The Same Old Arguments

by Neal Stevens

I haven't been reading these Newsgroups for terribly long, and yet I already have a dismal sense of deja vu.

Whenever I get into a some kind of thread with a theist, I always seem to have the last word. Maybe this is just because I write really long posts and I merely drown the opposition.

But I suspect that it's because theists simply have no really good arguments, and no new arguments.

This seems to be about it:

1) Argument from authority

My religion is thousands of years old. Many brilliant people have believed it. What makes you smarter than them?

Many different religions are thousands of years old and have been believed my brilliant people, and yet have espoused fundamentally contradictory things. Also, quite clearly, many things that have been believed, both for thousands of years, and by many brilliant people, have ultimately been demonstrated to be false. False things may be believed by smart people, sometimes for good reasons, and sometimes for bad reasons.

Clearly, to accept one set of dicta believed for thousands of years by one group of "smart people" and to reject all other comparable beliefs, cannot be justified on the basis of "authority" alone. Thus this argument cannot stand.

2) Argument from sacred texts

My (fill in sacred book) was written and/or inspired by god. I know this because there is:

A) confirming historical data in the book

B) because it contains prophecies that have come true,

C) because it contains moral truths,

D) because "it says it's true,"

E)because, barring evidence to the contrary, we should accept texts as true, not presume, a priori, that they are false, and

F) because it "makes sense," and if you only study it closely, it will make sense to you too.

There are many such books. Many of them are mutually contradictory.

A) The historical correlations are no better and no different from those that we find in ancient texts like the Illiad and the Odyssey, which are not considered to be good evidence of the existence of the pantheon of Greek Gods.

All of these books contain many statements that are also clearly contradicted by the historical record and by current scientific knowledge about the world.

B) Prophecies are either "internal" to the books in question -- i.e., something prophesied in Chapter one happens in Chapter two -- and thus both prophecy and fulfillment are outside our capacity to independently verify, or else they are so obsure that it would not be possible to falsify them.

That is, no matter how many times a prophesy "fails" to come true, the words themselves are sufficiently vague to permit yet another interpretation. If I say it will rain in Cleveland tomorrow, and it doesn't rain in Cleveland tomorrow, then I have prophesied falsely. But if I prophesy "Storms shall come upon the Land Which Cleaves" -- the words are so vague that there will never be a time when such a prophesy can be unambiguously demonstrated to have failed. As such, they have no fixed consequences and cannot be used to confirm the text.

C) Moral "truths" are not absolute -- they arise from the societies that hold them to be true. The Israelites forebade stealing and killing long before they'd received the putative ten commandments. Other societies had similar laws. But such laws, in different societies, permitted or forbade slavery, permitted or forebade the murder of women by their husbands, or children by their fathers, permitted the torture of war captives or of heretics, the sacrifice of children, and genocide. Certain kinds of rules seem to work to preserve societies. We tend to find those rules in societies that last. There is no evidence that they represent any kind of "absolute" and certainly the "moral" truth of the Bible, for instance, is no more evidence of the truth of its other claims than the moral truth of the "Code of Hammurabi" constitutes evidence of the truth of their religious beliefs.

D) Clearly, this is a circular argument, and also reaches to a more general problem -- the "presumption of truth" of holy books. Clearly, when the truth is presumed, then all evidence to the contrary must be merely "apparent." We only "think" that the claims of the book are inconsistent with science, or with one another. We only "think" that the prophecies have failed. Since we "know" that it's true, we must just be reading it wrong... and thus, by finding the right "interpretation" we will arrive at the truth of the book. So a day in Genesis becomes a billion years. And the sun had to be hidden behind a great big cloud for millenia, thus permitting it to "appear" in the sky after the advent of plant life.

Clearly such ad hoc interpretations are, like the prophesies, inherently unverifiable. In the end, all we have is the text. If there is no independent basis for accepting it as true, then we have no need to reconcile internal or external inconsistencies. And the capacity to do so, through vast leaps of "interpretation" doesn't constitute evidence of anything, other than of the creativity of the interpreter.

Maybe the gods of Olympus have just jumped to a different dimension and that's why there's no trace of them on top of Mount Olympus.

