There are several arguments for the existence of God which share a common structure and similar premises that I would like to examine. These arguments point to some feature of our world and claim that there is no naturalistic explanation for this feature and that therefore, naturalism is false. There are supposed to be arguments for the existence of God, which is part of what I find odd about them. That naturalism or materialism cannot account for something is, at best, indirect evidence for theism. That we cannot account for some phenomenon under a naturalistic paradigm, even if it is true, does not imply that the correct explanation will involve the activity of a personal divine being. I will expand on this and other problems that I see with this style of argument in this post.
To start, here is a list of some examples of the kind of argument I am talking about, with a few relevant and interesting links:
- The Argument from Reason (see Victor Reppert’s blog for more)
- The Argument from Beauty
- The Cosmological Argument (Essentially, cosmological arguments involve the claim that theism can account for the existence of the universe while naturalism cannot. Take a look at a couple of apologist bloggers discussing the argument here and here.)
- The Design Argument (naturalism cannot account for the complexity (or certain kinds of complexity) of (parts of) the universe. Jeffery Lowder has an excellent analysis of a recent version of this kind of argument here.)
- The Argument from Morality
- The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (naturalism cannot account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties.)
Now, most of these are not names for a single argument, but rather families of arguments. There is not one Argument from Morality, for example. Rather, there are a host of arguments that suggest that the existence of objective morality (or some related notion) is a reason to believe that God exists. Such is the case with most of the arguments on this list.
It is also worth pointing out that not all versions of each of the above arguments are formulated in terms of the claim that naturalism cannot account for the respective phenomena. There are popular versions of the argument from morality, for example, that do not depend on any claim that naturalism cannot account for morality. Watch this short (and rather annoying, I grant) video from William Lane Craig for an example. Craig doesn’t say here that naturalism can’t account for objective morality. However, when Craig and other apologists attempt to defend the key premise of this argument (If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist), they typically point to alleged facts about what naturalism implies about morality and value. (see my paper “Do Atheists Need a Moral Theory to be Moral Realists?” for more on this). In this post, I am directing my comments to those versions of these arguments that implicitly or explicitly rely on something like the following inference:
Naturalism cannot account for (insert difficult to account for phenomenon here). But (difficult to account for phenomenon) does exist (or is real, or did/does occur). Theism can account for it. Thus theism has an advantage over naturalism.[*EDIT* Commonly, something like the following additional conclusion is added: To be consistent, naturalists have to give up belief in (difficult to account for phenomenon)].
There are three general problems with these arguments. The first, and most obvious (at least it should be most obvious) is that the fact that we currently lack an explanation for some phenomenon does not mean that we have to give up believing in the phenomenon. That we lack a naturalistic account of morality (even if this is true) does not mean that naturalists have to disbelieve in objective morality. After all, the correct naturalistic account may be just around the corner. Apologists who wield these arguments seem to think that if your worldview does not currently account for some phenomenon, then you have to either disbelieve in the phenomena or reject your worldview and embrace one that can account for it. But this is not so, as we can see when we look at parallel examples that have no obvious connection to religious beliefs.
Biologists do not currently understand precisely how salmon, after years of living in the ocean hundreds of miles away from the streams of their births, are able to find their home streams in which to spawn at the end of their life cycle. So we do not yet have a satisfactory naturalistic explanation of this biological phenomenon. Does that mean that naturalists have to disbelieve in it, or give up naturalism in order to be consistent? The suggestion is clearly ridiculous. As is the claim that since there is no current naturalistic account of objective morality or human reason or beauty, etc., naturalists cannot consistently believe in these things. Human knowledge is not at an end; we continue to develop our understanding of reality and will do so indefinitely. The fact that we cannot currently account for something is not a reason to either disbelieve in that thing or to reject our worldview. It is a reason to keep looking for the right explanation.
Second, nothing about the falsity of naturalism implies the truth of theism. It is true that if metaphysical naturalism is true, then theism is false. But to go from the falsity of naturalism to the truth of theism would be to commit the fallacy of denying the antecedent. So, even if it were true that there are no naturalistic explanations of phenomena that we all agree are real (rationality, for example), this would not imply that theism is true. It is perfectly consistent to be a non-naturalistic atheist (Schopenhauer is a great example). Indeed, I do not espouse metaphysical naturalism. My view is that naturalism is best understood as a methodological principle. And there are good reasons to adopt this principle, as a commenter named Keith pointed out in my recent post about the EAAN. In a future post, I will have more to say about how odd it is that when apologists criticize atheism, they consistently attack naturalism rather than the claim that there is no God.
The third problem is the most destructive to this kind of argument. It just is not true that theism can account for the phenomena mentioned in any of the arguments. With all of these arguments listed above, proponents claim that there are theistic explanations of the relevant phenomena, but they either never provide the explanation or else the explanation they do provide is wrong or fundamentally flawed. In my next post, I will use the cosmological argument as an example to explain what I mean.