Sunday, August 27, 2017

Can we prove or disprove God's existence?

I encourage any student of religion to question the idea that the arguments for and against the existence of God can prove (or disprove) God's existence. My basic reasoning for this is as follows: If any of the arguments for God's existence worked as a conclusive proof of God's existence, then (logically) it would provide a sound reason for believing God existed and as such there would be no denying God's existence. In short, everyone would be theists. Likewise, if any of the arguments against God's existence worked to conclusively disprove God's existence, then (logically) no-one would believe God existed and (in theory) everyone would be atheists. However, the fact that the matter of God's existence is still widely debated, and that we have people all around the world who believe in God's existence and do not believe God exists, suggests the issue is far from resolved. As such, we must reject the simplistic notion that any of the arguments (either for or against God's existence) are the final word on the matter.
Photograph of Rodin's preparatory study for his sculpture "The Thinker"
Rodin's "The Thinker"
(Copyright Stephen A Richards)
In light of this, it's important to approach the question of God's existence with a degree of humility. The issue has been hotly debated, and often by the finest minds, throughout much of human existence. Thus to think we can easily prove or disprove the question of God's existence beyond all doubt is rather naive.

So why do people regularly engage with others over the issue of God's existence in a simplistic and knee-jerk fashion? I would suggest that many find it hard to see anything positive in another person's point-of-view for fear that in doing so it would undermine their own beliefs. For example, atheists would be afraid that if they see any value in an argument for God's existence, that they would then have to start believing in God; with theists worrying that conceding any ground to atheists would undermine their belief in God. So quickly dismissing another person's belief is the easier option, and simply a matter of self-preservation.
The author walking on ice
(Copyright Stephen A Richards)
Yet this is a very oversimplified view of who we are and the beliefs we hold. We do not change our fundamental beliefs about things on a whim. Anytime our beliefs do radically change, this tends to happen over a period of time. If a theist or atheist is going to change their belief in God this will have taken place after many months, or even years of thinking and reflection.

Religious Studies/Philosophy of Religion is first and foremost an academic subject. It is not an attempt to convert students to either atheism or theism. Thus in order to do well in the subject, one must be prepared to engage critically, yet also respectfully, with other people's beliefs and opinions. At the end of the day, no-one has all the answers. We are all born into a particular family, society, and place in the world which has a profound influence on who we are, what we think of other people and the way we experience the world. The value in taking a subject like Religious Studies/Philosophy of Religion is that it gives us a chance to experience the world as other's do, and to critically reflect on our own place and beliefs in the grand scheme of things.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

David Hume's criticisms of the Design Argument in 5 minutes

An overview of David Hume's criticisms of the design argument from chapters 2-5 of the "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion", along with some key quotes.

The key issue

Design arguments such as the one Hume critiques in "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion" (1779), compare the complex and ordered nature of the world with complicated and ordered things humans have made (for example machines). The argument is that as things such as machines have been made by someone, this can suggest (by analogy) that a complex and ordered natural world must also be the result of a deliberate act of creation. In other words, where we find complexity in the natural world this is evidence that there is a world maker, who is God.

Schematic diagram of the human eye
Schematic diagram of the human eye
The importance of analogies

The success of design arguments is dependent on how close the analogy works to compare the natural world with things humans have made. If the natural world can be shown to be complex and organised without any appeal to outside influences, then the analogy is significantly weakened.

Section 1: The analogy is weak (Chapters 2-4)

The following objections were made in response to an analogy based on building a house:
  • Objection 1: The analogy does not compare like-for-like things. We cannot compare the building of a house with the creation of the world. They are too different ("The unlikeness in this case is so striking that the most you can offer on the basis of it is a guess")
  • Objection 2:  We cannot take one small part of nature and use this "as the model for the whole world" coming into existence ("From observing the growth of a hair, can we learn anything about how men come into being?")
  • Objection 3: Why assume the natural realm exhibits evidence of intelligent design, rather than simply the creation of more natural stuff? ("When nature has operated in such a wide variety of ways on this small planet, can we think that she incessantly copies herself throughout the rest of this immense universe?")
  • Objection 4: The analogy between building a house and creating a world is only valid if you have seen both a house and a world being built, otherwise the analogy is based on assumptions ("Have worlds ever been formed under your eye")
Photograph of new house under construction Pittsfield Township Michigan
New house under construction Pittsfield Township Michigan
Section 2: What sort of God created this sort of world (Chapter 5)

