[A project for my course on Christian Evidences this semester at Trinity International University, in which I argued against a nonbeliever and old friend about the existence of God.]
1:28:45 — neither a Bible verse nor a Shakespearean play line — yet in time a conversation, in dialogue even so. As I ran arguments by Ben, a fellow 19 year old male whose encounter and participation I did not expect, a new confidence in my faith shone through a fog long lingering. For my Junior and Senior years of high school, I unconsciously wrestled with the legitimacy of faith in a pluralistic environment — since I have to assent to my school’s curricula, and this never required nor refuted the existence of God, I gave myself permission to table the question indefinitely. To live as if God may or may not exist, to live functionally agnostic, to become intellectually agnostic, to become intellectually atheistic — it is a slow but logically consequent descent that I should have predicted but didn’t have the experience or perspective to see.
Then my reversion to fundamentalist confidence in Christian Theism came abruptly. I entered complete Christian community at summer camp and at Trinity last fall, each filled with people who actually believed what they said. The communal nature of these groups in time exposed me to, forced me to see my degenerate, vacuous hovel for what it really was: empty, but accidentally so. What a mark of progress, then, for the rebirth of my mind-in-Christ that I could engage someone confidently in this argument who holds the position towards which I had leaned before!
My discussion with Ben began with the Kalam Cosmological Argument. In short, it asserts one law, one fact, and from these binds listeners into one conclusion:
P: All things that begin to exist have a preceding cause
P: The universe [or x] began to exist
C: The universe [or x] has a preceding cause
In the place of x, I can input matter, time, or space, in addition to the entire universe, such that this cause must also have the properties of immateriality, intemporality, and inspaciality. Curiously, these are the same attributes given of the usual infinite God-the-omnipotent type theism. Ben sees the “gaping flaw” that this does not lead to the biblical definition of God. Specifically, this “god” is not personal, and is does not need to have conscious decision making ability. Neither of these can follow from the Kalam argument itself.
To this I replied that the Kalam argument is a necessary but insufficient argument for Christianity — as in, if it is false, Christianity is false, but if it is true, Christianity has not yet been justified. Clearly the various personality traits of God cannot be demonstrated from the mere fact that the universe exists, like the patience of God, which has no necessary physical analogue. It is an argument only for theism proper.
Ben put forward the argument that there is no reason that chains of causation should lead to a God. For example, if he slams his cup onto the table, and consequently sound waves exit the cup, we can conclude that the slamming caused the sound waves, but not that these should have anything to do with God. In reply I introduced the simple distinction that his example concerns physical-physical chains of causation, while this cosmological argument concerns causation between that which is nonphysical (God) and that which is physical, so the metaphor breaks down at precisely the point it objects to the Kalam argument.
We then embarked on an interesting discussion of the fundamental forces of physics, because his other objection is that the Kalam argument does not imply that God should be a conscious being, that it could be merely a force or property that is immaterial, inspatial, and intemporal. Such a force is not something he “would feel compelled to go to church and worship.” Little to his knowledge, this is actually the Official Position™ of most atheists I’ve seen on the Kalam argument. But the question quickly reduced down to nothing because neither of us really understood Stephen Hawking’s Theory Of Everything proposal and we both acknowledged that theoretical physicists have no reason to believe that such a TOE exists. It became a null point, “neither here nor there” as Ben said, and we moved on.
The Teleological Argument concerns itself with the directionality or purpose evident in the natural world. An important subcategory we discussed was the argument from Intelligent Design, which asserts the improbability that intelligent life could arise from non-intelligent life and then supplies that An Intelligence is the most like explanation. Since the likelihood of such events obtaining by chance is low, we assume that, since they happened, they were not by chance; they were purposed.
Ben has a “clear and simple refutation”: the only things that will continue to exist throughout time are those that can. This is just Darwinism, just evolution, just natural selection, he remarked. I do not use quotation marks to imply his position is immature or ill-conceived. Instead, this argument just barely misses the mark. I was not talking about natural selection — for who can disagree with the tautological truism that dead things do not live, so living things are those that do not die? I told him in very clear terms that I believe in natural selection as a principle and in application, and on a slightly unrelated note that I also believe in an old age of the Earth and in (theistically guided) evolution. My disagreement is not on any of the object-level facts of natural history, but that any of it could have arisen unaided.
