three-fold classification which Kant proposed for proofs of God’s existence: the ontological, the cosmological and the physical-theological. In order to move closer in the direction of comparisons between belief and science and perhaps also the turbulent conflicts between them, I would like to focus on one type among the three – the physical-theological.
Let me pre-empt by saying that I personally find it to be a very reasonable argument (even if as we see later, not obligatory and not scientific), but my purpose here is not just to convince the reader that it is more reasonable to believe in God than to hold an atheist position, but rather, through this discussion, to draw a picture of the polemics and complicated relationship between belief and science.
What Is the Physical-Theological Proof?
The physical-theological proof is based on the assumption that complex or designed things are not created by themselves. In the formulation of Priest Paley, so beloved of atheists: when we see a watch on the ground, we don’t assume that it was formed by itself in any natural process, but rather it will be obvious to us that there is a watchmaker which designed and made it. It is the same with our world, which is much more complex than a watch, and therefore it is reasonable that someone made it.
A different formulation, suggested by known astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, who argued that the odds of chance formation of life is lower than the odds that a tornado passing through a scrap yard will make a 747 out of the composite parts. Again, his argument is that life is far more complex than a 747, and therefore it is reasonable to assume it was not formed in a random, blind manner. There must necessarily be someone that created it.
In the discourse on God and Evolution many refer to Hoyle’s argument with the unflattering term “Hoyle’s fallacy”. Later on I will explain where and why they themselves are wrong, and why the late Hoyle was definitely right.
Why the Physical-Theological Proof?
There are four reasons for my focus on this argument: A. It’s very intuitive B. It’s very common (probably due to its intuitive nature) C. As I mentioned in the previous column, only this type of proof begins with empirical observations, so it is the one which will allow us to compare between inferences of this type and scientific inferences. D. The range of different objections to this argument will enable us to sharpen the fundamental distinctions between regarding the relationship between belief and science even further.
Objections to the Physical-Theological Proof
Let me also begin by saying that the physical-theological argument is widely dealt with in the philosophical and polemical literature, and here I can only draw a schematic of this issue. One can object to this proof from various philosophical-logical reasons and argue that it is not valid. A no less common objection is that this is not a scientific consideration.
Before I begin to survey the different objections, I wish to deal with a few preliminary remarks. This is to explain the essence of the physical-theological argument itself.
I cannot avoid a comment regarding the nature of the discussion. Emotional responses to these arguments (see the responses to the first column) make people bring the cart before the horse, and bring out different objections to the proof at a stage when I have not begun to deal with them. Therefore I suggest leaving the debates for the end, and to read and judge arguments one at a time in the order they are presented.
The Flying Spaghetti Monster
One of the questions which always arises when the physical-theological argument is presented is this: Why don’t we prove the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or any other God? Why a God? Why not four Gods, and not just one? Alternatively, why not assume that he is not infinite but rather just possessive of very strong abilities (this is part of Kant’s own objection to this proof)?
This is not an objection, but a misunderstanding of the physical-theological proof. One can call this entity The Flying Spaghetti Monster, or any other name we choose. We can even declare a prize for the most attractive name, but none of this has anything to do with the physical-theological proof itself. The proof only argues the following: there is some entity that created or runs the world, and nothing more. It does not say how we call it, or if it is a single entity, and it (the argument – AIWAC) does not expect of us to put on tefillin, respect our parents, or even that it revealed itself to someone in this world (either on Mount Sinai, or at the Sea of Galilee). The argument doesn’t even say that this entity acts logically or not. At most there is a definition of its abilities (it can create a world and run it).
Who Created God?
This is another common question, and it also derives from a misunderstanding of the proof. This question appeals differently towards two types of proofs:
A. The Cosmological proof assumes that everything has a reason, or something or someone which created it (according to the rule of sufficient reason). Now, asks the objector, God is also something, and according to the principle of sufficient reason there should also be someone that created Him. We are thus dragged into an infinite regression.
B. The Physical-Theological Proof, on the other hand, assumes that every complex thing in the world has someone who designed, created and runs it. If so, argues the clever objector, the same assumption must apply to God.
To formulate the objection at this level, we need another assumption: God is no less complex than the world he created (see a discussion of this in my book God Plays Dice). Now the objector can argue: this assumption must also be applied to Him. So who created or runs God? Once again we have a regression.
The problem with this objection stems from the question of regression. This is actually what stands at the basis of the proof, and it certainly does not create an attack on it. Philosophers tend to think that infinite regression cnnot be an explanation (or sufficient reason) for anything.
