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There are many ways for an argument in favor of theism to go wrong. The most common problem, though one that frequently goes unrecognized, has to do with the ambiguity of the term ‘God.’ To demonstrate this problem consider the following: Suppose that scientists, after years of trying to discover a mechanism that explains the origins of life on Earth, finally throw up their hands and conclude that we are never going to find a naturalistic explanation. We can even suppose, though it may be difficult to imagine what such evidence would look like, that they have positive evidence that life cannot have originated on Earth via the known chemical and physical processes.

Would this conclusion be reason to believe that God must have had something to do with life’s origins? Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘God.’ If ‘God’ simply refers to that process that gave rise to life on Earth, then the answer is yes. But, of course, this is not what anyone means by ‘God.’ The conclusion of the above imagined scenario is, properly stated, that we shouldn’t expect a naturalistic explanation for the origins of life. But this negative conclusion tells us next to nothing about the actual explanation (assuming there is one). It does not tell us that that which gave rise to life is a being, a conscious being, a loving being, an all-loving being, an all-powerful being, an all-knowing being, inspired the Bible, created the universe, created the planet Earth, spoke the universe into existence, cares about human life, or has any of the other myriad features that those who believe in God believe that he possesses. All that this imagined scenario would license us to conclude is that that which gave rise to life is of an unknown and probably non-natural process. And even if (a very big if) we had evidence that there was a conscious entity involved in the creation of life, this still would not be evidence that God exists, because, for all that we would know, this conscious entity could be less than all-powerful, not the creator of the universe, not all-loving (may not even be loving at all), less than all-knowing, and have nothing whatsoever to do with the Bible or any other religious text. So, to put it mildly, it would be a huge leap from the conclusion of the above imagined (and not very plausible) scenario to the further conclusion that God exists.

At the Huffington Post, Rabbi Adam Jacobs has posted an article, “A Reasonable Argument for God’s Existence” that contains a version of the teleological argument and which he thinks establishes that belief in God is more reasonable than disbelief. He argues that since there is currently no viable naturalistic explanation for how life originated on Earth, and since there is reason to doubt that we are anywhere close to finding such an explanation, we ought to conclude that life is the result of the intervention of some non-natural conscious intelligence. Jacobs sums up:

I posit to you that all the evidence points, in an obvious and inextricable way, to a supernatural explanation for the origin of life. If there are no known naturalistic explanations and the likelihood that “chance” played any role is wildly minute, then it is a perfectly reasonable position to take that a conscious super-intelligence (that some of us call God) was the architect of life on this planet. Everyone agrees to the appearance of design. It is illogical to assume its non-design in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

This argument suffers from the exact flaw I mentioned above. Notice, first, an interesting move: Jacobs says that some of us call the super-intelligent being who created life on Earth God. Fair enough. But I would venture to say that if it turned out that the super-intelligent creator was also uncaring, not omniscient, not omni-benevolent, not the inspiration for the Bible or any other religious text, and not even very interested in humanity, that very few would continue to call this being God. That some of us call the supernatural intelligence responsible for creating life “God” is really quite irrelevant to the question of whether Jacob’s argument proves that God exists. What we choose to call that force(s) through which life originated on this planet is neither here nor there with respect to the question of whether there is a all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful creator.

On the traditional monotheistic understanding, God is a being that is

  • transcendent (this would include being non-physical and non-natural)
  • the creator of everything (except Himself)
  • all-powerful
  • all-knowing
  • concerned with human life (i.e., takes an active interest in human affairs)
  • loving (perhaps even omni-benevolent)

We could add to this list, but let’s leave it at that. By way of contrast we’ll compare this notion to a related one of my own invention, that of a being who I have previously called Asura:

Asura is

  • transcendent (this would include being non-physical and non-natural)
  • the creator of everything (except Himself)
  • all-powerful
  • all-knowing
  • concerned with human life (i.e., takes an active interest in human affairs)
  • evil, nearly omni-malevolent (that is he despises almost everyone)

What Rabbi Jacobs’ does is take the first two characteristics of this list and argues that there is something that satisfies certain aspects of these characteristics. Jacobs’ argues, in effect, that there is a non-natural creator of life. But being non-natural is not the same as being transcendent and being the creator of life is not the same as being the creator of everything. So, his conclusion, if it were true, would not even establish that there is a being that satisfies the first two items of the list of God’s characteristics. Despite this, Jacobs takes this to be an argument for the existence of God. This is completely unwarranted. If it were warranted, then, since Asura is just as capable as God of creating life, it would also be an argument for the existence of Asura, and I doubt that he would be willing to grant that.

We can put this in the form of a dilemma. Either Jacob’s argument makes belief in God reasonable or else it does not. If it does make belief in God reasonable, then it also makes belief in Asura (an evil deity) reasonable. And, since belief in Asura entails the belief that God does not exist, Jacobs’ argument would also make disbelief in God reasonable. If it does not make belief in God reasonable, then it is not relevant to arguments concerning the rationality of belief in God.