I gave this argument: the ratio of mutations negatively impacting survival to those positive nears roughly two orders of magnitude, something like 100:1. So, it seems incredibly rare that positive effects would come about before the deleterious effects of the rest lead the species to death. Since obviously we see the evidence of good DNA everywhere, how did these get there in the first place? Truly natural selection can weed out the poor contenders, but how did positive ones originate at all?
Ben replies that, given an infinite amount of time, the certainty of an event with nonzero probability rises to one. In other words, if you have a 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 sided dice, the odds of rolling #834,593,827,930,172,372,382,274 is extremely low — but if we rolled the dice an infinite number of times, it would eventually be bound to happen. In fact, in such an infinite time-space, Ben comments, “What are the odds of it happening once? 100%. Twice? 100%. Three times? 100%.”
I explain that this is a great argument, but it doesn’t apply once r/K selection switches in natural history. His idea of sheer numbers driving up the probability applies very well with r/ selected animals, like a seahorse that spews out ten thousands children with enough force to push itself backwards in the water over a yard. The children are left on their own, and hopefully, the parents think, a few make it out alright. Yet most will die. In contrast, animals that are K selected have few offspring, maintain their offspring very meticulously, and release them once they are at the age of sexual reproduction themselves. In the first scenario a natural selection by-the-numbers seems to work, but how could it work in such a smaller scale? It appears that the gene pool negativity would rise fast enough to just wipe out every member of the already-small species, rather than work in quantitatively large portions.
Ben says that, while all that may be true, his argument still applies in a much broader sense. For whether the events on Earth themselves are a low enough probability to not work on Earth is immaterial to the application of his point across the whole universe. There are a near infinite number of planets that have similar conditions to Earth (of just the ones yet discovered) and an infinite amount of time, so it actually is more than likely that, not only have Earth produced intelligent life by natural processes, but several other planets have as well.
I point out that time is not infinite in the past, because of the argument for the Big Bang, which does temporarily stall him, but he puts on the table the Oscillating Universe Theory. The Big Bang is the earliest we can possibly see, but it has happened an infinite number of times before, in an oscillating series of expansions and crunches. (He admits that this is a weak argument). I have essentially no response to this other than to point out that people seem to not use this argument because, for reasons I cannot think of, it must be easy to knock-down. Or else we probably would have heard of it more. Instead, most people use in its place the Multiverse theory, which Ben is surprisingly quick to disregard because “we have literally no reason to think it is true.” I agree, because it commits the unholy trinity of being unfalsifiable, unverifiable, and purely theoretical at once.
Next we enter the mystical Alice and Wonderland world of the Ontological Argument. Developed by Anselm in the eleventh century, it goes something like this:
D: God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived
P: God exists as an idea in the mind
P: It is greater to exist in and outside of the mind than just in
P: If God exists only in the mind, something greater can be conceived
P: We cannot do that, or we result in a contradiction with D
C: God exists.
To his ears this “sounds like a mixture of wordplay and… [unfinished sentence].” It is a weird philosophical argument that sounds like it’s cheating. Anytime I say that anything is better, I’m going to say it’s the case. It sounds like all this argument asserts is that anything used to beat this argument is now the new argument. It is not falsifiable, and also comes across as a mere thinking exercise. If we selectively define something as the #1 greatest, and then someone thinks of something greater, it will always sounds like it really is something greater.
I say that, really, it is falsifiable, but since it’s in deductive form, the falsehood can be proven only by demonstrating holes in the chain of logic, or false premises, instead of usual arguments being proven false by conferring with physical evidence. I concede that, in my opinion, this argument is perhaps salvageable but not valid its current form. But in the time it takes me to say this, Ben has changed his mind. Contrary to my concession, this “might be the best argument that has been made” because it made him stop and think. Because if this logical progression is true, then he is backed into a corner! It comes off at face value as a logical progression. It is only a thought experiment, and has nothing to do with the physical word (purely rational, not empirical), it is very interesting to think about.
