Trinity Baptist Church: Sunday School, Feb. 22, 2009
Week 2: The existence of God (RFG, Ch. 8 and 9). How do we know that God exists? What can we know about God from nature? Is faith in God reasonable?
In The Reason for God, Tim Keller introduces several arguments for the existence of God not as proofs, but as clues. I am not even sure how one would construct an unavoidable proof of anything. All proofs are based on premises, and since we are always free to deny the premises, then we can effectively avoid any conclusion that we dislike. However, these clues -though theoretically avoidable- all tend to point us in the same direction. Their cumulative effects is to demonstrate that “thought the secular view of the world is rationally possible, it doesn’t make as much sense of all these [evidences] as the view that God exists” (RFG, p. 141)
I think the key to engaging these arguments is to let them expose our presuppositions and offer alternative explanations to the ones we currently have. We should allow these arguments to connect the premises that we already hold to be true to our questions about God. For instance, if I believe that good and evil exist, if I believe that beauty and truth exist, if I believe that there everything in the universe has a cause, how do I explain these facts? Can a secular worldview explain this evidence, or does a Christian worldview provide a better explanation.
Teleological argument – the existence of design and purposeful complexity in the universe points to an intelligent source.
This argument is based on the reasoning that all purposeful complexity that we observe has its origins in intentional design. For instance, no one who found a watch lying near an iron mine would assume that iron particles had randomly assembled to form the watch during an earthquake (see Grudem’s Systematic Theology). Thus, the only reasonable explanation for the existence for the stunning complexity of nature is a supernatural Creator.
Modern atheists like Richard Dawkins claim that this argument has been thoroughly demolished by the theory of evolution, but that is not quite the case. Dawkins would argue (as he does in his book The God Delusion) that we don’t assume that watches assemble themselves from iron mines because we know of no probable physical mechanism that would allow that to happen. On the other hand, the theory of natural selection provides just such a mechanism for the emergence of biological complexity from completely random events. The key concept that is missing from Dawkins’ discussion in The God Delusion is the concept of probability. We cannot reject the argument from design unless we can show not only that a physical mechanism for the emergence of complexity exists, but also that such a mechanism is probable. In fact, there is physical mechanism for the spontaneous assembly of a watch from scrap metal, but that physical mechanism is so improbable that we would reject it. Dawkins himself concedes that from what we know of biology the evolution of intelligent life is improbable (see p. 135 of The God Delusion), but believes that the weak anthropic principle can still explain its origin. Far more problematic is the argument from the fine tuning of the physical constants, which cannot currently be explained by modern physics. In other words, it is undeniably false to assert that modern science has provided a complete and probable explanation for the existence of purposeful complexity in the universe, of which life is the prime example. Dawkins would argue that someday science will provide such an explanation. Perhaps it will! But such an assertion is based on unsubstantiated faith, not on empirical proof. (See my essay A Brief Response to the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins for a more detailed discussion of this issue). There are several questions that might help to further probe the reasoning behind the teleological argument:
What criteria does SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) use to search for intelligent extraterrestrial life? How could the scientists at SETI tell whether a detected extraterrestrial radio signal had an intelligent origin versus a natural origin? How much structure, information content and complexity would they have to see to determine that it had an intelligent origin? How would they know if the signal had a natural origin? How complex would a signal have to be before scientists concluded that it had an intelligent source? Would a signal containing the first 5 prime numbers in a sequence be sufficient? The first 10? The first 100? How complex is a rock? an automobile? the human genome? The Earth’s ecosystem? The solar system? The laws of physics?
Does a natural mechanism exist to explain the complexity of human beings? How probable was evolution of sentient life from a single cell according to evolution? What is the current explanatory theory of biogenesis (the origin of life)? How probable is biogenesis? How probable is a life-sustaining universe based on a random sampling of fundamental constants? What is the mechanism by which the fundamental constants arrived at life-sustaining values? How probable is that mechanism? If the probability of a SETI signal being natural were as probable as the existence of human beings in the universe, do you think we would conclude that it came from extra-terrestrial intelligence?
Argument from beauty – an atheistic worldview cannot account for our sense of transcendental beauty, truth, or love
A secular worldview can, in a sense, explain beauty or love as an evolutionary impulse or perhaps a misfiring of another instinct. But that is not an explanation of transcendental beauty but simply a denial of it. In other words, we sense that beauty is truly beautiful and that love is truly meaningful, not simply a biochemical process in our brains. Either this sense is a deception or it is a true perception of reality.
Do you believe that love is different than epilepsy? If love is merely a particular biochemical and neurological phenomenon, then how is it different from any other neurological phenomenon? When I say that I love my wife or my child, is that different in any real sense than saying that I have a headache?
Cosmological argument – all things in existence have a cause outside themselves. Therefore the natural universe must have a cause outside of itself.
The rejoinder would be that by this logic, God too if he is the supernatural cause, must have a cause outside himself. But then what caused God’s cause? We have only two choices: either there is an infinite regression of causes, which is not really an answer to our question, or there is some Prime Mover who is the ultimate cause but himself is without cause.
What is a miracle? What do you mean by a clear violation of natural laws? Would you believe in God if I could demonstrate a miracle by that criterion? Would God have to do the miracle now, or could I just produce incontrovertible evidence that God had done it in the past? What was the Big Bang? What happens to all physical laws at a singularity? Does this count as a miracle?
Is it ridiculous for people accept things on faith with no rational explanation? What is my explanation for the Big Bang?
