Philosophical arguments for the existence of god come in all shapes and forms. In fact, since no empirical evidence has ever been presented to support the existence of any deity, pretty much every argument for the existence of god is a philosophical one. But my focus here is on the type of arguments that are dressed up in philosophized jargon – what I sometimes like to call arguments from blinding by philosophy.
As you set out to debunk these arguments, it may amuse you to notice that even deep and well worded religious arguments still employ the same old simple minded fallacies that all other religious argument employ – and how could they not? For this reason, you will not necessarily need to become a qualified philosopher to uncover what are usually elephant-sized problems hiding behind rhetorical shower curtains.
Beyond their various intricacies, there is one simple problem at the heart of every philosophical argument for the existence of a creator – pure philosophical reasoning cannot support literal and physical – and thus scientific – claims about the origin of the universe. You cannot, in other words, make claims that fall well within the purview of physics, while only supporting those claims with pure philosophical thought. It doesn’t even matter if the philosophical reasoning happens to be correct – let’s just for argument’s sake assume that it is – it’s still not strong and solid enough to support such huge claims. Physical claims require physical evidence, and extraordinary physical claims about the origin of the universe require extraordinary physical evidence – measurable, testable, replicable, falsifiable evidence.
Here’s a classic example of how this often looks; taken from one of the best practitioners of modern religious apology, the evangelical Christian philosopher William Lane Craig – promoting what he calls “Reasonable Faith”:
1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.
2. If the universe has an explanation for its existence, that explanation is God.
3. The universe exists.
4. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence (from 1, 3).
5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God (from 2, 4).
6. Therefore, God exists.
If you are familiar with it, you might notice that this is a Thomas Aquinas type deductive argument for god’s existence. A surprisingly common follow-up tactic that many apologists like Craig tend to employ is to immediately follow such arguments with a challenge to nonbelievers to give a better explanation based on atheism. This already should arouse suspicion, since atheism is a simple lack of belief, not a belief system upon which to build. I can no more give an explanation based on atheism – my lack of belief in deities – than I can give one based on my lack of belief in witchcraft, astrology, or fairies. This tactic actually does more harm than good because it only diverts attention from the fallacies in the argument itself (a composition fallacy followed by a Begging The Question fallacy, in the above case) by introducing yet another fallacy. This is a simple attempt to shift the burden of proof away from the person making the claim – a classic burden of proof fallacy (a type of Argument From ignorance); which implies that a religious claim must be granted the assumption of truth, as long as it has not been disproved or replaced by another claim.
You can easily dispose of this tactic by pointing out that the burden of proof lies with the person making the claim, not with the person simply doubting it. Claims either stand or fall on their own merits, regardless of whether or not a counterargument is presented. The Zeus claim about lightning strikes, for example, was no less incorrect before the real causes of lightning were discovered than it is now – and the same applies to all other god hypotheses as well.
Getting back to the actual argument, notice how it asserts that because many things in the universe have explanations, the totality of the universe must have an explanation as well. This is a classic logical mistake, called a Composition Fallacy – claiming that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of a part of the whole (or even of every part). The way Craig put it was “The first premise is constantly confirmed in our experience, which provides atheists who are scientific naturalists with the strongest of motivations to accept it”. By “experience”, Craig is, by definition, talking only about parts of the known universe, and then inferring that these parts indicate how the whole is. Notice also how this premise implies that an explanation is an objective faculty that the universe can somehow bestow upon us, rather than our own opinion in regards to an external thing. The universe doesn’t “have” an explanation for us, it is we who come up with explanations about the universe. When called out on his making a Composition Fallacy, Craig has subsequently denied it by stating that “The causal premise is rooted in the metaphysical intuition that something cannot come into being from nothing”, which then obviously begs the question about where god came from in that case, to say nothing of whatever in the world Craig’s own “metaphysical intuitions” might be. As entertaining as it is to watch a trained philosopher try to wiggle out of one logical fallacy by wiggling himself right into another, and another, there is an important lesson to be learned about the shifty and slippery tactics that many religious apologists try to employ; not the least of which (after all else had failed), is the attempt to claim that your refusal to accept their fallacious explanations somehow demonstrates your inability to comprehend them.
As for premise #2, if Craig wants to call his own subjective explanation of the universe “god”, then that is his right, but it is our right to point out that a god premise leading to a god conclusion is no more than a circular argument. We can also point out that in the absence of any supporting evidence to establish the soundness of such a god premise in the first place (thereby Begging The Question), the “explanation of the universe” is no more a god than it is a bowl of spaghetti, a giant turtle, or anything else you want to say it is. Anyone can play that silly game.
Another common feature in many philosophical arguments is the emphasis on the alleged superior explanatory powers of the deductive reasoning process. I have actually had counterparts tell me that deductions constitute irrefutable proof – as if a deduction is both the claim and the evidence for the claim, all rolled into one. A deduction, if you are unfamiliar with it, is comprised of premises leading to a conclusion. Deductive logic, as it’s repeated by many religious apologists, is built on the fact that if the premises are true, and the rules of deductive logic are followed, then the conclusion reached is necessarily true. The mistake that many religious apologists make however, is to conflate validity with soundness – or truth. In general, validity is the term we use to describe the structure of the deduction. A structurally valid deduction is one in which the conclusion does indeed necessarily follow from its premises. But this does not mean that structurally valid deductions always have true premises, let alone true conclusions. For a true conclusion, the deduction needs to be both structurally valid and have premises that are all true. The GIGO (Garbage In Garbage Out) principle holds very firm here. Enter even a single false premise, and you will end up with a false conclusion – regardless of the structural validity of the deduction. And the only real way to establish the truth of your premises is with EVIDENCE; which is precisely the burden that many religious counterparts try to ignore – and have you ignore as well. Deductions, without any external sources of verifiable evidence, simply cannot prove themselves by themselves.