Next I set up the Argument from Common Morality for our discussion. It seems that a common morality has emerged in each part of human society independently. As far as anthropologists can tell, this morality began after the different tribes splintered into separate groups, yet even those without communicate to the others developed the same morality. This morality even contradicts what is found in nature among other animals, and thus falls somehow, even if only slightly, outside the usual scope of natural selection. This morality seems to have some type of non-ontological existence; like wood has a grain, and a saw can tolerate going with the grain but eventually will wear and break after repeated attempts to cut against the grain, there is a grain to the universe against which man can walk, but only for limited times and in limited ways.
Ben sees the power of this argument, and when summarizing it back to me adds that we can try to develop a society independent of morality, but “we would slip back into morality soon enough.” But he disagrees, entering onto a lengthy tangent to describe an intricate point. There are some things that humans have not evolved the capacity to understand, because understanding them would not be advantageous to our survival as a species. For example, we cannot understand life after death because to do so would be to potentially jeopardize the perceived fragility of life, which holds us in check from excessively dangerous actions. The purpose of human is, after all, to replicate accurate copies of ourselves. (We can imagine life after death as something like imagining time in reverse and watching the Big Bang collapse in on itself into perfect nothingness, nonexistence. The problem therefore is not that we can’t imagine it, but that this mental sensation is fleeting, that we cannot retain it more than a moment).
At any rate, this connects with morality because like morality this inability to experience anything of which an experience is detrimental to survival is the same for all people. It is detrimental to human survival to think about murdering our peers, or stealing from members of our tribe, or lying to leaders that keeps us safe. It wouldn’t help the evolutionarily predisposed experience. We also do not need to compete against other humans like insects or fish do, because we understand cooperation. As a social species, we evolved to live in communities of 150-200 people, and morality that bypasses Darwinism comes from the success of these communities (which used “morality”), not the success of any of their individual members in particular.
We did not have time for the Argument From the Mind, but as I described it he sounded interested, so I got his email address and promised to send him J.P. Moreland’s essay on this argument from the Anthology of Primary Sources book.
Finally, I entered my own, very modified version of the Argument from Religious Experience. This shares very few features with the actual argument of the same name. I began by presenting Francis Schaeffer’s approach to evangelism — do not try to change someone’s presuppositions or epistemic beliefs; instead, lead them into greater consistency with their own beliefs. If they are an atheist, and if meaning within life can only be derived from that which is explicitly outside of life, there can be do meaning in life. This is a natural consequence of the naturalist worldview.
Why is it not worth arguing over epistemic beliefs? As Musgrave pointed out, is that all epistemic beliefs either
- Depend upon themselves to be proven (thus circular)
- Depend upon another belief to be proven (thus wrong)
C. Remain unproven by reason.
This implies, rather startlingly, that no real progress can be made in these discussion because, applying this framework, all the same counters apply back to Christianity as can be lobbed at atheism. I then asserted that, since this sweeps truth itself aside, the only evaluative criteria we are left with is the noticeable impact of the belief on a person’s life. Since we deem suicide to be a worse outcome than non-suicide, we deem that, inasmuch as we can really tell, Christianity is the superior option (assuming that we are living consistently with our foundational beliefs and not just arbitrarily borrowing good aspects that are logically consequent only to other foundations).
Ben replies that he is deeply thoughtful about this argument. He temporarily rebuts that this only describes which belief’s pragmatism is better, not which belief’s truth is truer. That makes perfect sense to him and he agrees with the fact that it is better to believe in God, but we are just talking about belief, not what is and what isn’t. If truth really can’t be determined, then “f— it let’s have some pragmatism.” But that’s not an argument for or against the existence of God, it’s an argument for how you should live your life. I agree, but nonetheless the points ABC remain about the inability to prove epistemic notions, and I cannot find a reason to value truth as if it has any objectivity in such a world. Ben agrees.
I did not expect from this experience to see my debate partner’s mind convert, obvert, or contrapose. Nor, in any genuine sense, did I expect to see myself present argument for the existence of God in good conscience that just one year ago I’d have belittled. Maybe the latter is all that came true — but nonetheless I pray the former will also.