There are other problems with his argument. I am sure that there are scientists who would strongly disagree with Jacobs’ assessment of the prospects of discovering a naturalistic explanation for the origins of life. However, I am not an expert and will not offer an opinion on this matter. But I would like to point out one more philosophical flaw with the argument. To simplify, we can boil  Jacobs’ argument down to the following: There is no naturalistic explanation for life’s origins. Thus, the only viable explanation is that God is responsible.

This argument suffers from a pernicious double standard. Scientists have been at work trying to explain how life originated but, says Jacobs, “the few hypotheses they do have are shredded to ribbons by their colleagues within the scientific community.” Again, I’m not an expert so I am not qualified to determine whether this is an accurate depiction of the state of the scientific investigation. However, I would like to note that theologians have not really offered much of an explanation of their own. Rabbi Jacobs explanation seems to be little more the claim that God did it. But perplexing phenomena are not made less perplexing merely through the supposition that God did it.

The theological explanation offered by Jacobs is nowhere near as rigorous as he expects the naturalistic explanation to be. And there are at least as many gaping holes in his explanation as any naturalistic one. For example, How, exactly, did God create life? What did He do? When did He do it? Was there a process involved? If so, what was it?

Perhaps it is meaningless to ask such questions of a non-naturalistic explanation. But, if so, then how does it qualify as an explanation? Explanations are supposed to shed light on some heretofore inexplicable phenomena. But “God did it” sheds no more light on the origins of life than the claim that is was magic.


That the cosmological, ontological, and teleological arguments can rightly be considered arguments for the existence of God must be called into question in light of the considerations I have mentioned in my most recent posts.

At best the cosmological argument would prove that there must be a first cause (or ultimate ground of all existence, or some other such vague notion) but this is hardly the same as proving that there is a personal creator who cares about us and wants us to love one another.  (This point has been made by many philosophers but it bears repeating since it is also a point that is all too easily ignored, as I will show below).  In fact, only the teleological argument (and here I mean to include modern “fine-tuning” arguments) stands a chance of establishing even that the supernatural force  is intelligent  (a first cause can be completely inanimate; a designer, however, needs to be conscious and intelligent).  But again an intelligent designer need not be all loving nor worthy of worship. (see Philo’s comments at the end of part V of Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion; and pay attention to Cleanthes’ response.)

I have tried to show that a genuine experience of the divine entails (at least for the major religions) both a sense that one is subject to external moral requirements and a sense that one’s own nature is in harmony with ultimate reality.  But even if we could establish that the universe was designed by a supernatural intelligence (and, just to be clear, I don’t think this it is possible to establish this) this would not entail that the nature of this intelligence is in harmony with our own.  Nor would it entail that we are subject objectively valid moral requirements.  Prometheus’ defiance of Zeus is an excellent illustration of this point.  For all that can be established via the teleological argument, the intelligent designer may be as capricious and amoral as Zeus.  Prometheus most emphatically did not experience a fundamental harmony with Zeus.

So, if we understand God as an intelligent being who is the ultimate ground of all reality, who places moral demands on us, and whose nature is in fundamental harmony with our own,  then I don’t think that it is correct to say that the teleological argument or the cosmological argument are arguments for the existence of God (the ontological argument presents a slightly more complex issue, one that I will put off for now).  Furthermore, the current very public debate between the so-called new atheists (such as Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens) and traditional theists almost completely misses the point.  Rather than arguing that science does not need the notion of an intelligent designer to explain the existence of complex life in the universe, and rather than debating whether Big Bang cosmology implies that the universe had a beginning and thus requires an external cause, atheists’ time would be better spent demanding that theists prove that there is an all-loving, intelligent being who is the source of all reality and whose nature is in fundamental accord with human nature.

As an example of the sort of mistake I have in mind, I offer the following quote from Keith Ward’s response to Dawkins, Why There Almost Certainly is a God.  Ward says, “The question of God is the question of whether conscious mind can exist without any physical body, and whether that mind could account for the origin of the universe.” (p. 19) While that is an interesting question it is misleading to say that this is the  question of God because a positive answer would not necessarily imply that this consciousness is all-loving, worthy of worship or even gives a damn about us.  Ward also approvingly quotes Dawkins statement of the God Hypothesis: “There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.”   I don’t think that atheists (or theists for that matter) should let such definitions go unquestioned.  Obviously the above hypothesis leaves some very central aspects of religious belief out.  In fact, I would argue that it leaves out everything that is essential and valuable about religious belief since the religious experience is fundamentally about feeling a kinship with ultimate reality and understanding that one must work to improve oneself.    This is what God is supposed to account for.  When a skeptic says “Show me God,” this is what should be demanded.

Jason Thibodeau

thibodeau.jason@gmail.com
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