Another thing to note about philosophical religious arguments, is how they almost always pertain to general deistic ideas rather than to any specific theistic claims. This is to be expected, since it is a simple extension of the age old ‘God of The Gaps’ dodge (a type of argument from ignorance). Well worded arguments for god’s existence only seem to make use of the very edges of our current scientific understanding – most notably the origin of the universe. Indeed, many exchanges about the origin of the universe barely end up resembling a religious debate, at all. In order to keep the debate on a religious track, try not to fall for slippery generalizations, vague presuppositions or fuzzy language, like “first cause”. Call it out for what it actually is – a god hypothesis. And not just any god – a very specific god; usually called Yahweh or Allah. Use these names whenever you can, and try to get your counterpart to, reluctantly, use them as well. While you may be called out for employing a Red Herring when you do this, keep in mind that there is nothing that’s actually being misrepresented here, and that this will make it harder for your theist counterpart to hide behind vague deistic abstractions. Craig, for example, has on occasion been asked how his “first cause” arguments can eventually lead to something like the supposed divinity of Jesus Christ. Craig has rightly pointed out that this is a different and more advanced subject for a separate debate, but when pressed further, he usually explains that Jesus’ empty tomb, and his revelations to his followers after his death, prove his divinity.
As off topic as all of this might seem, it illuminates an important point. As learned as your counterpart might initially seem, answers like these will reveal that you are actually debating someone whose standards of proof are quite a bit lower than yours. Craig is a prime example of this – considering how as one of the champions of religious apology, holding no less than a Ph.D. in philosophy, he takes the equivalent of a 2000 year old ‘Elvis sighting’ as irrefutable proof of divinity. I point this out for more than just comedic value, since these low standard of proof, and the various cherry picking and question begging fallacies they inevitably produce, will consistently come up during the philosophical debate itself.
Here is another example of a classic Thomas Aquinas type argument, taken from an actual debate I had:
The grounds for the argument for god’s existence are found in three main assertions:
1. That there is a division between the real “actual” and the conceptual “potential” – there is a distinction between what is and what could be.
2. Secondly, that Aristotelian motion can be described in terms of a relationship between the actual and the potential; that a potential state of affairs is sometimes made into an actuality by the influence of something that is itself already actual.
3. Third, that there is an infinite regression implicit in the relationship between the actual and the potential, implying the necessity for a terminus.
If these three assertions (premises) are true (which I think they are) then it seems to me as though Aquinas’ First Way (“the unmoved mover” – god – conclusion) stands.
My counterpart then goes on to put this deductive reasoning process in formulaic terms in order to point to the necessity of a prime mover (A).
1. A v ¬A;
2.¬A → B;
You don’t always have to dig that deeply into religious philosophical arguments in order to find some of their biggest flaws. What we have here is yet another beautiful illustration of an argument that isn’t supported by a single shred of evidence, before reaching an enormous objective conclusion about the origin of the universe. I call it beautiful because there’s something almost poetic about it; you almost have to pinch yourself in order to realize just how silly it is to try to balance such an enormous objective claim on no more than deductive abstractions. Exactly zero empirical evidence – or even a single measurable quantity – is presented before we are told that a supernatural deity must have created the universe.
Even without pointing out the classic logical fallacies in arguments of this sort (Bifurcation and Non Sequitur, in the above case), and even without pointing out that recent scientific discoveries have pretty much disproved religious claims about the origin of the universe, try simply asking your counterpart if their argument includes any measurable, testable or demonstrable quantities. Then remind your counterpart that a claim that cannot be measured, tested or demonstrated, is an unfalsifiable one, and unfalsifiable claims are also unprovable. If this doesn’t do the job, challenge your counterpart to find a single example of an unmeasurable, non testable, non demonstrable claim that is widely accepted as objectively true.
You can pretty much anticipate that when challenged in this way, many religious counterparts will defensively resort to claiming that their arguments are metaphysical, or non scientific, and that they therefore do not conform to the rules of science. This is pretty much when the debate reaches its end, since claiming such a thing is tantamount to forfeiting the debate altogether. A god hypothesis pertains to the creation of all matter and energy, and is therefore most definitely a scientific claim – requiring scientific evidence. You will often find that the only people who argue that no evidence is necessary to support their objective truth claims are the ones who tried and failed to produce any.
The age of widely accepted armchair deductions about the origin and nature of the universe has long since ended, and legitimate deductive arguments these days belong in one of two categories: a framework for empirically measured and verifiable premises and conclusions; or a structured hypothesis that has yet to be proven by empirical verification. Hypotheses of this latter type are not necessarily wrong, they’re simply unproven until the premises and the conclusion are externally and empirically verified.
When confronted with philosophical arguments about the objective origin and nature of the universe, you should always remind yourself that it is the soundness and strength of the EVIDENCE that will determine the soundness and strength of the claim, not the other way around. Calling a claim about the universe non scientific, or metaphysical, or philosophical, is just another way of calling it unproven, or subjective – or imaginary.