(Excerpted from Disbelief 101: A Young Person’s Guide to Atheism, by S.C. Hitchcock)
One of the more annoying aspects of talking to believers in god is that they always consider the god hypothesis to be the default position in any argument about the natural world. For example, a believer might ask you if you know how life could have “sprung up” in the first place. If you say science isn’t sure yet, but has some pretty good, and testable, hypotheses about how it might have happened, the religious person will seize on this. “But you’re not sure, are you? Nobody was there!”
All of a sudden, people who will believe anything the Bible says on faith become the most careful skeptics when it comes to science. The implication of the above comment is that if there isn’t any conclusive evidence on a topic involving the natural world, then “god must have done it.” The religious seem to be saying, “If you can’t prove it in front of my eyes, then my belief must be true.” Or, if you can’t absolutely show me how science explains this beyond a shadow of a doubt, then my religious ideas and your science must be on equal footing.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the claim that science is killing god is not true. God committed suicide a long time ago. The sharpest arguments put together to “prove” god’s existence end up cutting god to pieces.
I’ll go into the three most common arguments for the existence of a god, but before I get to them let me explain why they are so deadly to the very god idea they are designed to protect. Normally, when people argue endlessly about a topic it is because they are arguing from different beginnings or prepositions. (As you’ve probably heard, there has to be some original point of agreement before two people can argue about anything.) For example, the argument over whether abortion should be legal or not will likely never go away because people cannot agree on the preposition. For someone who thinks that human life begins at conception, abortion at any stage is “murder.” However, for people who think that human life begins at birth, then abortion is not murder. (The abortion debate is more complex than this, but the purpose here is to explain how arguments work.
We are fortunate, then, that we have no such problem when dealing with the three most common arguments for god’s existence. I disagree with all of their premises, but that won’t be an issue because even when I pretend that I agree with them they obliterate the concept of a god. Here, then, are god’s “suicide arguments.”
God’s Suicidal Arguments
1. The Prime Mover
It is a religious trick to dress absurdities up with solemn ceremonies in the hope that no one will notice their silliness. The taking of communion, for example, where Catholics eat a very sacred wafer that is supposed to change, at some point, into the flesh of Jesus is about as bizarre as you can get. Yet if everyone goes through the procedure with a solemn face, as if this is all very serious and important, then it appears to have some weight.
Sometimes atheists fall into the same trap and treat religious arguments with the same type of seriousness. So, any discussion about the Prime Mover argument generally begins with a long preamble about the deep philosophical thought of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and blah, blah, blah. It’s like putting a mule in a tuxedo.
Essentially, the Prime Mover argument makes the case that something had to cause the universe. That something, according to the religious believer, must be god. No effects exist without a cause, so there must have been some “first cause.”
The reason this argument is so suicidal to god is that it brings up an even bigger question. Where did god come from? How does adding an all-powerful invisible entity at the beginning help us at all? (In fact this argument is flawed scientifically. The universe did not need a first cause, and this will be explained shortly.)
Let’s all just accept the Big Bang theory for a moment. The Catholic Church does, saying that it was the finger of god that sparked the creation of the universe. Well, we might then ask the scientific question of what existed before the Big Bang? We can have a lot of fun just throwing out theories without evidence. I could say that before the Big Bang all that existed were two wart-covered aliens playing video games. And one of the aliens got angry and threw his controller through the television set, thus providing the spark for the Big Bang. So, what we see now as “reality” is simply the video game running on, broken and partially haywire. You would laugh at this. Where did the aliens come from? Where did the television set and video game console come from? Sure, it’s possible that this happened. After all, no one can prove conclusively that it didn’t, but the absurdity of it makes this hypothesis seem unlikely.
And yet, people who would laugh at the Alien/Video Game Theory will simply believe in the existence of a being who is infinitely more complex than they are, and who has created reasons for our existence which are equally bizarre. In fact, every “effect” we see in the universe has an easily explained cause. When I see a baseball flying through the air, I don’t have to look very far to see what caused it—someone threw it or hit it. We could then ask a seemingly endless set of questions such as, “where did the thrower come from,” etc., and we would have unremarkable answers all the way back until the Big Bang. Now, if we accepted god as the Prime Mover, he would be the only cause in this massive chain for which we have no explanation or hope of an explanation. This, somehow, makes him more likely to exist?
Science, as always, will simply say, “Well, we won’t know until we can gather enough evidence to create a decent theory.” Science does not insist upon anything that it can’t prove. The idea of god being the first mover in the universe is silly and utterly without evidence. It should be of no more intellectual merit than the notion that a talking tractor, video game-playing aliens, invisible flying clowns, or angry raccoons created the universe. None of the arguments for a god are any better than the arguments for any of these things.
When talking about the origins of life, that is, when life actually began, religious people will often bring up a concept related to the Prime Mover argument. This is the principle of Occam’s Razor, which is maybe the most misunderstood concept in philosophical history. (Even many professional philosophers miss what Occam’s Razor implies.) According to the medieval philosopher William of Occam, if you are presented with two explanations for a phenomenon, then the explanation with the fewest assumptions is generally the right one. This is usually paraphrased as, “All else being equal, the simplest explanation is best.”
