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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.
I doubt that I can offer a very good answer to the question that I posed in my last post. Instead I will try to make the question as compelling as I can. Last time I asked why experiencing awe would generate feelings of moral compulsion. I want to expand this question a bit by adding the observation that religious belief seems to presuppose that an experience of ultimate reality will be profoundly joyful and will change one’s life for the better. Why should this be? Knowledge of ultimate reality, whether conceived as a personal God, impersonal Brahman, Buddha-nature, indifferent matter, etc., etc., is, at first blush, simply that: knowledge. Knowledge is not always pleasant. Why should knowledge of whatever kind bring with it, of necessity, any change in the understanding of one’s duty, values, or emotions? Why shouldn’t one’s reaction to a genuine experience of the divine be indifference, ambivalence, or even revulsion leading to outright opposition?
For example: The Buddhist path to liberation insists that an accurate perception and understanding of ultimate reality leads not only to an end to dukkha (suffering) but to compassion for all sentient beings. The question is why would my comprehending ultimate truths yield a concern for others?
Why should a fundamental and deep understanding of impermanence or sunyata (emptiness) automatically result in the cessation of grasping? Why shouldn’t the reaction to impermanence be one of noble, if sisyphean, opposition based on a fundamental aversion to the reality that nothing is permanent. In other words, why shouldn’t the arhat, upon realizing the truth of impermanence say, “Yes, nothing lasts, everything is impermanent, and that sucks!” If one is truly attached to the idea of a permanent self, wouldn’t the realization that there is no such thing bring utter despair; a realization not of the beauty and goodness of ultimate reality but that reality is ultimately inimical to human nature (or at least my nature).
To put the question in a monotheistic context: Why shouldn’t Moses, upon learning of the jealous and wrathful nature of God, break the Tablets not in anger at his fellow countrymen but in passionate fury at God?
The notion of righteous rage at the ultimate power receives its best articulation in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. Oceanus’ counsel may be wise but hardly consistent with personal integrity: “we are ruled by one whose harsh and sole dominion none may call to account. Acknowledge this, and cease to kick against the goad.” For Prometheus, that ultimate truth is not to be embraced; and he endured brutal torture rather than acknowledge Zeus’ authority.
The great religions of the world insist that Prometheus’ reaction is inconceivable; When one comes face to face with the Ultimate, say these faiths, one cannot help but recognize a fundamental harmony between one’s innermost self and that Ultimate Reality and consequently experience bliss, ultimate satisfaction, and a deep love and respect for all. But why should this be? Every spiritual path entails sacrifice, perhaps most crucially one must abandon one’s own self interests in the pursuit of (allegedly) higher goals. But why think that the values that are revealed during a genuine experience of the divine will be consistent with my own. Again, supposing that the Buddhist doctrine of anatta (no-self) is true, why should it be that a full realization of this truth puts an end to self-centered desire and leads to peace and ultimate bliss? Why shouldn’t one rail against the absurdity that that which we most desire, i.e. immortality (the indefinite persistence of oneself), is fundamentally impossible?