The following objections were made in response to a principle established at the outset, that "like effects prove like causes" and "that the more similar the observed effects... the more similar the causes that are inferred":
  • Objection 5: Based on evidence from the (finite) world we live in, we have no reason to conclude that God is infinite ("What right have we (on your theory) to ascribe infinity to God?")
  • Objection 6: We have no reason to conclude that God is perfect from looking at the way things are in the world ("Consider the many inexplicable difficulties in the works of nature - illnesses, earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, and so on")
  • Objection 7: This world may be one in a line of many "imperfect" worlds made by an "imperfect" God ("It may be that many worlds were botched and bungled, throughout an eternity, before our present system was built")
  • Objection 8: Why assume the creation of our world was the work of just one God? ("A great many men join together to build a house")
  • Objection 9: The things we see being made around us are created by intelligent humans, why not go the whole way and say that God is also human? ("No man has ever seen reason except in someone of human shape, and that therefore the gods must have that shape")
  • Objection 10: God might exist, but why assume God is still around and interested in our world? ("This world was only the first rough attempt of some infant god, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his poor performance")
William Blake's painting The Ancient of Days (1794)
William Blake's The Ancient of Days (1794)
Was Hume an atheist or an agnostic?

In the essay "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion", the character Philo represents Hume's skeptical point-of-view. Before the critiques of the design argument are set out (Chapters 2-5), the character Philo seems to state a version of the Cosmological Argument:
That [God] exists is, as you well observe, unquestionable and self-evident. Nothing exists without a cause; and the original cause of this universe (whatever it may be) we call ‘God’, and piously ascribe to him every kind of perfection.
It should noted that the "First Cause" mentioned here could be God as traditionally believed, or a natural phenomenon such as the 'Big Bang'?

Key quotes

"Since the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer by all the rules of analogy that the causes are also alike, and that the author of nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man."

"The exact similarity of the cases gives us a perfect assurance of a similar outcome... But the evidence is less strong when the cases are less than perfectly alike; any reduction in similarity, however tiny, brings a corresponding reduction in the strength of the evidence; and as we move down that scale we may eventually reach a very weak analogy."

Key Text

Monday, February 20, 2017

Atheists and the Problem of Evil

If God exists then why is there evil in the world? If God exists why do people suffer? If God exists why do bad things happen? Many atheists use this kind of argument as a basis for rejecting belief in God, the point being that if there is an all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-good (benevolent) Deity, then why do bad things happen?

In Christian theology this is known as The Problem of Evil. The classic statement of this "problem" was set out by Epicurus circa. 300BCE, and later rehashed by David Hume in "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion" (1779):
Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then [God] is impotent. Is [God] able, but not willing? then [God] is malevolent. Is [God] both able and willing? then where does evil come from?
Murder in the House by Jakub Schikaneder (1890)
The argument assumes that if God exists then God could, would and should do something about the presence of evil in the world. That there is evil and suffering in the world must mean God does not exist. The argument seems decisive, and believers have largely bought into the paradox, leading to all manner of theological gymnastics being performed across the years in the attempt to resolve this so-called "problem".

Yet for any atheist who uses this as a basis for arguing against God's existence I think the question begs: What exactly do you expect God to do about evil and suffering? Let me phrase this another way. If the claim is being made that were God to exist then God should, could and would do something about the presence of evil in the world, then what does God acting in the world essentially boil down to? In the end we are essentially talking about miracles.

Christ Appearing to His Disciples After the Resurrection by William Blake (1795)
In suggesting that God should, could and would address the problem of evil and suffering, what an atheist is basically asking God to do is nothing short of a miracle! Yet atheists do not believe God does miracles... or do they? If atheists want to ground belief in God's non-existence on the assumption that if God exists then God would do something about evil, then they are essentially making the case that God does miracles. Yet if we are suggesting that God can do a miracle to end evil and suffering, why not go all the way and say that God could also raise Jesus from the dead, this being the miracle par excellence for Christians as it not only proves God's existence but justifies the profession of Jesus Christ as our Saviour:
For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins (1 Corinthians 15:16-17)
I doubt any atheist would go this far. In fact somewhat paradoxically in "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding" (1748) David Hume actually rejects the logical probability of miracles and the resurrection occurring, which seems to undermine his suggestion thirty years later in the "Dialogues" that were God to exist, then God should be doing something about evil and suffering. In the end, Hume cannot have his theological cake (why doesn't God do a miracle to stop evil and suffering) and eat it (miracles don't happen).

All this appears to leave the atheist having to restate the "problem" of evil in the following manner: Either God exists and can do a miracle to stop evil and suffering, which leaves the question begging as to why someone would then logically reject Jesus' resurrection, or God does not do miracles, which means the existence of evil and suffering in the world is not God's problem to solve, but ours!

Friday, February 17, 2017

The truth shall set you free

I have often found myself lost in the sea of epistemological uncertainty that comes with postmodernism. As philosophers have deconstructed knowledge we have come to take as a truism that it is inextricably tainted by our personal, social and cultural contexts. The idea that anyone has access to "pure" knowledge is a fallacy. From this relativism quickly follows. If objectivity is unavailable to us, and if all knowledge is "tainted", then we are simply left with our own unique and individual take on things. What I consider to be True is true to me, and vice versa.

