Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Intelligent design makes me a Christian agnostic

I'd categorize arguments for the existence of God into three categories*:
  1. First cause
  2. History
  3. Experience
By first cause arguments, I mean arguments like the cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments, that is, that for the universe to move, something had to kick it into action, for it to have design, it must have a designer, and for rules to exist, a rule-giver must preside. By historical arguments, I mean people pointing to miraculous historical events like the Israelite exodus of Egypt, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the revelation of the Koran to Mohammed. By arguments from experience, I mean both people talking about internal spiritual experiences (a guiding light, for example) and eyewitness accounts of peculiar phenomena.

It seems to me that the first cause arguments, especially arguments like the anthropic principle and irreducible complexity, are today the most popular proofs of God's existence among smart believers. This is diabolical.

In He Is There and He Is Not Silent, Francis Schaeffer makes clumsy attempts at proving God's existence. What I love about this book, though, why I recommend it, actually, is that Schaeffer makes it clear that he's arguing for the existence of not just any sort of God, but the Personal-Infinite God.

If God's really real and really worth talking about, he'd interact with us in some personal way. Spinoza proved that God exists quite decisively, but in such a way that his God isn't worth writing Mom about. Scott Adams, my favorite Spinozist, says that this universe-God is even intelligent, in a sense. This isn't the same as God being personal.

I started writing this essay a year ago, and it stalled, because I thought that what bothered me most about these arguments from first cause is that they're deeply flawed. I realized that what bothers me more is that arguments from first cause don't work to establish God as a person who cares about us. That's the sort of God that I want to believe in.

That the most popular arguments for the existence of God don't point to the sort of God I need makes me think that God isn't real.

Jason doesn't buy the New Perspective on Paul because he doesn't trust theology that requires skill in parsing Greek verbs to be understood.

If God were real, we wouldn't fuss with learning modal logic notation to even understand Gödel's onotological proof of God's existence. We wouldn't mess with statistical mechanics to show that atheistic abiogenesis is unlikely. We'd say things like, 'Hey, you know Leper Larry? He's not a leper, anymore. Wild!' And we don't, and either God isn't real and I could be having a lot more fun getting into trouble, or he is and I am looking for him where he isn't, and you probably are, too.

*By wild coincidence, Wikipedia categorizes arguments for the existence of God into the same three categories that I do.


  1. it's interesting because a lot of early theologians didn't find the cosmological argument particularly compelling. sure, it possibly establishes a "first principle" (in a pre-humean, pre-quantum mechanics-ian world) of sorts, but aristotle and co. had been kicking similar thoughts around for quite sometime before anyone got around to applying it to religious beliefs. (side-note: if i remember correctly, godel's ontological proof can also be used to posit the existence of a maximally-evil being [i'm not sure exactly how--i didn't understand the math]).

    aquinas put forward a few "proofs" for god's existence (one of them cosmological--i believe), but he admitted that such proofs were more or less a waste of effort. believers will believe regardless of how the logic adds up and non-believers won't find themselves compelled to believe in the christian god solely based on a philosopher/theologian identifying a "first cause" or a "maximally excellent being."

    --which is why, i think, that in the end god's existence is always going to stay in the realm of fideism/existential justification in the face of absurd non-being--the "power of revelation" as opposed to systematic discourses on causes, teleogy, etc.

  2. Good points, Graham. What you said about Gödel reminds me of Cacodaemony:

    If belief in God lands in fideism, I have no interest in God. If God is worth talking about and having over for tea, God wouldn't need fideism or 'systematic discourse', he'd heal lepers and drop manna from heaven, as the Bible suggests.

  3. well, then it seems to me you're going to end up kind of stuck. either you look for evidence of actual miracles (which i think will probably be fruitless) or you...um...become an atheist (join the club: we have great t-shirts!). even if you can find a 'miracle,' miracles are not as miraculous as they could be. one, a miracle might not actual be a miracle (it might just be something really fucking weird that we don't understand)...and two, even if a genuine miracle does occur, there's no way to know that it's source is the source that is claimed/hoped for. even if i could cleanse lepers, etc. it might not be god that's letting me do that. it could my own psychic abilities, or satan, or anything else really.

  4. You're absolutely right. I really should pick up some good atheism T-shirts.

    I've been completely disappointed by miracles in the first place.

    I agree with you that where the miracle comes from is most important. Thanks for reminding me of that. That's why I like the stories of Jesus—the miracles are connected to his personality, and he seems loving and good. I suppose it would have been impossible to know for sure whether Jesus is good or whether he was the one doing the miracle, if the Bible stories were really true and I was walking around in them.

    Thanks for such insightful comments; I really do appreciate them.