This is similar to the Greek physicist who explained his cosmology to his enraptured audience: “The world is based upon a giant turtle”, he says excitedly. At that moment a woman from the audience raises her hand and asks: “And what is the turtle standing on?” The physicist answers without hesitation: “On another turtle”. When she asks again and again: “What does the new turtle stand on?” he answers impatiently: “Don’t you understand, it’s turtles all the way down!”
This is precisely the catch of the physical-theological proof. If we indeed do not accept a never-ending chain as an explanation, then how can we ever have an explanation at all. The argument is not against this or that explanation. Even if the scientific information in our possession is lacking, the argument does not stem from lack of scientific knowledge. Even if we one day complete the entire scientific project, and all relevant information and laws are in our hands, the question still arises: What is the reason of the first reason? Or: Who created the first “is” in the chain?
The only way to stop this infinite regression is to assume the existence of a first link in the chain whose existence does not require sufficient reason. An entity which is not subject to our experience, and therefore there is nothing preventing our assuming that it is “its own reason” or a “necessity of reality”, in more modern terms. If we do not assume the existence of a necessary entity at the beginning of the road, we can never cut loose from regression and arrive at an explanation.
The expression “we cannot arrive”, which I just used, might confuse. I am not speaking of our ability to arrive at an explanation. My argument regards reality itself: if in reality itself there is no such primal link, then there is no explanation for the world’s existence (and not just that we cannot arrive at an explanation).
But perhaps the laws of nature themselves could be just such a link in the chain? I will get to that later on. I will only say here, somewhat superficially, that if the laws of nature are indeed such “is”es, then they are God, and the physical-theological proof proved their existence. In the previous section I stated that I am not getting into the question of the identity or name of this entity which this proof proves, only the fact that such an entity exists.
Begging the Question
The last preliminary comment which I wish to dispose of is the matter of begging the question. The physical-theological proof assumes that every complex thing has a creator. But, argues our persistent objector, this is but begging the question. If we don’t make this assumption, we will not be compelled to arrive at the conclusion that God exists.
This argument demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of the essence of logic. An argument suffers from begging the question when the conclusion it wishes to reach is already among its assumptions. For instance, in yeshivas they tend to bring the following evidence that every Jew should wear a hat:
It is written “and Avraham walked” (ibid, ibid). A Jew such as him certainly did not walk without a hat. Every Jew must follow in the ways of our ancient Patriarch (Avraham). Therefore if Avraham walked with a hat so should every Jew.
In this argument the conclusion itself is embedded in of the argument’s assumptions. When we say that a Jew such as him did not walk without a hat, we essentially assumed that every Jew should walk with a hat. Therefore we have here a begging of the question.
One of the characteristics of a valid logical argument is that its conclusion is embedded in its assumptions. This is what is called in philosophy the “emptiness of the analytical” (on this point and its consequences, see my book Two Carriages and a Hot Air Balloon). If so, in this sense every logical argument begs the question. Is there really no difference between this argument and the one regarding Avraham and the hat?
The difference is only in the complexity of the inference. If a complex inference is necessary to extract the conclusion from the assumptions (for instance, the combination of a number of assumptions), then this is not assumed to be begging the question. When the conclusion itself is embedded as one of the assumptions (with no need for combination, such as the case of Avraham and the hat), this is begging the question.
Now I will ask: Is the conclusion that God exists present among the assumption of the physical-theological proof? At least in the sense that’s important to us, certainly not. It is true that if every complex thing has a cause, then the entire world also has a cause. However, this is characteristic of any other logical argument. Does this invalidate the argument? Of course not. All that means is that it is a logical argument.
Let’s return to our discussion. At the basis of the physical-theological proof is indeed embedded the principle of sufficient reason, in other words that every complex thing has a cause. But we saw that this is true regarding all logical arguments. IS there an argument that isn’t based on assumptions? Of course not.
Is there a valid logical argument based on assumptions, whose conclusion is not present in them? Certainly not. If it was not present in them in some way it wouldn’t be valid. If so, then at most we have an accusation against the physical-theological proof in that it is a logical argument. We will deal with this accusation from a slightly different angle in the next column.
What is left for the objector to argue is that the principle of sufficient reason is unacceptable to him. Any logical argument can be attacked in this manner. But this assumption is very reasonable, and I assume that in any other context most if not all people would accept it. There needs to be a special reason for us to accept a reservation of this principle. In any event, it is true that the physical-theological proof addresses only those who accept this assumption.