To put this another way, Occam’s Razor simply means that we have to consider the evidence without any “extras.” We’ll see what this means in a moment, and also why Occam’s Razor is so dangerous to religion. (The medieval church, by the way, at least seemed to sense what Occam was up to and was not pleased—he died in exile. So, I’m not sure why religious people think his razor should be used on their behalf.)
When talking about the creation of the universe, religious folks will often invoke Occam’s Razor and say: “What could be simpler than ‘god did it’?”
Well, this is not such a simple explanation. First of all, we must make the mother of all assumptions—the existence of an all-powerful, invisible deity. Then we have to tack that notion on to any explanation we give for anything. So, God becomes a tumor that grows on the back of any explanation.
Let me show how Occam’s Razor can be used to cut away the tumor from a more sophisticated argument made on god’s behalf. The passage below is from a liberal and respected theologian who spoke up on behalf of evolutionary theory (and hence against the “intelligent design” proponents) at a trial in Dover, Pennsylvania. Catholic theologian John Haught was arguing that there was no conflict between science and religion, because, he believes, the two do not intersect:
Suppose a teapot is boiling on your stove, and someone comes into the room and says, “Explain to me why that’s boiling.” Well, one explanation would be it’s boiling because the water molecules are moving around excitedly and the liquid state is being transformed into gas.
But at the same time you could just as easily have answered that question by saying, “It’s boiling because my wife turned the gas on.”
Or you could also answer the question by saying, “It’s boiling because I want tea.”
All three answers are right, but they don’t conflict with each other because they’re working on different levels. Science works at one level of investigation, religion at another . . . The problems occur when one assumes that there’s only one level.
(quoted in 40 Days and 40 Nights, by Matthew Chapman [Charles Darwin’s great grandson], p. 106)
This line of reasoning made me think for a while, which is something that the god arguments have been inspiring people to do for years. However, it seems that Dr. Haught’s argument cannot survive Occam’s Razor. The idea that explanations can work on different levels is interesting. In fact, most actions do have several layers of explanation. The fallacy in this is in thinking that this includes a supernatural, rather than natural, explanation.
If I stated that the water was boiling because I wanted tea, then my want of tea could be easily explained through biological means. My body needs moisture and sends me signals to make sure that I get it. Ancestors that didn’t have such signals would have died of thirst. Perhaps I was tired and my intellect, derived through evolution, would remind me that tea has caffeine.
If my wife turned on the stove for me, it may be because we have found that doing small favors for one another makes our marriage work better. Where, exactly, would I need god in any of these explanations? You see, if I was trying to observe and explain why water on a stove boils, the simplest explanation would be to say that heat causes the particles inside the water to move, that heat was caused by the electricity flowing through the heating element, and that the electricity came from a power plant, etc. If I believed in god, I would still have to explain the water particles, heat, etc., but I would have to tack on an extra layer of explanation at each point. Instead of saying, “The particles in the water are moving quickly because of the heat source,” I would have to say, “The particles in the water are moving quickly because of the heat source and because an eternal, invisible deity of unlimited complexity designed this.” Or, to use Occam’s Razor to cut through Dr. Haught’s several layers of explanation, I would have to say, “I want tea because I’m thirsty and because an eternal invisible deity of unlimited complexity wanted me to be.” Adding a god, or an Invisible Flying Clown, or any other supernatural cause to an explanation makes it more complicated, not less. Occam’s razor cuts no tumor more deeply than the one called god.
So, we see that the “prime mover” argument holds the seeds of its own destruction as does its companion, the misused Occam’s Razor. If everything that exists must have a cause, and god exists, then where did he come from? (By the way, if he’s all powerful, could he make a rock so big that he couldn’t lift it?)
2. The Watchmaker, er, Cell-Phone Maker
The second of god’s suicidal arguments is roughly two hundred years old and was first put forth by the Anglican philosopher William Paley. The argument is rather simple. If something looks designed, then it must have a designer. A watch must have a watchmaker. In other words, if something is complex then it requires something more complex to create it. The universe, obviously, is very complex, therefore its creator must be, well, you get the picture.
Now, let’s refer back to the believer’s assertion that god as a prime mover, in keeping with Occam’s principle, is a simple solution. As the great science writer/teacher/atheist Richard Dawkins has pointed out, any “Creator” must be at least as complex as his creations. It makes no sense to explain how something became complex by invoking an invisible, undetectable something that is infinitely more complex. In other words, if the universe is too complex to not have had a creator, then what does that say about the creator? If a watch needs a designer, then how could an incredibly complex creator just have sprung into existence?
In fact, the watchmaker argument, often used in conjunction with the human body, is not just suicidal but deeply flawed. For one thing, it ignores that many people are born with harmful birth defects that almost immediately cause suffering and death. Was the Watchmaker drunk? Secondly, the most complex things actually have teams of inventors, so it would seem that this argument actually is a better proof for the existence of many gods.
