Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Few of the Typical Arguments

I was taught about "God," with a capital G.  He has various fatherly attributes, and we violate all standard rules of written and spoken English when we talk about Him (note the unorthodox capitalization of the pronoun), like referring to Him as "thee" and "thou," though these archaic pronouns were actually the informal versions of "you."  The justification for this is to show respect for God by using language like that found in the King James translation of the Bible, namely antiquated English.  The apparent inconsistency of this doctrine is ignored, as is the apparent lack of required unorthodox grammar in conjunction with the reference to God in many other languages.

I was taught about God, but when I write about a "creator" or "supreme being" or "first cause" as a concept, I will use the orthodox English capitalization to refer to "god."  I wonder why I do this; I believe it is out of a rebellious feeling toward the religion of my childhood and a desire to reject apparently arbitrary rules of worship with no justification beyond tradition.  It might, however, be out of some fear of God, the God of my childhood who I still superstitiously cower before in my subconcious mind.  To refer to god, the lower-case, version, is intellectual and not a direct attack on the vindictive being at whose wrath I may still feel irrational terror.

I have thought at some length on the arguments posited by religious (particularly Christian) apologists.  I thought I would post some thoughts I had typed up a few weeks ago about a few of these.

Argument from complexity:
This line of reasoning argues the extreme improbability of the spontaneous existence of life, which is inarguably complex.  Many appeals to currently-accepted chemistry are made, and much abuse of the laws of thermodynamics takes place.  The existence of life is held up as proof of the extreme likelyhood of the existence of god.
The first problem with this argument is that it solves no problems.  However unlikely the existence of life, god and his tools would have to be at least as complex as life itself in order to "intelligently design" such a complex system from the top down.  To assume the spontaneous existence of god flies in the face of probability as much as the assumption that life spontaneosly came to be through the unlikely development of complexity.
Another problem with this argument is our lack of understanding of the universe; after all, the accepted age of the universe has been modified multiple times in the last century alone.  Some models of the universe assume the existence of a universe that collapsed before the Big Bang, and this could extend back indefinitely.  Given a potentially infinite (for all practical purposes) span of time, the probability of any possible event occuring approaches 100%.  Therefore, there are conceivable models of the universe in which the existence of life is inevitable.

Argument from beauty:
This is an argument that appeals to the aesthetic beauty of the universe.  The stars, the planets, the trees and flowers, etcetra, all point to a divine artist, an intelligence who shares our love of beauty.
This argument appeals to very little that is logical; "beauty" is not a measurable quality, and is subjective.  There might well be perfectly rational people who see so beauty whatsoever in the universe; the argument would have absolutely no effect on even the most open-minded of these individuals.  Unless the human race can come to a concensus on what is beautiful and why, there in no need for further argument.

Argument from desire;
The is one of C.S. Lewis' pet philosophies; we desire to know god, and therefore it is logical to assume that he exists, much as food exists in conjunction with our desire known as hunger, and water exists to satisfy thirst.  This is often referred to as the "god-shaped hole" in our hearts, our lives, etc.
While somewhat compelling, this argument holds no proverbial water.  Many evolutionary psychologists have devised hypotheses to explain the human tendency to seek after gods that are at least as satisfactory as the above theory.  Other desires are almost universal to humanity, for example the desire to use supernatural powers for personal gain.  Most cultures have some sort of magic or belief in psychic powers, yet science has repeatedly discredited the various purported powers of psychics, magicians, witch doctors, and the like.

Religious experience:
Religious experiences are personal, often euphoric exteriences that convince an individual that a particular religion, along with its stance on god, is true.  The take many forms, including apparent answers to prayer, various forms of babbling in "tongues," shaking and lurching, feelings of peace, and the coincidence of religious practice with fortuitous events.
The first problem with this argument is that anyone who has failed to have a convincing experience is expected to completely rely on the accounts of others who have had these experienced.  The expectation is that every person must spend their life, if necessary, trying to have this experience. In any other situation, all sane individuals would agree that multiple fruitless attempts at the same goal by the same method would indicate that a new course of action would be advisable.  With religious experiences, however, individuals are expected to try the same things over and over until they die.
Another major problem with religious experiences is the existence of many mutually-exclusive religions.  Any given religion teaches, either directly or indirectly, that most (if not all) other religions are mistaken.  Even a religion that purports to accept "multiple roads to truth" is in this very point of doctrine at odds with most of the world's religions, and therefore cannot be true without most others being false.  In having a religious experience that convinces one to adhere to a particular religion as "correct," an individual is effectively denying the validity of a majority of other religious experiences (since no religious sect constitutes a majority of religious people).  However, if one is so willing to dissmiss most of the religious experiences of others, what lends validity or credibility to one's own religious experience?
These arguments do not invalidate all religious experiences, but do encourage the earnest seeker of truth to approach such experiences with a degree of skepticism.  It is up to the individual to test this particular phenomenon for his or her self.

Unexplainable occurences are often used to justify the existence of god.  Notable to me are the miracles of Jesus, who according to the New Testament changed water to wine, healed the chronically ill, produced food from nothing, raised the dead, and finally conquered death himself.  Often, the existence of multiple accounts (like the four canonical gospels) is used to lend credibility to these miracles.
The very same people who accept ancient miracles, however, might be very skeptical of newer miracles.  If four formerly obscure journalists, followers of a recently murdered religous reformer named Chris, suddenly started publishing accounts of how "Chris lives!" and how they and others (unavailable for comment) had seen him in various private appearances, how many would believe?  Some, undoubtedly, including the typical cult fanatics.  But how likely would you consider it that these four friends did not collude to write their stories together consistently, conspire to secretly exhume the body of their leader to lend tenuous credibility to their incredible stories, and retroactively invent Chris' miracles?  The traditional martyrdom of any of these dubious witnesses is not particularly helpful, cult suicides happen even today, as well as martyrdoms, in religions that afterwards fizzle out (or are all dead because everyone drank poisoned kool-aid).

This list is in no way meant to be exhaustive, of course, and I have not been logically rigorous to the point of ending all possibility of debate, but I think my reasoning seems sound in regard to each of these points...

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