Faith and Reason, a Series of Articles by R. Dr. Michael Avraham, Part III

Is Belief in God Rational? Part Three

The previous column concluded with a discussion of the argument that the physical-theological argument begs the question. There I showed that every logical argument begs the question, and therefore the remaining question is only whether we agree with its assumptions. In other words, the question is whether or not we accept the principle of sufficient reason, which is the assumption that everything must have a cause (a reason, or something which created it), or not.

We saw that the atheists must choose between infinite regression as sufficient reason, and the adherence to a position that not everything requires a reason. In other words, he must believe (!) that there are things which occur or exist without a reason.

I have already commented that infinite regression is not sufficient reason. Here I will add the principle of causation is one of the foundational building blocks of science and our thought. All of science is based on the assumption that if we observe something it must have a cause, and the scientific motivation is to search for it. On the other hand, even in the scientific context, as Hume already determined, this assumption does not have an empiric basis. This is an axiom of rational thought, and it is therefore strange that those who hold this position accuse the believer in God with a lack of rationality.

The Physical-Theological Argument Is Not Certain

In the world of logic arguments are divided into the valid and the invalid. Valid arguments are arguments whose conclusions necessarily derive from their assumptions, the rest are invalid. Therefore those who are familiar with logical thought examine argument in terms of validity and invalidity.

Many bring up the argument against the Physical-Theological Proof that it is not necessary, in other words it is an invalid argument (this is already embedded in the Kantian objection to this proof). The fact that the world around us is complex and appears to be designed, does not necessarily mean that there is a Designer and a Builder.

First, I will point out that this objection is the opposite of the previous one we mentioned. If in the previous column we dealt with the accusation that the physical-theological argument begs the question, and we showed that all that means is that it is a valid logical argument, here the argument is exactly that – that the argument is not valid. Let us examine this argument a little.

The validity of the Physical-Theological Proof is dependent on how it is presented. It can be done in two formulations:

Formulation A: The world around us is complex, advanced and coordinated, and therefore there is apparently a Creator. This is obviously not a valid argument, as it has one assumption (that the world is complex &c), and the conclusion that this world has a Creator does not necessarily derive from it. This is the formulation which is charged, justifiably, with being invalid.

Formulation B:    The world is complex &c., and there is nothing complex without a         builder/designer, from here we derive that our world has a designer/creator. This is of course a perfectly valid argument, and it is charged, unjustifiably with begging the question.

These two formulations are merely two points of view on the debate. Bottom line, of course the argument is not necessary, because the assumptions are not necessary. Maybe not everything in the world has a cause or sufficient reason? On the other hand, I mentioned that this is an axiom of rational thought. Therefore the Physical-Theological Proof is not necessary, but those who object to it think in a non-rational matter.

A Look at Certainty: Logic and Science

It is important to understand that uncertainty does not constitute an objection to the physical-theological proof. Any factual argument, and certainly a generalization regarding facts, is not certain. Therefore any scientific law is also exposed to the same assault, since it is also not certain. Even empiricists who espouse the certainty of direct observations, will agree that the generalizations based on these observations are not certain. The inductive inference which takes us from the assumptions to the conclusions will never be certain.

In the first column I insisted that belief in God is a factual argument. This position denies me the (oh-so-comfortable) option to argue in favor of belief by force of emotion, mystical experiences, or various trances, which are meant to give me certainty ‘beyond the intellect’. If so, then belief needs to be examined with the tools used to deal with a factual argument. The other side of this coin is that belief suffers from all the limitations of factual arguments, and is therefore not certain.

A valid logical argument ties the conclusion to the assumptions. The derivation of the conclusion from the assumptions is certain, and this is a characteristic of logic and mathematics. But generally assumptions in and of themselves, and therefore also the conclusions, are not certain. Certainty can only exist regarding the derivation, and never towards a specific factual argument (at least one that does not derive from a direct observation).

People who are ready to accept only certain arguments, will remain a complete skeptic. He cannot accept even the laws of science. Even someone who compromises and is willing to accept facts which were directly observed, will have to emphatically reject all laws of science. If so, the conclusion of the physical-theological proof is in the same logical position of any scientific generalization. As Kant himself already wrote, the physical-theological proof is based on factual observations, and derives from them an abstract theoretical conclusion, just like science. Obviously I do not intend to argue that belief is a scientific argument, as I will explain later on.

God Is Not An Explanation

I will describe this common argument in the formulation taken from an article by Ilya Leibowitz (see the Appendix to my book God Plays Dice): The primary weakness of the idea of the Intelligent Designer is that it cannot be seen as providing any kind of explanation for the phenomenon it pretends to explain. The central argument which stands at its base can be presented as follows: No intelligent human will think that the wonderful paintings done by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel were created by random processes, without direction or intelligence. The same – for the F-16 plane. All the more so that such an explanation is required for the biological systems in the world, which are that much more complex.

However, this inference is based on a nonsensical inference. The conjecture that an intelligent designer planned the F-16 is indeed a reasonable explanation for the existence of this complex system, because we know of the existence of aeronautics engineers, independent of our knowledge of the plane itself. The thought that the hand of an intelligent human painted the Sistine Chapel is one that can explain the paintings, only because we have prior knowledge of the existence of beings that can design and carry out such paintings. Regarding the natural world and universe we have no prior knowledge of the existence of an intelligence capable of designing it. Inferring from the existence of the complex and fascinating world the existence of an intelligent designer is not an explanation of a phenomenon, but a psychological byproduct of one.

