Friday, February 05, 2010

Goldstein's Appendix: The Arguments for the Existence of God

Rebecca Goldstein's Appendix on the "36 Arguments for the Existence of God" is stunning in its concision, clarity, and cogency. In 53 pages, she lays out the logic of each argument as a series of premises leading to the conclusion "God exists," and then she points out the flaws in each argument that refute it.

Not only does she take up the classic philosophical arguments, she also puts into logical form the emotionally compelling longings that underlie the religious experience of most human beings. So, for example, she includes not only the "cosmological argument," but also "the argument from the intolerability of insignificance."

Here are the 36 arguments:

1. The Cosmological Argument
2. The Ontological Argument
3. The Argument from Design
A. The Classical Teleological Argument
B. The Argument from Irreducible Complexity
C. The Argument from the Paucity of Benign Mutations
D. The Argument from the Original Replicator
4. The Argument from the Big Bang
5. The Argument from the Fine-Tuning of Physical Constants
6. The Argument from the Beauty of Physical Laws
7. The Argument from Cosmic Coincidences
8. The Argument from Personal Coincidences
9. The Argument from Answered Prayers
10. The Argument from a Wonderful Life
11. The Argument from Miracles
12. The Argument from the Hard Problem of Consciousness
13. The Argument from the Improbable Self
14. The Argument from Survival After Death
15. The Argument from the Inconceivability of Personal Annihilation
16. The Argument from Moral Truth
17. The Argument from Altruism
18. The Argument from Free Will
19. The Argument from Personal Purpose
20. The Argument from the Intolerability of Insignificance
21. The Argument from the Consensus of Humanity
22. The Argument from the Consensus of Mystics
23. The Argument from Holy Books
24. The Argument from Perfect Justice
25. The Argument from Suffering
26. The Argument from the Survival of the Jews
27. The Argument from the Upward Curve of History
28. The Argument from Prodigious Genius
29. The Argument from Human Knowledge of Infinity
30. The Argument from Mathematical Reality
31. The Argument from Decision Theory (Pascal's Wager)
32. The Argument from Pragmatism (William James's Leap of Faith)
33. The Argument from the Unreasonableness of Reason
34. The Argument from Sublimity
35. The Argument from the Intelligibility of the Universe (Spinoza's God)
36. The Argument from the Abundance of Arguments

If you read her Appendix, you will notice how often her refutations depend on citing three kinds of fallacies--The Fallacy of Arguing from Ignorance, The Fallacy of Using One Mystery to Explain Another, and The Fallacy of Wishful Thinking.

Many of the arguments for the existence of God depend on the assumption that if science has not yet provided a full explanation for something, that shows that this must be something that has been created by God. This is the Fallacy of Arguing from Ignorance. Scientific knowledge is always going to be incomplete. And there probably are some fundamental problems that will never be fully explained by science because of the limitations of human experience and human reasoning. But the mere fact of human ignorance does not dictate the conclusion there there is no natural explanation at all, and that this must be the work of God acting outside of nature. As Goldstein indicates, this is the most common fallacy in the arguments of the "intelligent design theorists": if molecular biologists have not yet explained the step-by-step evolutionary history of bacterial flagella (or any other living phenomenon), that is assumed by the IDers to prove the existence of an Intelligent Designer.

There really are some fundamental mysteries in the universe. But to invoke God as the explanation shows the Fallacy of Using One Mystery to Explain Another. Goldstein identifies at least six great mysteries:

1. First Cause
2. consciousness
3. free will
4. unique self-identity
5. mathematical reality
6. the uniqueness of the universe

The first great mystery is evoked by the question, Why is there something rather than nothing? There is no good scientific or philosophic answer for that question, which points to the problem of ultimate explanation. We can keep passing the buck, but the buck must stop somewhere. To say that God is the First Cause--the Uncaused Cause of everything--doesn't resolve the mystery because then we have the mystery of how to explain God. If we can say that God is uncaused or self-caused, then why not say that the Universe is uncaused or self-caused?

Similarly, human consciousness or the uniqueness of human personal identity might forever remain deep conundrums without full scientific explanations. But to say that God created human consciousness and unique human persons only replaces one kind of mystery with another.

Perhaps the deepest emotional attitude supporting religion is the feeling that my life has no meaning or purpose if I am not a creature of God who loves me and cares for me and will give me eternal life. I cannot bear the thought that my appearance in this universe was an accident, the product of cosmic causes that have no special purpose in mind, and that when I die, the world will go on without me. How can my life matter--really matter--if it's not all about ME? This is the thought that moves existentialist Christians like Peter Lawler who say that Darwinian science cannot explain everything if it cannot give cosmic meaning to the life of human beings as unique persons who don't want to die.

