God (cont.)

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Of course, there are other angles from which you might approach this question of whether God really created the universe. One of the most popular is the argument from apparent design (AKA the teleological argument) – which, instead of focusing on how everything in our universe was formed, asks why it was formed, pointing to the most impressive features of the natural world and concluding that some intelligent being must have designed them because they’re obviously so well-suited to some particular intended function. This is basically the argument that people are making whenever they look at something like a human eye or a bird wing and ask, “How could something that’s so exquisitely intricate, and so clearly geared toward a specific purpose, have just happened by accident? Obviously there must have been a God who designed it for that purpose.” But it was most famously articulated by William Paley with his “watchmaker analogy.” Paley says to imagine that you’re walking across a stretch of land, when all of a sudden you notice a pocket watch sitting among the rocks and shrubs. You wouldn’t conclude that the watch was just another natural part of the landscape and that it must have been formed by natural processes; watches are obviously too finely engineered for that. The more reasonable thing would be to assume that some watchmaker somewhere had deliberately designed it. And according to Paley, you should apply the same reasoning to all the remarkably complex features of plants and animals and the rest of our natural world as well. They’re too perfectly engineered to have just emerged naturally; someone must have designed them.

But this argument fails on a few different levels. For one thing, it’s just not a great analogy; the fact that the watch seems so out of place amongst the rocks and shrubs suggests that its nature is fundamentally different from theirs, not that they’re fundamentally the same. If every part of the natural landscape seemed just as obviously deliberately engineered as the watch, then the watch wouldn’t have stood out as unusual in the first place. More to the point, though, in the couple of centuries since Paley originally drew this analogy, we’ve learned a lot about how natural processes like evolution work – and so we now know all about how features like eyes and wings, rather than being the product of deliberate design, actually did evolve gradually in response to environmental pressures. (Recall the whole section on evolution from earlier.) You might say that in a sense, these features were in fact “designed” – but not by the supernatural intervention of any God. Nature itself was the designer; and it didn’t have any deliberate plans or intentions about where everything would end up. It was, as Dawkins famously phrased it, a “blind watchmaker.” It simply ran its course, and certain traits randomly appeared due to genetic mutations; then, whichever of those traits happened to provide the greatest survival and reproductive advantages were preserved and passed down to subsequent generations – improving more and more with each generation, until they went from rudimentary light-sensitive patches of cells to full-fledged eyes, and from slightly fuzzy forelimbs to full-fledged wings, and so on. You can trace every species’ evolutionary history backwards through time as far as you want, and there’s never any point at which God reaches down from the heavens and engineers a particular feature to be a particular way. The only forces at work, all the way back to the beginning of time, are the fundamental physical laws of cause and effect.

Well all right then, you might say, maybe the laws of cause and effect can explain everything that’s happened since the beginning of the universe – but don’t those causal laws also apply to the beginning of the universe itself? What happens when we trace the timeline of the universe all the way back to the very beginning of that cause-and-effect chain?

This is where another popular argument for God’s existence comes in: the cosmological argument. According to this argument (which you might recall from Carroll’s mention of it earlier), everything that begins to exist must have a prior cause, and the universe began to exist, so therefore the universe must have had a cause – i.e. God. Like the teleological argument, though, the cosmological argument has some fundamental problems. The concept of something “beginning to exist,” for instance, is a slippery one; you might say that a wooden chair “began to exist” when you constructed it, but really you weren’t causing any new matter to come into existence at all – you were just rearranging already-existing matter (wood, nails, etc.) into a new form. In fact, pretty much everything that we say “begins to exist” is actually just matter being rearranged into different forms. In that sense, the only kinds of matter that can truly be said to “begin to exist” at all are the particles and antiparticles (mentioned in Section IV) that periodically pop into existence out of nowhere due to quantum fluctuations. But according to the most popular interpretation of quantum mechanics, these fluctuations aren’t actually the result of straightforward deterministic processes with clearly-defined causes and effects; they’re fundamentally spontaneous, and their outcomes are randomly determined by sheer probability, not by any kind of higher guiding force. In other words, according to this model, the only things that begin to exist actually do so without a straightforwardly deterministic causal mechanism – and this would therefore also include the universe itself, since our current understanding of the Big Bang is that it was essentially just an inflation of those random quantum fluctuations.

That being said, of course, you might prefer other interpretations of quantum mechanics that still preserve a more traditional sense of determinism on all scales – and that’s reasonable enough. (I’d personally be inclined to agree with you.) But even if you accept that the universe did begin to exist and did have a deterministic cause, that still doesn’t justify leaping to the conclusion that this cause must have therefore been an intelligent personal deity. As mentioned earlier, the Big Bang could have been caused by any number of things – a black hole from within another universe, a collision of higher-dimensional membranes, a bunch of aliens pressing “start” on their universe simulator, etc. Just because something triggered the Big Bang doesn’t mean that it was God; so if you want to want to prove God’s existence, you have to do in a way that’s more specific.

In light of this, then, there’s one other popular argument that’s worth mentioning here – one which attempts to prove that God must necessarily exist, by the very definition of the word “God.” The ontological argument, as it’s called, defines God as “a being than which no greater can be conceived,” and then says that “if the greatest possible being exists in the mind, it must also exist in reality. If it exists only in the mind, then an even greater being must be possible – one which exists both in the mind and in reality. Therefore, this greatest possible being must exist in reality.”

This is genuinely one of my favorite arguments for God’s existence, just because of how creative it is. But unfortunately, it turns out to be one of those arguments that’s built more on a conceptual sleight of hand than on a valid chain of reasoning. TheoreticalBullshit breaks down its fatal flaws:

God certainly does “exist” as a concept (in the same way that dragons exist as a concept). But that’s not the same thing as physically existing as an independent being in the real world, regardless of how the ontological argument tries to conflate the two. The only things that can be said to physically exist are… well, physical things. And sure, it sounds obvious when you phrase it like that. But the fact that something has to actually exist materially in order to exist physically presents a major problem for theism – not only because it neutralizes the ontological argument, but because it makes it difficult to conceive how God (at least as he’s traditionally defined) even could exist in the real world at all. After all, God is supposedly an immaterial being, but also supposedly exists in physical reality somehow – not just as a concept, but as a real entity. And this is just self-contradictory. If you want to claim that something is capable of existing in the physical world – and what’s more, that it’s capable of affecting other things in the world physically (whether that be intervening in material events or creating the universe in the first place) – you have to explain how exactly this physical/non-physical interaction is supposed to work; and there just isn’t any good way of formulating such an explanation. The only way that physical objects can interact with anything else is through physical means; so the only way it’d be possible for something like a deity to have any kind of effect or influence on physical objects is if it had some kind of physical presence itself that could interact with them (as even invisible things like wind and radio waves do). If God did have such physical effects on the material world, of course, those effects would be empirically observable and verifiable. We’d be able to see that some unseen force was producing material effects with no apparent material cause. But so far, we haven’t confirmed any such effects; all we have are unproven miracle claims from the various world religions. Based on everything we’ve observed, the only things that can defensibly be said to exist in our physical reality are the material ones – or as Democritus memorably put it over 2,000 years ago, “only atoms and the void.”

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