Thirdly, this argument is historically preposterous. Imagine a watch just popping into existence, fully formed. This is absurd. Everything that is complex in the universe has less complex origins. Modern cell phones include cameras, video games, telephones, radio transmitters and receivers, and computers. The cell phone was not created before any of these other inventions, but was made up of them. And each of the cell phone’s components had ancestors which were less complex. Digital cameras did not come out, indeed could not have come out, before Polaroids. Flat screen televisions with DVR capabilities did not come out before black and white television. The Grand Theft Auto video games did not come out before Pong. Nothing that is complex just pops into existence. The very nature of complexity is that it is made up of things that are less complex.
Further, if you grasp this, you would understand that the phones from the 1950s, the kind that Andy Griffith spoke into when he was calling Aunt Bee and Opie from the sheriff’s office, could be considered a different species from the modern cell phone. Andy’s phone did not want to become another type of phone. It did not consider itself to be a “transitional species” of phone, but merely survived for its time and then eventually found itself out-competed and then extinct. Only its fossil record survives in thrift stores, attics, and museums
You might say, yes, the phone has evolved but it took humans (something more complex) to guide that evolution. Humans are a good metaphor in this case, but not for god, since no human being who grew up on an isolated island away from modern technology could ever hope to create a cell phone, or even conceive of what it is. (For that matter, imagine telling people fifty years ago that one day they would carry a phone in their pocket; I would bet that, almost universally, their first comment would be about how long the extension cord would have to be.) Human “inventors” aren’t a good metaphor for god; but they are a good metaphor for natural selection. All that humans can do is look at all the phone designs that don’t work (experiment) and then pick the ones that do. This is just a faster version of what nature does through environmental and sexual selection.
If I was ever brought into court to refute the watchmaker argument, I would find it an easy task. Every part of a watch had, at one time, uses that were entirely unrelated to its use in a watch in the same way that many of the features of a modern cell phone were once completely unrelated to being part of a cell phone. Numbers obviously had uses other than just being on a watch face. Gears were used for mills. The glass on the face of a watch was used for windows, and the strap is just a shrunken belt. When they all came together they turned out to have another use, at least partially unrelated to their original uses. Better yet, I could prove this. It would not be difficult to show the origins of numbers, of glass, of gears, of straps and to show that they had other uses prior to being part of a watch. I could even show “fossil” evidence of the antecedents of the modern watch. Egyptian sundials, Chinese water clocks, and the great designs which came from John Harrison’s workshop (google his name; he’s pretty cool) could all be used to prove the point that the watch evolved from smaller, less complex pieces. The evidence table would be full and the court reporter would have to stop and massage the tendons of her wrist when I was through.
And I could be confident that god would never show up to testify on his own behalf.
3. Why is there something rather than nothing?
The third of god’s suicidal arguments is not really an argument. It actually involves an interesting question that theologians hope has an assumed answer. That is not to say the answer that believers give is interesting; it isn’t. Religious people simply have to hope that believers will assume that the uninteresting answer is true.
We will now examine the biggest question of them all: Why is there something rather than nothing? Personally, I don’t know why people assume there ever was nothing. What if the natural state of the universe is to be here? I don’t know why people who live in a world of something should assume that there was at one point nothing.
Here’s the problem with this question: Religious people don’t believe there was ever really nothing, do they? According to them, god was hanging around, just waiting to create a universe so that he could make humans and play his little faith-or-hell game with us. This, then, is the problem. You cannot ask the question of why is there something rather than nothing if you don’t assert that there actually was nothing. Instead, religious believers assert that rather than nothing, there was an Ultimate Something. This argument is the most persuasive when it is being used against the notion of a god. Why is there a god rather nothing? Again, this argument is suicidal for the god idea.
It is here that we can also address the point I raised earlier about the universe not needing a “first cause” or “prime mover.” Stephen Hawking (the really smart guy in a wheelchair who is often depicted in “The Simpsons”) addressed the issue of the universe’s creation from nothing to something and stated this in his best-selling Brief History of Time:
[T]he quantum theory of gravity has opened up a new possibility, in which there would be no boundary to space-time and so there would be no need to specify the behavior of the boundary . . . The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would be neither created nor destroyed. It would just BE. (p. 141)
Dr. Hawking is careful to point out that this is just a proposal based on the mechanics of quantum gravity and will remain a proposal until all the evidence is in. That being said, doesn’t it make much more sense to theorize about the universe’s “beginnings” (if the word even applies) from the standpoint of science than it does to theorize about it from the standpoint of religion? What, exactly, makes anyone think that a religious proposal is likely to be helpful here?
I prefer to address the question in this way. The question of “why is there something rather than nothing?” answers itself, since it is not possible to ask its opposite.
- On the Use and Abuse of Occam’s Razor (maverickphilosopher.typepad.com)
- Deconstructing the Popular Use of Occam’s Razor (lotharlorraine.wordpress.com)