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36 (bad) arguments for the existence of God August 12, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Logic, Religion.

In the appendix to her novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein patiently rebuts all three dozen of them — from The Cosmological Argument to The Argument from the Abundance of Arguments. The fun part is identifying the various logical fallacies underlying the arguments — without a doubt, the best place to find logical fallacies is on the topic of God.

The most common fallacy is that of Using One Mystery to Explain Another (featured in The Cosmological Argument, The Argument from the Hard Problem of Consciousness, The Argument from the Improbable Self, The Argument from Free Will, and The Argument from Mathematical Reality). Unfortunately, merely proclaiming that “God did it!” when faced with a mysterious phenomenon does not dispel the mystery, and adds nothing to our understanding of the universe. Putting a label on something does not mean you have explained it. Such a non-explanation is actually worse than no explanation at all, because it causes people to think they know something that they really don’t (How does consciousness arise? God did it!) — so there’s no motivation for doing the hard work required to actually expand our knowledge.

A related fallacy is that of Arguing from Ignorance: reasoning that since we currently have no explanation for some puzzling phenomenon, it must be attributed to God. The classic example is The Argument from Design — before Darwin, no one could think of a way for complex creatures (such as ourselves) to have come about without a creator. God is still invoked as the default solution to some of today’s mysteries, as in The Argument from the Hard Problem of Consciousness and The Argument from Prodigious Genius. But just as the puzzle of biological complexity has been given a naturalistic solution, there is every reason to expect that we will one day have a much better understanding of many phenomena that now baffle us. In any case, the fact that we do not currently have a natural explanation for something doesn’t mean that there must be a supernatural one.

A slightly more subtle fallacy is that of Wishful Thinking. It’s amazing how many people think that since they wouldn’t want to live in a universe where their existence wasn’t part of some master plan (The Argument from the Intolerability of Insignificance), or where evil deeds go forever unpunished (The Argument from Perfect Justice), or where innocent people suffer for no purpose (The Argument from Suffering) — it somehow follows that the universe cannot be that way. The appropriate response: Grow up.

By the way, it’s important to notice that the vast majority of arguments for the existence of God do not deal with the specific God of any particular religion, and even those few that do (like The Argument from Miracles and The Argument from Holy Books) can be used to support many contradictory religions. So even if one of the arguments did work, religious people would still have all their work ahead of them if they wish to justify the belief that God wrote some particular book, or that he cares what we eat or whom we sleep with. Furthermore, even if the universe was created by a God who continues to take an interest in our affairs, it would not follow that we ought to worship him and obey his every command (e.g., executing homosexuals). For explaining how things are, God is superfluous, and for determining how things ought to be, God is irrelevant: no miracle or magic book can absolve us from the responsibility of thinking for ourselves. As Goldstein writes in response to The Argument from the Upward Curve of History (crediting God for the spread of democracy, freedom and human rights despite natural selection’s favoring “survival of the fittest”):

Though our species has inherited traits of selfishness and aggression, we have inherited capacities for empathy, reasoning, and learning from experience as well. We have also developed language, and with it a means to pass on the lessons we have learned from history. And so humankind has slowly reasoned its way toward a broader and more sophisticated understanding of morality, and more effective institutions for keeping peace. We make moral progress as we do scientific progress, through reasoning, experimentation, and the rejection of failed alternatives.

Primary among those failed alternatives are magical thinking and dogmatic adherence to tradition — which encourage people to accept bad arguments.

Rebecca Newberger GoldsteinRebecca Newberger Goldstein


1. medullitus - August 17, 2010

As a pastor, I do not normally engage in the Does God Exist argument for two reasons: If he does exist, no proof would be necessary. And if he does not exist, there is nothing that I (not being God) could do to make him so. The question, then, is whether believing is a societal good, and whether not believing is a societal good. Where there is no harm, there is no foul. Incidentally, although we Southern Baptists are often branded as religiously ultraconservative–which to me is inaccurate–it is a tenet of the Southern Baptist faith that a person is free to believe and free to not believe (soul liberty).

Ezra Resnick - August 17, 2010

If [God] does exist, no proof would be necessary. And if he does not exist, there is nothing that I (not being God) could do to make him so.

I have no clue what you mean by this, but your thinking seems to be backwards. We should demand good evidence and argument in support of a proposition before believing it.

The question, then, is whether believing is a societal good, and whether not believing is a societal good. Where there is no harm, there is no foul.

First of all, notice that the usefulness of a belief says nothing at all about its truth. In any case, though, it is quite obvious that religion causes a great deal of harm. Many immoral actions are performed daily for explicitly religious reasons, from demonizing homosexuals to preaching the sinfulness of condom use in AIDS-ravaged Africa. We’ve even got congressmen basing national policy on biblical prophesy. More generally, religion has divided our world into separate moral communities, fostering an “us versus them” mentality that fuels many of the world’s worst conflicts. Most of this evil can be traced to religion encouraging dogmatic obedience to tradition and authority, and discouraging critical and independent thinking. Teaching children that it is praiseworthy to accept things “on faith,” instead of teaching them to be skeptical and think for themselves, has disastrous consequences.

it is a tenet of the Southern Baptist faith that a person is free to believe and free to not believe (soul liberty).

That’s very gracious of you, but if you also think that those who don’t believe as you do will be punished after they die, then we still have a problem. We should care what our neighbors believe, because people’s beliefs guide their actions. We must do our utmost to ensure that our beliefs accurately reflect reality, and this requires that our beliefs be based on good evidence and sound argument.

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