The Problem of Basing (An Argument – AIWAC) on the Unknown

Ostensibly (Leibowitz’s) argument is right. How can one relate to an argument which suggests unknown beings which bring about known phenomena as an “explanation”? When we want to explain something we don’t understand, we try to base it on things we know. Yet here we are basing the known (the world) on the unknown (God).

First, I will point out that we are not looking for explanations. The physical-theological proof derives from the facts the conclusion that there is an intelligent cause in the background. Even if there was no explanation for reality here, this is the conclusion that arises from the proof.

However a more basic error of Leibowitz has to do with the fact that he does not distinguish between two types of explanation. An explanation in a day-to-day context (and sometimes in a scientific context) is indeed basing oneself on the known. When we want to understand why a plane crashed, we look for some malfunction in its systems. If there was a crack in the wing, that is the explanation for the crash, since the unknown phenomenon (the plane crash) is explained via a known phenomenon (natural laws). Similarly we will see an explanation for high and low tides in terms of the power of gravity.

In contrast, when Newton first explained high and low tides, he was not familiar with the power of gravity. He needed the type of explanation which discovers a new scientific law, and such an explanation by its very definition requires basing the known on the unknown. The philosopher of science, Carl Hempel, describes the building of a scientific theory with a deductive-nomological schematic, according to which a scientific explanation for a phenomenon will contain a general law which can be derived from deductive tools. This is precisely basing (an argument) on the unknown, which is the life-blood of science.

When we explain the fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by saying that someone painted it, this is basing oneself on the known. We know that there are people who can paint, and therefore we can base the phenomenon in front of us on a known law. However if we never knew a single painter, what could we do? Would we have to assume that the paintings were created by themselves? Of course not. In such a case we would assume that there is an unknown factor which painted them. This is an explanation which bases itself on the unknown.

Explanations which base themselves on the known are characteristic of a situation in which an inference does not add any new information for us. In terms of Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science, this is a situation of ‘normal science’, in which the existing paradigm dominates, and it succeeds in granting explanations for all relevant phenomena. In contrast, in a stage where the existing paradigm is failing, we search for a new paradigm (a scientific revolution, in Kuhn’s terms). In such a situation only basing oneself on the unknown can succeed. We search for a new paradigm that can explain things that the existing paradigm cannot. This is how science progresses, from the known to the unknown. The question of whether the atheist paradigm fails will be discussed later on in the series.

Comparison to a Scientific Explanation

The physical-theological proof is constructed thus:

Assumption A: The world is complex.

Assumption B: None of the factors known to me could create such a world.

Assumption C: A complex world is not created by itself.

Conclusion: There must be another factor, unknown to me, which created it. Let us call it “God”.

A parallel argument regarding the power of gravity (when it was unknown) is constructed thus:

Assumption A: I see before me phenomena such as high and low tides, or objects which fall to the ground.

Assumption B: No power or factor of those known to me can bring about these phenomena.

Assumption C: Physical phenomena must have a reason (they do not happen by themselves).

Conclusion: There must be a factor which is still unknown to me, which brings about these phenomena. Let’s call it “gravity”.

In Leibowitz’s eyes, the second argument is an explanation and the first isn’t. However he is wrong. The logical structure of the physical-theological proof meets the same logical standards of a scientific theory. It also moves from the known (the world) to the unknown (God). Let me repeat again to remove any doubt, I am not arguing that belief in God is a scientific theory.

Between the Rational and the Rationalistic

Many would say that they are not willing to accept metaphysical explanations like belief in God, and would prefer to say that they don’t understand. In their opinion, such a metaphysical explanation is throwing sand in one’s eyes, or saying ‘I don’t understand’ in different words. This is a variation of the argument regarding basing oneself on the unknown, so I will respond to it similarly. My argument is that such an attitude is rationalistic but not rational.

In the yeshiva in which I learned there was a guy who came down with Hepatitis. After half a year of frequent hospitalizations, they brought him a ‘wizard’ who placed doves on his stomach. The doves died immediately, and what do you know, after a couple of days the guy came back to the yeshiva healthy. When I told this to my parents, they made fun of the yeshiva students’ mysticism, and warmly recommended to me not to abandon rationality. Indeed, to this day, their recommendation is my guiding principle, but in this case they were wrong.

It’s important to differentiate between the rational and the rationalistic. A rational person should accept arguments that have a reasonable factual basis, even if he doesn’t understand them theoretically. If I am convinced that logical people who are not liars saw the phenomenon, it behooves me to accept the argument and then later find an explanation (why did the doves die, and how, if at all, they cure Hepatitis). In contrast, the rationalist will not accept facts that do not fit his paradigm. That is metaphysics, he argues, or basing oneself on the unknown. He is not willing to accept metaphysical explanations even when they are apparent, even though he has no other explanation. We already saw above that for the sake of ‘rationalism’ he is also willing to believe in events and entities without a cause or sufficient reason.

If Newton or Einstein were such rationalists, instead of being rational, we would have never discovered new scientific worlds. We would have always demanded explanations based on the known, and persisted with the existing paradigm, unwilling to stray from it. Such conservativism and paralysis of thought is generally attributed to religious thinking, but it turns out it appears no less, and perhaps even more, in the territory of the atheist.

Intermediate Summary

Until now we saw three points of similarity between belief and scientific theories: 1. In the first column we saw that both deal with factual arguments. 2. In the second and the present column, we saw that for this very reason, both are not certain. 3. And now we added that both are built on explanations which are based on the unknown. In the next column I will explain why in spite of the similarity belief in God is not a scientific argument. In the column after that, we will arrive (God willing) at evolution.


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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