Moral argument – the fact that human beings have an innate sense of absolute good and evil points to God as the ultimate source of morality.
Again, modern atheists like Darwin would argue that morality can be explained through evolution. Our sense of morality evolved from our desire to pass on our genes. Since our relatives share our genetic material, we are therefore conditioned to display philanthropic behavior to them. There are quite a few scientific objections to this hypothesis which have been developed even by atheistic scientists like Steven Jay Gould. However, I’d like to focus on the subjective problems with this argument, which mainly derive from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Essentially, Lewis appeals us to evaluate our own sense of moral obligation and determine whether it has the characteristics of an instinctual response. In fact, he argues that it doesn’t:
Now I do not deny that we may have a herd instinct: but that is not what I mean by the Moral Law…. [An instinct] means that you feel a strong want or desire to act in a certain way… But feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you want to or not. Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires – one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct of self-preservation). But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. (Mere Christianity, Chapter 2).
Lewis’ argument is that the Moral Law, our sense of oughtness independent of our personal desires, does not act like an instinct. I highly recommend reading Chapters 1-5 of Mere Christianity for a thoughtful, readable discussion of the moral law as a pointer to God.
The following questions help to point out the problems with denying absolute morality:
Does right and wrong exist in an absolute sense or only a relative sense? On what grounds, then, can we say that the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide was wrong? What if the Nazis had conquered the whole world; would genocide be wrong if the majority of the world favored it?
How do we know what is right and wrong? If I answer that “right” is doing what maximizes the happiness of the most people or what helps to preserve the human race, on what basis do I think that maximizing other people’s happiness or preserving the human race are good things? Why shouldn’t I live my life to make myself as happy as possible at the expense of others (a la Nietzsche)?
If “right” and “wrong” are subjectively determined, why can’t I define cruelty as “right” and kindness as “wrong”? If I answer that no one would choose such a standard, then how do I explain the millions of people living with exactly such a standard all over the world?
Do you think that God can’t exist because I like vanilla ice cream rather than chocolate ice cream? Do you think that existence of evil and suffering in the world disproves the existence of God? But if the definition of evil is purely relative, like my taste in ice cream, how can it be used to prove that God doesn’t exist?
Do human rights exist? Why? When a cat kills a mouse, is it wrong? Then why is it wrong for a human to kill another human? If it’s not wrong for the biggest gorillas dominate the smaller gorillas, why is it wrong for the richest people to oppress the poorest people?
Transcendental argument – Unless we presuppose God as the absolute supernatural source for logic, reason, and truth, we cannot make any arguments at all. Thus, any attempt to disprove God’s existence is inherently inconsistent because it requires for its success the presupposition of God’s existence.
While I’m not sure how effective this argument is in practice, it is very useful in leading people to examine their presuppositions. Apart from the formal transcendental argument, this reasoning can be quite useful in many other ways. Here are some other questions that appeal to the same ideas as the transcendental argument:
How do I know that reason and logic are true? Can I prove that they are true? How do I know that the world and all my sense perceptions are not an elaborate illusion? Does a secular worldview give me any such assurance? Does a theistic worldview provide such an assurance?
What makes you think that God should provide a logical proof of his existence? What kind of proof should he give? Would that kind of proof be completely irrefutable? Does everything that you firmly believe to be true satisfy such a criterion of provability? Do you have that kind of proof for most of the other things that you believe (like the fact that I had cereal for breakfast or the fact that Alpha Centauri is 4.37 light years from Earth)?
If God furnished a proof of his existence, how do you know that you could understand it? What if it required knowledge of differential geometry or graph theory?
Imagine for a moment that God does exist; can you claim that there is insufficient evidence given how many people believe in him?
Do you think that most people in the world would demand a logical argument for the existence of God? What are some of the other criteria that people might demand in order to believe in God?
Though these arguments for the existence of God can be helpful, it’s important to point out that, in some sense, no arguments will be sufficient. If we are sufficiently skeptical, we can deny anything, even our own existence. But if the Bible is correct, then our main problem is not a lack of evidence. In fact, every created thing, ever star, ever animal, ever blade of grass declares the glory of God (Psalm 19). According to Romans 1, our problem is that deep in our hearts, we wish that God didn’t exist. Even more pertinent, something is wrong if we are approaching the question of God’s existence with anything approaching a detached, dispassionate attitude. Why? Think of the magnitude of the question! Either God my Creator and Sustainer exists and I owe him absolutely everything or He does not exist and this life is a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. If we approach the question of God’s existence with a mild curiosity as an academic exercise, we have not yet seriously considered the implications of this question. The only rational way to approach this issue is like a man asking his doctor “will you be able to cure the cancer?” The man certainly has preferences, but the truth to him is a matter of life and death, not idle speculation.
If we are truly interested in finding God, I don’t know that I would start with proofs of his existence. If we the Bible is true, then God desires a relationship with us, one that he compares to that of a servant to his loving king, a son to his father, or a bride to her husband. Who has ever begun a courtship with a syllogism? And when has such a proof ever ended in marriage? My guess is that such a relationship would be doomed from the start! Instead, I’d let the arguments for God’s existence show you that faith in God is plausible, that his existence explains many of the beliefs that we hold better than atheism, and that the arguments which might prevent you from seeking him are not as convincing as we might have thought. From there, the next question I would ask is: “God, if you are there, what are you like?” That is a far more important question, and one that is much more likely to yield answers.