This morning I was reading the final chapters in the book "Exclusion and Embrace" by Miroslav Volf. It's an amazing read and one I highly recommend, if for no other reason than to find a way through the modern epistemological fog Descartes left us with; this being a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the inner world of our thoughts, and the world that is (theoretically) "out there".

The author standing in front of Descartes' tomb in the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris 2014
(Copyright Stephen A Richards, 2017)
For many years I struggled with this problem, and no more so than in the context of faith. For if I am unable to get outside my our mind then how can I possibly claim to know anything of the existence of God, for example? The belief that knowledge is constructed and relative led to a folding up of my faith over twenty years ago.

Recently I returned to the world of faith and belief in God again, and largely for the reasons Volf discusses in his chapter "Deception and Truth". He makes the point that trying to access Truth as an abstract metaphysical concept is impossible for the reasons we have already alluded to: There is no way we can step outside our own thinking processes to do this. We are always going to be inside our head in one capacity or another.

Looking at the street through a pair of glasses
(Copyright Stephen A Richards, 2017)
However, to resolve this seemingly irreconcilable tension, Volf directs us towards the notion of Truth as that found in the Bible; this being that Truth is not so much discovered, but lived:
Neither Jeremiah nor Paul speaks abstractly of the relation between "minds" and "facts," as the western philosophical tradition like to state the relation between the knower and the object of knowledge. In a sense, so then there are no such things as "minds" and "facts." Instead of forging abstract categories of "facts" and "minds," they narrate the things people do to each other… "facts" exist only within a… community (261)
Truth is not so much "out there" but in the midst of us. We live the truth we profess. If you want to know what Truth is, look at the lives people are living. Jesus is also making this point when he says that we will know what people are like "by their fruit" (Matthew 7:16). You want to know what someone believes is true, then look at how they live, the things they do, the people they hang out with, the places they go etc.

Truth is not hidden "inside" waiting to be discovered, but is "outside", lived, and being revealed. For me God's existence is not something I have proved through abstract arguments, but something I have chosen to organise my life by. I have chosen to believe God exists, and God's existence is proved true to me (and others) in the daily lived experience of my life.
Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16)

Volf, M. (1996) Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Nashville: Abingdon Press 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

William Paley's Watch Analogy in 5 Minutes

An overview and explanation of William Paley's watch analogy including some key quotes.

Key Point
  • Based on the way the world is, God logically exists.
  • God exists
  • The world has been created by God
  • Complex and ordered things do not simply appear by chance
Note: These presumptions need to be accepted in order for Paley's argument to work.

Photograph of the opening line of Genesis 1, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth".
Photograph of the opening line of Genesis 1, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth"
(Copyright Stephen A Richards, 2017)

Key Argument
  1. Things which are complex do not appear by chance
  2. Complex things are created by someone
  3. The world is complex
  4. The world must have been created by someone
  5. The only person capable of creating a world is God
  6. Therefore God exists!
Paley's Watch Analogy
  1. Watches are complicated things (we observe their many parts)
  2. Watches are ordered things (we observe that the many parts work together to tell the time)
  3. Watches are designed and made by people who make watches (something we know from our experience)
  4. Watches are made by intelligent people (based on 1&2)
  5. Watches do not simply appear out of thin air (based on points 1, 2 & 3)
  6. Just like a watch, the world is complex and ordered
  7. Complex and ordered things are designed and made (based on points 1&2)
  8. A complex and ordered world cannot have appeared out of nowhere (based on point 3)
  9. The only person capable of making a complex and ordered world such as ours is God
  10. Therefore as the world exists, so must God!
Internal mechanism of a pocket watch
Internal mechanism of a pocket watch
Paley's Supporting arguments
  • If we had never seen a watch being made, we could still infer from the nature of the watch that it had been designed and made
  • If the watch did not keep good time or didn't even work, we could still infer from the nature of the watch that it had been designed and made
  • If we did not know how the watch works or what all its various parts did, we could still infer from the nature of the watch that it had been designed and made
  • No-one would reasonably argue that the watch appeared by itself as one random manifestation of all the possible things these parts could make
  • No-one would reasonably argue that all the watch parts randomly fell into place of their own accord, thus leading to the creation of an intricate time piece
  • Material things cannot organise themselves without some external power moving them, or acting upon them
Photograph of LEGO pieces being held in the hand
(Copyright Stephen A Richards, 2017)
Key quotes

"In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever... But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there."

"This mechanism being observed... the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use."

"A law [of nature] presupposes an agent... it implies a power; for it is the order, according to which that power acts. Without this agent, without this power, which are both distinct from itself, the law does nothing; is nothing." [Bracket mine]

Key Text