Move over, Professor Richard Dawkins. Atheism has a new champion.
Dave Mullenix has recently come up with not one but two philosophical arguments for atheism. Mullenix’s arguments, unlike Dawkins’, aren’t based on inductive inference, but on the unassailable facts that (i) a certain minimal amount of information (usually several bits) is required to represent a proper name; and (ii) a very large amount of information is required to represent all of the rules we follow, when speaking a language. Any Being that knows your name must be able to keep your name in its mind. That means its mind must be able to store more than one bit, so it can’t be the simple God of classical theism. Moreover, any Being that knows all the rules of a language (as God does, being omniscient) must be extremely complex – much more so than the first cell, say. And if it’s very complex, then its own existence is inherently even more unlikely than that of the living creatures whose existence it is supposed to explain.
I believe in addressing arguments for atheism head-on, especially good ones, so here goes.
Commenting in response to a question which I had previously posed to Dr. Elizabeth Liddle, “Why does a mind require something brain-like?”, Dave Mullenix argued as follows:
I would ignore brains and say instead that any mind needs billions of bits of carefully organized information to exist because a mind is, essentially, huge amounts of information interacting with each other. That’s what thoughts are – information acting on other information.
Think of it this way: Does God know your name? Just “vjtorley” is about 56 bits, although it could probably be compressed to half that. But just to give every one of the six billion plus people alive today a unique identifying code would take over 32 bits per person or several hundred billion bits of info total.
Or think of language in general: If He can understand English, He will need millions of bits of information just to cover the words, let alone how to put them together and do all the other processing that’s associated with understanding a language and that information needs to be “on line”.
This is the single biggest weakness in ID – ID in practice treats the existence of God as a given when in fact any thinking being at all, even a human-quality thinking being, requires so many gigabits of precisely ordered information that the unlikelyhood of that being “just existing” totally overshadows the relatively small information requirements (probably only a few hundred bits) of first life. And once you have first life, evolution can account for all the rest. Just ask Rabbi M. Averick.
I’ve taken the liberty of trying to make Dave Mullenix’s arguments against theism as philosophically rigorous as possible, and this is what I’ve come up with.
Argument A. An argument against the existence of the God of Classical Theism (an absolutely simple and omniscient Being)
1. Any entity that knows someone’s name has a representation of that name within his/her mind.
2. Proper names (e.g. Sam or Meg) have a minimal representation in excess of one bit.
3. If God exists, God knows everyone’s name. (By definition, God is omniscient, according to classical theism.)
4. Therefore if God exists, God’s mind contains representations whose length exceeds one bit.
5. A representation in excess of one bit is composed of multiple (two or more) parts.
6. Therefore if God exists, God’s mind has multiple parts.
7. But if God exists, God’s mind does not have multiple parts. (By definition, God is simple, according to classical theism.)
8. Therefore God does not exist. (If P->Q and P->not Q, then it follows that not P.)
This argument will not trouble all religious believers. Some of them might be tempted to say: “We can jettison classical theism but still retain our belief in God. Maybe God is omniscient, but complex.” But Dave Mullenix’s second argument discredits even this fallback position.
Argument B. An argument against the existence of an omniscient God who created life
1. If God exists, God knows each and every human language. (True by definition of omniscience.)
2. Any entity that knows a language has a representation of all the rules of that language within his/her mind.
3. Rules have a minimal representation in excess of one bit. (A rule contains several words; hence you can’t represent a rule using only a single bit.)
4. Since the rules of a human language include not only phonologic rules, morphologic rules and syntactic rules, but also semantic rules and pragmatic rules, the total number of rules in any given language is vast.
5. Therefore any entity that knows a language is capable of holding a vast number of bits of information (let’s call it N) in his/her mind.
6. Therefore if God exists, God’s mind contains an extremely large number of bits of information. In fact, this number is much larger than N, as N is the number of bits required to specify the rules of just one language, and there are roughly 10,000 languages in existence, to the nearest order of magnitude.
7. However, the number of bits in the minimal representation of the first living cell is smaller than N. (A living cell is complex, but it cannot be as complex as the total set of rules in a human language – otherwise we would be unable to describe the workings of the cell in human language.)
8. Indeed, it is probably the case that the total number of bits required to explain the existence of all life-forms found on Earth today is smaller than N. (Many ID advocates, including Professor Behe, are prepared to assume that front-loading is true. If it is, then the number of bits in the minimal representation of the first living cell is sufficient to explain the diversity of all life-forms found on Earth today.)
9. The more bits an entity requires to specify it, the more complex it is, and hence the more antecedently unlikely its existence is.
10. Therefore God’s existence is antecedently even more unlikely than the existence of life on Earth – the difficulties of abiogenesis notwithstanding.
11. An explanation which is antecedently even more unliklely than what it tries to explain is a bad explanation.
12. Hence invoking God (an omniscient Being) to explain life is a bad explanation.
A brief comment about the wisdom of choosing names
Before I go on, let me just say that the choice of names was a very clever one on Dave Mullenix’s part. Traditionally, Scholastic philosophers have maintained that God’s mind can store a vast number of concepts, in virtual form. How does God know what a dog is, what an E. coli bacterium is, and what an atom of gold is? The Scholastic reply has been that each of these entities must possess a kind of unity, or it wouldn’t be an individual. Therefore God, who knows all things in the most perfect manner possible, must have a unified concept of each of these kinds of entities. What’s more, God doesn’t even need to have separate and distinct concepts of each of these creatures. He only needs to have a concept of Himself as the possible cause of all these creatures, since He is able to create them all. Hence, simply by knowing Himself as a perfectly simple Being, God’s mind implicitly or virtually contains the concepts of all the various kinds of creatures which He is able to create.