But the most reasonable conclusion is that there just never were any gods on Mount Olympus, and that the accounts of them, no matter how convincing, compelling, or "reconcilable," are simply wrong.

E) There are many holy books. They all contain accounts of supernatural events, of the sort that we routinely reject in historical works, even those that purport to be "true accounts." "The Twelve Caesars" is considered to be very accurate in most respects, but it also contains accounts of "omens" that signalled the ascendancy and death of Emperors. We read this as something that people of Suetonius' time considered to be true, but which we, clearly, reject as false.

Rejecting the supernatural content of ancient texts is, in fact, standard operating procedure. To fail to do so in one particular case is special pleading.

F) The truth claims of any text can only be arrived at through comparing its claims to the real world, not merely through "reconciling" its contradictions and impossibilities through contortions of interpretation.

All mythology contains lessons about how to be human, and such lessons, in the form of stories, can be deeply moving. But this is not evidence of the truth of the story.

3) Argument from ignorance

We know almost nothing about the universe. What arrogance to presume to "know" that there is no god. At worst, we must admit that god is "possible."

Ignorance, per se, cannot be the basis of any conclusion. Our lack of knowledge, or the absence of an explanation for a particular phenomenon doesn't weigh in support of any preferred explanation which has no supporting evidence, and certainly not a supernatural explanation. The Ancient Greeks may not have had a better explanation for lightning than Zeus. That doesn't constitute an argument in support of Zeus.

We have no basis for populating the realms of our ignorance with gods or monsters. Nor do we have any basis for accepting the truth of any proposition without supporting evidence. When the evidence in support of a proposition is zero, then the basis for accepting it as true is zero.

"Not impossible" is not the same as plausible or reasonable. There are an infinite number of proposable entities the existence of which cannot be positively ruled out. With zero supporting evidence, we have zero basis for accepting any of them "possible" or not, as true.

4) Argument from uncertainty

I can't prove that there is a god, but you can't prove that there is no god. Therefore, our positions are comparable.

This isn't really an argument in support of the existence of god. It's sort of a "tarring with the same brush" sort of argument -- a way of saying that theism and atheism are, in essence comparable.

But this isn't really so. Those who support the claim that a deity exists, assigns their deities specific traits, while saying, simultaneously, that the nature of their gods are "unknowable."

It is perfectly true to say that a god who chooses to remove all perceptible traces of his existence, cannot be "perceived." By definition, obviously not.

But this is just another way of saying that there is no external evidence that supports the existence of a given god. If there is no evidence, then we cannot accept a proposition as true on the basis of evidence.

On the other hand, it is perfectly reasonable to say that, barring evidence of giant, invisible floating squirrels, we should not believe in them. Not "withhold judgement" -- but to judge the statement, on the basis of no supporting evidence, to be untrue.

Belief in the existence of a purported entity, in the absence of any credible supporting evidence, is unreasonable.

Disbelief in the existence of a proposed entity, in the absence of any credible supporting evidence, on the other hand, is perfectly reasonable.

5) Argument from Design

The universe generates functionally complex entities. The only other functionally complex entities we know about are things that we design and build. Therefore, the universe was designed and built.

The fact that we know that some functionally complex things are designed and built is, by itself, insufficient to reach, logically, to the conclusion that all functionally complex entities must be designed and built.

In fact, when we look at living systems, it is clear that they reproduce, on a cellular level, with no particular intelligent intervention at all. Nothing is happening but chemistry. Nor have we ever witnessed, on a cellular level, or any other level, anything ever happening other than chemistry.

The complexity of life is satisfactorily explained through the processes of evolution through natural selection, which permit favorable traits to accumulate to form and preserve complex structures over the course of many generations.

One need only begin with a self-replicating molecule, plus variation and the effects of natural selection, to produce life as we know it.

And while we may not know the processes that produced that initial replicating molecule, we can draw no conclusions from that... any more than the Greeks had the right to shout "Zeus" when lightning struck.

Of course, the argument from design occasionally side tracks into the "anthropic principle" which suggests that, were any of a vast number of things different about the universe, we wouldn't be here, and that, therefore, all of the constants were adjusted to produce us.

