[Introductions and thanks for the invite to speak]
Let me tell you how this evening is going to go: a lot of statements are going to be made. That seems very much to be the nature of debates. A lot of those statements I am going to disagree with. Each statement I disagree with I am going to ask for evidence or a reasoned explanation for. I am not doing this to be obtuse; this is the only way to police the reasonableness of the discussion we have this evening. I try―and I occasionally fail―not to believe anything until a level of evidence and reasoned explanation have been delivered for that belief. The required level of evidence and reasoned explanation for each belief is described by the extraordinariness of the belief. Lets us take just a moment to explore what that means.
If you claim to have a pet dog, and you are not trying to sell me anything, I am not going to challenge you much about that. People have pet dogs. It is quite a pedestrian claim. The evidence―your assertion―is also pedestrian, so neither of us need to bother ourselves with further doubt or evidence. However, if you claim to have a pet chinchilla I am going to say “oh wow, can I see a picture of it?” It is a marginally more extraordinary claim (fewer people have pet chinchillas). I want just a little evidence. If you show me a picture on your phone of a chinchilla in a pet environment (i.e. in a house and not in the mountains) I am going to accept your claim. I will accept it with more confidence again if you are in the picture holding the chinchilla.
My acceptance of the evidence of your pet chinchilla changes if we had a bet. If you say ‘here’s a picture of my pet chinchilla, you owe me £500’ I am going to require more evidence. Now that you have tied up the claim in financial and prideful benefits to yourself, I want to see the chinchilla in your home, now. I would not accept it in a week’s time: that is a week to spend up to £500 on getting a chinchilla, break even financially and still keep your pride.
It changes entirely if you say ‘I have a pet invisible, heatless, immaterial dragon’. At this point I will want more than evidence, I will need a reasoned explanation as well. I will first ask for the difference between your invisible, heatless, immaterial dragon and an invisible, heatless, silent, immaterial dog or £1,000,000 being in my bank account for exactly 0 seconds. I will ask what the difference is between these entities, and nonexistence. I will need an explanation for how your claim is different from you having granted arbitrary descriptions to nothingness. Not until you have established that will I entertain the idea of then investigating what evidence convinced you of the truth of the claim that an invisible, heatless, immaterial dragon exists, and is your pet.
For the record, anyone who approaches me after the show to say they have a pet dog, I will be asking for pictures. Now that I have made the claim that it only requires your say-so, I am aware that some people will try to sneak that one past me. The reasonableness of criticism is also a big factor.
We have the same issue with God. I first require an explanation of how God existing differs from God not existing. After all, God is often defined as immaterial, invisible, timeless and as having many other attributes that protect God from detection. God shares an awful lot of traits with nonexistence. Claims like “It is a mind” or “It is a personal and immensely powerful Being” will be asserted, and they need explanation. The explanations shouldn’t be monumentally difficult, especially for people who already claim to know that belief in God is reasonable. These people must have reasons. If they don’t, what can they possibly mean when they say belief in God is reasonable? One of the things my opponent make attempts to do is point at real world phenomena and claim a supernatural causal chain to the event. There are many steps between an unusual event and supernatural cause, but people may try that approach. But that approach has to meet certain criteria before we can take it seriously. Firstly, the unusual event must be established to have taken place. The parting of the Red Sea, for example, has to be established to have actually happened before we entertain the idea of its supernatural cause. Then there is a bigger obstacle still: there are real problems with establishing supernatural causes. It is, for all I can tell, impossible to directly establish a supernatural cause. It would fall to my opponent, if they choose this method of arguing, to establish logical reasons why all possible natural explanations are insufficient. It is not enough to claim that no current natural explanation answers the question. There was a time when no current natural explanation answered the people’s questions about lightning, but we have since discovered that a possible natural answer did exist. Once this has been done, and we accept that the cause is supernatural, all the work is still ahead of my opponent, who has to pin down the reasons and evidence we should believe God is said supernatural cause; we have no reason to assume “supernatural” means “God”.
It is worth addressing why possible natural explanations supersede supernatural ones. The problem is not one of bias or unyielding presuppositions. The problem is one of reasonableness. Firstly, supernatural claims rarely differ in real terms from “it just happened”. “God did it” is always indistinguishable from “it just happened”. By contrast, natural explanations tell you something about preceding conditions. The tide tells you something about gravity and the positions of the moon, so the natural explanation of tides is actually an explanation. A supernatural answer might be something along the lines of “God just manages them that way” and that tells us nothing and so is not really an explanation at all. The second reason to prefer natural explanations over supernatural ones is the problem of unfounded assumptions (or multiplying entities). This is called Occam’s Razor, and it states that explanations that rely on the fewest assertions, or claims that rely on mechanisms already held in high confidence are preferable to ones that are built on many unfounded claims or assumptions.
There are two common ways to point to God’s interaction with the real world: cosmology and consistency. When religious people point to cosmology and conclude God they commit some fallacy. Most commonly, that fallacy is an argument from ignorance, claiming that because there is no current natural explanation for cosmology being exactly the way it is, then God is the preferable conclusion. This simply isn’t true. We must be willing to withhold belief if there isn’t enough evidence, not posit a bigger mystery in the hope that will assuage our need for an explanation, for now. Pencilled in answers are not reasonable ones. The second way God is purported to have interacted with the universe, and continues to do so, is as a manager of the consistency in the universe. Things like logical laws are seen to require external management to maintain their existence and identity. However, the need for logical laws (which underpin most reasonable thinking and logic) to be managed hasn’t been established. It could be that the logical laws just are truths about the universe that we have discovered. The reason we find them so intuitive and comforting is because we have grown up with them never being violated. Why they exist might be discoverable in the fabric of this universe, and they might be different in other universes (although its not conceivable how, that possibility must remain open until established otherwise). Or it could be that the logical laws apply to all possible universes, and there is a deeper reason still for their being. However, to assert a God to make sense of this is also an argument from ignorance.
As it happens, nothing yet has been brought forward in defence of the existence of God, that meets these criteria. There has not been a good explanation of what God is supposed to be, how It differs from nonexistence and, once the definition has been appropriately built, no evidence for God has been forthcoming. This is why belief in any God is unreasonable.
- I haven’t actually been invited to debate anywhere. This is more a bit of fun. However, if anyone does decide to invite me to debate this topic, I expect the opponent to pretty damn good, given that my opening statement is now publicly available.
- I might get invited, or offer appearances, to promote my book, if I ever finish it.
- My first rebuttal would probably open with “and now the real fun begins…”.