Now, even if you buy that solution to the question of how God can have concepts of natural kinds, it certainly won’t work for names. Names don’t belong to any natural kind; they’re a human convention. And even if you were to maintain that God implicitly knows all names by knowing all possible combinations of letters or sounds, that wouldn’t explain how God knows your name – or how God knew Samuel’s name when He called him three times: “Samuel, Samuel.”
OK. Let’s go back to argument A. What’s wrong with it? The problem, I believe, lies in premise 1: “Any entity that knows someone’s name has a representation of that name within his/her mind.”
At first blush premise 1 seems obvious: surely all knowledge has to be in the mind of the knower. However, I’d like to challenge this assumption. Why should this be so? A clue to why this seems so obvious is contained in Dave Mullenix’s words, “that information needs to be ‘on line.'” If we picture God as having a conversation with us in real time, then of course He will need to be able to access relevant information about us – including our names – from one moment to the next. In other words, He will need to keep it in His mind. And since a name, being inherently composite, cannot be compressed to a single bit, there can be no room for it in the simple mind of God.
But God is not in real time. God is beyond space and time. This is true regardless of whether one conceives of God as atemporal (totally outside time) as classical theists do, or as being omnitemporal (present at all points in time) subsequent to the creation of the universe, as Professor William Lane Craig does. On either analysis, God is not confined to a single location in time. In that case, God does not have to store information about our names in His mind for future retrieval; it’s always immediately there for Him.
“All right,” you may answer, “but if God is talking to me, and He calls me by my name, then the information about my name must still be in His mind, mustn’t it?” Not so. I would maintain that all God needs is to have access to your name; it doesn’t need to be “in” His mind. I would suggest that God knows facts about the world (including individuals’ names) simply by having access to the states of affairs which make them true (their truthmakers, in philosophical jargon). These facts don’t need to be “in God’s mind”; He just needs to be able to access them. The fact that grounds my having the name I do is that my parents gave it to me, shortly after I was born. God, who holds all things in being, was certainly present at this event: if He had not been present, my parents and I would not have been there, for “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). If God has immediate epistemic access to the occasion when I acquired my name, then He automatically knows my name. It doesn’t need to be in His mind.
God, who holds all things, past, present and future, in existence, has immediate epistemic access to all events in the past, present and future. That’s how He is able to know my name.
Now let’s have a look at argument B. Here, the critical premise is premise 2: “Any entity that knows a language has a representation of all the rules of that language within his/her mind.” Now, this is plausibly true for a computer that can speak a language. However, it is not true for human speakers, and it is certainly not true for God.
Consider the English language. It certainly contains a vast number of rules. However, most speakers of English don’t know these rules. Many people don’t know what a preposition is, for instance. And even if a well-educated child were aware of all the phonologic rules, morphologic rules and syntactic rules of a language, he/she could not possibly articulate all of the semantic rules and pragmatic rules. Yet virtually all children manage to learn their native tongue and speak it with ease.
It may be objected that we have an implicit knowledge of the rules of a language, even if most of us seldon need to make this knowledge explicit. Moreover, it could be argued, nothing is hidden or “implicit” to God. If He knows things in the most perfect manner possible, then He must have an explicit knowledge of each and every rule of a language.
But this objection assumes that the most perfect way to know a language is to know the rules, and then to apply those rules when making sentences. That’s roughly how I speak Japanese, for instance – but then, Japanese is not my native language. To know a language properly is to be in possession of a certain set of habits, which are properly acquired from being around the native speakers of that language for a certain length of time (usually a few years). Sentences produced as a result of this natural exposure have an authenticity that can never come from reading a grammar book.
“All right,” I hear you say, “but what about God? How does God pick up the habits of a language?” The answer, once again, is that God has epistemic access to all events – past, present and future. He was present at those points in history when each human language was in the process of being created; and He is present wherever mothers pass their native language on to their children. By having access to all these events, God can legitimately be said to possess all of the habits that an authentic native speaker of any human language possesses. Indeed, God has had more linguistic exposure than any one of us could possibly hope to experience. God has seen it all. That’s why God has no difficulty in producing perfect sentences in English, Hebrew or any other human language.
Notice that these habits do not have to be “in” the mind of God. They are “out there” in the course of history, as human languages are being created, and as they evolve over time. God, who has immediate epistemic access to all events in the past, present and future, has a perfect knowledge of these habits, without them being “in” His mind.
I will conclude by saying that in order to mount a successful argument against God, an atheist would have to show that the notion of a Being who has immediate epistemic access to all events in the past, present and future is an incoherent one. This has not been done to date, and there are even atheist philosophers who contend that the notion of such a Being is defensible. David Misialowski, a self-described “agnostic atheist,” is a case in point. His articles on God’s foreknowledge (see here, here and here) are highly entertaining and well worth reading, whatever your theological perspective.
I would like to congratulate Dave Mullenix for putting forward two highly ingenious arguments against the existence of God. They are much better and more interesting than the arguments recently put forward by the New Atheists.