Of course, we have no basis for judging how likely or unlikely it is that these constants could have been different. They might very well have had to be the way they were for reasons that have nothing to do with any particular outcome. Rectangles of the same size stack without leaving any gaps. This makes them ideal for bricks. But rectangles of the same size don't stack without leaving gaps for the "purpose" of providing us with bricks.

Also, of course, what is really being invoked here is the "unlikelihood" of life as evidence for the "intent" of life. Which is, frankly, a contradiction.

6) Argument from subjective experience

Again, as with sacred texts, many different people have such experiences. They are mutually contradictory. They inevitably fail to correlate in a meaningful way with any kind of external confirming reality. Those who rely upon them in support of their own particular beliefs, have no trouble rejecting comparable experiences when others have them and report contradictory "revelations."

The majority of such experiences, since that are mutally contradictory, must be false. None need be true. There is no credible independent evidence that any of them are true.

Barring such evidence, we should conclude, reasonably, that such experiences are false.

7) Argument from first causes

Look around you. There's a whole universe. Where did it come from, if not god?

In a sense, this is covered by the "argument from ignorance." It is also clear that such a claimed "explanation" fails, in fact, to "explain" anything, since it has no necessary consequences.

And, needless to say, if all things need a creator, then what renders god "immune?" And if you say, Well, since there cannot be infinite regress of creators, there must be a single "ultimate" creator, who contravenes the need for "being created."

This, of course, is simply another kind of special pleading. There "need" not be any creator. Nor does "ultimateness" -- a word which really just means "the last in the line" necessarily confer any particular quality upon something. The fact is, if there is a god, then god exists. And if he was not created, then god exists without the need for a creator. Therefore, those who invoke the need for a creator to account for the universe claim, in the same breath, that the "problem" of the creation of the universe is solved by invoking something infinitely more complex than the universe -- that wasn't created.

If it's a problem with a complex universe, why isn't it an infinitely greater problem with something infinitely more complex than the universe?

8) Argument from the ineffable

Things like thoughts, feelings, and love exist, and yet are not "material." If we can believe in the existence of these immaterial things, why not of a greater, immaterial god? And, since the brain is "material" how can it give rise to such things as "experiences" -- which are ineffable and immaterial. Surely, these things must have their source in the "source" of all non-material things, namely god.

The universe is full of "non-material" things that we do not invoke the supernatural to account for. All processes are immaterial. All "states" of things, are immaterial.

So far as we know, things like thoughts, and awareness, and feelings, represent states of the brain. They are not objects, any more than the "height" of a thing is an object. It is no more an object that the "circulation" of blood in our veins is an object. These are words that describe the states of things. "Thought," "awareness," and "feelings," are words that describe the state of a functioning brain.

And we have good reason to believe this because there is no quality of mind that we can define that cannot be lost, altered, or destroyed, through damage to the brain.

And while it is true that we cannot access directly, the mental processes that produce the states that we "feel" -- that does not mean that our feelings do not arise from those processes. When somebody has his brain stimulated with an electrode and this triggers a "memory" -- he has no awareness of the electrode emitting a charge which triggers the memory -- he simply "remembers."

And again, for those who claim that we are far from fully understanding the human brain, which is true, they cannot invoke our "ignorance" in support of a preferred conclusion.

9) Argument from Pascal's wager

Not really an argument in support of god, but rather presented as a "rationale" for accepting the existence, specifically, of the Christian god, on the basis of a kind of "worst case" analysis. If we believe it and it turns out to be false, we're no "worse" off after death, than we would have been if believed in no god. But if disbelieve and it turns out to be true, we suffer damnation.

Therefore, we should believe.

Ultimately, of course, the "risk" of damnation, unless some supporting evidence of it can be independently provided, is no more of a "risk" than that of a rain of razor blades.

If I go out with a puncture proof umbrella and it doesn't rain razor blades, what's the harm? But if I go out without a puncture proof umbrella and it rains razor blades... boy, oh, boy, am I going to be in trouble.

But nobody seriously considers this to be a reason to carry a puncture proof umbrella with you where ever you go. First, you'd have to demonstrate, ahead of time, that a rain of razor blades is a reasonable proposition.

Otherwise, we'd be spending every second of every day engaging in activities designed to avoid baseless risks.

And nothing elevates the particular "baseless" risk of Hell to one that deserves serious consideration -- any more than, say, a rain of razor blades.

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