A few days ago, Professor Jerry Coyne attacked fellow atheist and Darwinist Michael Ruse, for going too easy on the cosmological argument for God’s existence in an interview with philosopher Gary Gutting, titled, Does Evolution Explain Religious Beliefs? (New York Times, July 8, 2014). In the interview, Ruse, a professor of philosophy at Florida State University and the author of the forthcoming book Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know, indicated that although he did not find the traditional philosophical arguments for God’s existence at all persuasive, he could respect people who did, and he added that he found Richard Dawkins’ attempted refutations of these arguments downright embarrassing, as a philosopher:
If the person of faith wants to say that God created the world, I don’t think you can deny this on scientific grounds. But you can go after the theist on other grounds. I would raise philosophical objections: for example, about the notion of a necessary being. I would also fault Christian theology: I don’t think you can mesh the ancient Greek philosophers’ notion of a god outside time and space with the Jewish notion of a god as a person. But these are not scientific objections…
Like every first-year undergraduate in philosophy, Dawkins thinks he can put to rest the causal argument for God’s existence. If God caused the world, then what caused God? Of course the great philosophers, Anselm and Aquinas particularly, are way ahead of him here. They know that the only way to stop the regression is by making God something that needs no cause. He must be a necessary being. This means that God is not part of the regular causal chain but in some sense orthogonal to it. He is what keeps the whole business going, past, present and future, and is the explanation of why there is something rather than nothing. Also God is totally simple, and I don’t see why complexity should not arise out of this, just as it does in mathematics and science from very simple premises.
Traditionally, God’s necessity is not logical necessity but some kind of metaphysical necessity, or aseity. Unlike Hume, I don’t think this is a silly or incoherent idea, any more than I think mathematical Platonism is silly or incoherent. As it happens, I am not a mathematical Platonist, and I do have conceptual difficulties with the idea of metaphysical necessity. So in the end, I am not sure that the Christian God idea flies, but I want to extend to Christians the courtesy of arguing against what they actually believe, rather than begin and end with the polemical parody of what Dawkins calls “the God delusion.”
Professor Ruse added that although he found theodicies attempting to explain the occurrence of moral evil in the world utterly unpersuasive, he was not inclined to fault God for the occurrence of natural evil. His argument, as a Darwinist, was that not even God could have made a world governed by law, without the occurrence of animal death and suffering:
Although in some philosophy of religion circles it is now thought that we can counter the argument from evil, I don’t think this is so. More than that, I don’t want it to be so. I don’t want an argument that convinces me that the death under the guillotine of Sophie Scholl (one of the leaders of the White Rose group opposed to the Nazis) or of Anne Frank in Bergen-Belsen ultimately contributes to the greater good. If my eternal salvation depends on the deaths of these two young women, then forget it.
This said, I have never really thought that the pains brought on by the evolutionary process, in particular the struggle for survival and reproduction, much affect the Christian conception of God. For all of Voltaire’s devastating wit in “Candide,” I am a bit of a Leibnizian on these matters. If God is to do everything through unbroken law, and I can think of good theological reasons why this should be so, then pain and suffering are part of it all. Paradoxically and humorously I am with Dawkins here. He argues that the only way naturally you can get the design-like features of organisms — the hand and the eye — is through evolution by natural selection, brought on by the struggle. Other mechanisms just don’t work. So God is off the hook.
This was all too much for Professor Coyne, who opined that Ruse had been far too easy on religious believers:
It seems to me a perfectly valid question to ask where God came from, nor do I think that question is answered definitively by saying, “Well, God, by definition, doesn’t need a cause.” One could just as well say that “The cosmos, which produces multiple universes, was always there, and it by definition didn’t need a cause.”
And I’d need to be convinced that God’s existence is a metaphysical “necessity.” Where does that come from?? It seems to me perfectly reasonable to ask: “If there were a Big Bodiless Mind hanging around eternally before he actually did anything, where that Bodiless Mind came from?”
Finally, where on earth did Ruse get the idea that “God is totally simple”? Yes, some theologians have said that, but I don’t buy it. Making an analogy between god and mathematics doesn’t settle the issue. How is a bodiless mind able to create a universe “simple”? And how can God twiddle every electron, know everyone’s thoughts, see the future, and uphold everything, by being “simple”? The answer must surely involve theological wordplay…
But that aside, Ruse’s argument [on why God would have to allow natural evil if He were creating a world governed by law – VJT] doesn’t hold water. First of all, the Christian God didn’t do everything through unbroken law. I call to your attention Jesus and his miracles, as well as many other violations of “unbroken law” — including God’s intervention in evolution, which is what most evolution-accepting Americans believe. So, for most believers, God clearly didn’t do everything through unbroken law. But even if he did, one can rightly ask, “Why?” What’s the advantage of God not preventing unnecessary suffering if he’s able to do so? Is God’s refusal to interfere because maintaining “unbroken natural law” is a huge but mysterious good that outweighs all the suffering of sentient creatures? If that’s the claim, then philosophers need to explain it. What’s so great about unbroken natural law?
I then submitted a brief comment in reply to Professor Coyne’s article, which I hoped he would publish on his Website. Unfortunately, for reasons best known to himself, he did not see fit to do so. However, I thought I might share it with readers at Uncommon Descent, so here it is. As readers can see, I made every effort to be civil and courteous:
Hi Professor Coyne,
You’ve read a lot of books on the arguments for God’s existence, but you continue to labor under a few misconceptions that I’d like to clear up.