But as Goldstein indicates, this shows the Fallacy of Wishful Thinking. Wishing for something doesn't make it so, even when the wish expresses an anguished human longing. If there's no good reason to believe that it's all about ME, then my wish that it should be so is unwarranted narcissism. If I undergo an existential crisis as I seek the cosmic reason for my personal existence--why am I here? what am I here for?--there may be no reason, because it might be that my personal existence is ultimately just a contingency of the universe.

And yet, even as Goldstein reaches this conclusion, she gives her reader a novel that suggests that most human beings will never accept this, and so they will turn from reason to religion. Even those few who understand most fully the fallaciousness of the transcendent longings of human beings might feel compelled to yield to those longings by an emotional necessity that overpowers rational necessity.


Lorenzo said...

I do not think her take on the Cosmological argument will impress any Thomists, since, as Feser and others point out, if you translate it into modern philosophical terms, you turn the argument into a caricature of itself.

Unknown said...

Can't the longing to believe that one's life is important and consequential lead to something that isn't fallacious? Say, something like an aesthete's belief in the power of beauty to move the human spirit, or maybe the type of erotic love of truth that Plato and Nietzsche talk about? I had been looking forward to reading this book, but if its conclusion is that all search for meaning ends either in human frustration or a dishonest answer, than I might not pick it up, unless it also takes issue with the non-religious ways in which human beings find meaning.

Larry Arnhart said...


If you do read the book, I'll be interested in your interpretation of where she finally ends up on this question.

Through her character Cass Seltzer, she makes the argument that we can find meaning in our human moral, intellectual, and aesthetic activities, even without religious belief in some transcendent cosmic meaning. Cass himself is moved by romantic love, although he is disappointed in that love.

At times, Cass seems to say that whatever we do to find meaning in our lives is either openly religious or a disguised version of religious longing. If this is Goldstein's position, I disagree, for the same reasons that I disagree with Nietzsche's atheistic religiosity.

Anonymous said...

While Goldstein's refutations are really nothing new, nonetheless she does show with unusual clarity just how illogical and laughable are the so-called "arguments" for the existence of a god or gods.

This should give pause to folks like Carson Holloway, who believes that Divine Command Theory is a better foundation for ethics and politics than Darwinian Natural Right.

I think the list also takes apart these theological arguments so well that Professor Arnhart should reconsider how seriously he takes objections from those like Carson Holloway.

Luke Lea said...

Which God are we talking about by the way? How about the fairest and most beautiful possible thing, consistent with everything we know?

Maybe there is a kind of poetic justice in the way each of us approaches and ultimately experiences death. Egotistical bastards experience it one way, kind and considerate human beings another.

In any case we are only talking about possibilities, not probabilities, let alone certainties. Proofs have no place such ultimate questions

Ryan said...

Maverick Philosopher has what he calls an onto-cosmological argument, which does not invoke the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Since it's one of the better arguments I've read, I think it's worth including.

It isn't based on any of the six great mysteries listed. Simply:

(1) It is possible that facts exist.
(2) If it is possible that facts exist, then God exists.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(26 pp.)

Troy Camplin said...

In the end, no "logical" argument can prove God's existence. Here is why I believe God exists:

I sometimes have a voice telling me what to do and what not to do.

When I do not listen to it, my life goes all to Hell; when I do listen to it, my life works out wonderfully.

I am convinced this is the voice of God. I cannot convince anyone that that is the case -- not even my Baptist father -- but neither can anyone convince me that that is not the case.

If we are to be completely honest, belief in God is based either on cultural tradition (for most people) or personal experience. When Aquinas had the latter, he stopped writing philosophy.

Larry Arnhart said...

It has now occurred to me--11 years later!--that Troy Camplin's argument is what Goldstein calls The Argument from a Wonderful Life.

It has 7 steps. 1. Sometimes people who are lost in life find their way. 2. These people could not have known the right way on their own. 3. These people were shown the right way by something or someone other than themselves. 4. There was no person showing them the way. 5. God alone is a being who is not a person and who cares about each of us enough to show us the way. 6. Only God could have helped these lost souls. 7. God exists.

Goldstein identifies a flaw in this argument: "Premise 2 ignores the psychological complexity of people. People have inner resources on which they draw, often without knowing how they are doing it or even that they are doing it. . . decisions and resolutions can bubble into awareness without our being conscious of the processes that led to them. These epiphanies seem to announce themselves to us, as if they came from an external guide: another example of the Projection Fallacy" (364).

This might be her explanation for what Socrates identified as a divine inner voice that told him what not to do.