First, the arguments for God’s existence put forward by Aquinas are constructive arguments. They don’t start with a prefabricated notion of God (e.g. a bodiless Mind); all that they assume about the word “God” is that it denotes something which is the ultimate explanation for everything, if it exists.
Second, Aquinas’ arguments make some vital assumptions about what kinds of things require further explanation. In particular, they assume that: (a) any being which has some property P which it sometimes lacks [or which it is capable of lacking at times] requires an explanation for why it has that property now; (b) any being which is composed of separable parts, is capable of non-existence, and therefore requires an explanation for its continued existence; (c) any being which has built-in tendencies to change in a particular direction has the property of being oriented towards the future state it is moving in the direction of, which means it possesses the property of future-directedness, which in turn means that it must either be intelligent or be guided by something intelligent in its behavior.
Third, the Thomistic arguments make some assumptions about the nature of what counts as a good explanation. In particular: (i) an infinite regress of explanations is no explanation at all; (ii) an explanatory circle is impossible, which means that it is impossible for A to be the complete explanation for B and for B to be the complete explanation for A; and (iii) there are no “brute facts,” or states of affairs for which there is no explanation.
Given these assumptions, we can proceed in one of two ways. We can consider the cosmos as a whole (i.e. the multiverse) and treat it as a single object. It is a spatio-temporal entity, and at least some of its properties are properties which it is capable of losing. Also, it is a composite entity: it is made up of parts. Finally, it has future-oriented tendencies, such as a tendency towards increasing entropy. Consequently, by the assumptions listed above, it cannot possibly be a self-explanatory entity. Alternatively, if you don’t like treating the cosmos as a single entity, you can take one item within the cosmos, which has the features listed above (non-essential properties which it is capable of losing; compositeness; and future oriented behavior). Since an infinite regress of explanations and an explanatory circle are ruled out by our assumptions above, and since we cannot stop at any unexplained “brute facts,” we are forced to posit the existence of some self-explanatory Being which has no properties that is capable of losing (i.e. a Being outside time), which is not composed of separable parts (i.e. a bodiless Being), and which guides future-oriented objects in the inanimate world towards their end-states – in other words, a Being who (somehow) explains its own existence, and who is intelligent [because it guides things], bodiless [because it has no parts] and timeless [because it can’t gain or lose properties]. This description of God is not stipulated in advance; it’s a conclusion from the assumptions listed. In this respect, Aquinas’ Five Ways are unlike Anselm’s ontological argument.
Now you may disagree with the assumptions I’ve listed, but each of them is highly plausible, to say the least. The notion of a Being who explains its own existence is not made at the start; it emerges at the conclusion of the argument.
Finally, a couple more points. First, I realize that the notion of an utterly simple Mind may sound odd, but all I’ve argued for is a Being who is not composed of separable parts, which is different. Second, I agree with you that natural evil (e.g. the suffering of animals) is a powerful prima facie argument against an omnibenevolent God, but it’s not a knock-down one, as it naively assumes that God has no prior obligations to other intelligent agents in the cosmos that would prevent Him from destroying natural evil right now, or from allowing it to arise in the first place. We don’t know that.
I’ve said enough, so I shall stop here.
I’d like to say a little more about Professor Coyne’s objection to the doctrine of Divine simplicity:
How is a bodiless mind able to create a universe “simple”? And how can God twiddle every electron, know everyone’s thoughts, see the future, and uphold everything, by being “simple”?
I can see where Coyne is coming from here, and I would agree that his objection has some force: the notion of an utterly simple mind is a highly counter-intuitive one, given that all the minds we know of appear to either be, or be dependent on, complex entities such as brains, which store information. Instead of trying to imagine how a simple Mind might think (which we can’t), I believe it would be better to simply point out that the cosmological argument merely rules out certain kinds of complexity in an Ultimate Explanation for everything. In particular, an Ultimate Explanation cannot be something that can fall apart; hence it cannot be made up of parts which are capable of decomposing – e.g. quantitative, spatio-temporal parts. The argument cannot establish any more than that, and if someone wanted to propose (for argument’s sake) that an Ultimate Explanation might contain parts which are integrated in such a way that they cannot disintegrate, then as far as I can tell, such a position would be perfectly consistent with the cosmological argument. Such a position would neatly side-step the problem of how an utterly simple Mind could process information.
Regarding the problem of evil, I would like to close by quoting some remarks made by Professor William Dembski in his 2010 debate with Christopher Hitchens:
The problem of evil still confronts theists, though not as a logical or philosophical problem, but instead as a psychological and existential one. The problem of evil can therefore be reformulated as the following argument:
Premise 1: Since God is good, he wants to destroy evil.
Premise 2: Since God is all-powerful, he can destroy evil.
Premise 3: Evil is not yet destroyed.
Conclusion: Therefore God will eventually destroy evil.
As time-bound creatures, our problem here is with the word “eventually.” We want to see evil destroyed right now. And because we don’t see it destroyed right now, and thus experience the suffering that evil invariably inflicts, we are tempted to doubt God’s existence and goodness. Our challenge, therefore, is to continue trusting God until evil is destroyed.
An excellent contemporary defense of the cosmological argument can be found in Professor Koons’ 1996 article, A New Look at the Cosmological Argument. I would also commend Job Opening: Creator of the Universe—A Reply to Keith Parsons (2009) by Professor Paul Herrick.
What do readers think of the cosmological argument? And are the counter-arguments marshaled by Coyne persuasive ones? Comments are welcome.