Is Belief in God Reasonable? My opening speech

[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.

PS

  • 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…”.


Categories: Religion

31 replies

  1. It could be that the logical laws just are truth 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.

    Yep, there it is again. Consider this also stolen 🙂

  2. Isn’t logic based on the 3 laws of Aristotle which are self-evident truths of the world around us? So if logic is evidence for god wouldn’t physical laws of the universe be as well?

    I’ve been arguing with a very smart and well-versed person who has used logic to argue that an eternal, immaterial, timeless first cause must exist and that logic itself demonstrates the existence of the immaterial. I pointed out the laws of logic are immaterial but don’t exist and that the first cause argument doesn’t mean that cause is god if indeed the argument is one without error.

    • Exactly true. The logical laws are actually numerous, but the ones that theists recite are: (1) Laws of excluded middle (2) Laws of noncontradiction and (3) laws of identity. You can have a quick look at a list of them here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propositional_calculus#Basic_and_derived_argument_forms (yay for Wikipedia).
      They are deemed self-evident. But I find that a nonsense argument for anything. Instead, they have been discovered to be true. It’s not that they can’t be other than what they are, it’s that if they were other that’s what we would discover and find so intuitive.

  3. Well done (but before you actually use it please fix all of the grammatical errors as they will be pounced upon by experienced debaters to distract the audience and diminish you in their eyes).

    There is one fallacy we commit though, and that is to assume that reason affects unreasonable people. Most people are not unreasonable in toto but they seem to have cordoned off aspects of their personalities where they stuff bizarre conspiracies, alien abduction claims, woo woo beliefs, and their religion. Couple that will general ignorance about the things they discuss and a fundamental belief in magic … (like the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the Theory of Evolution) and Bob’s your uncle: theists. Hard lot to get to change their mind when they do not have the same set of rules pounded into them in school and are ignorant to boot.

    • I think there are two reasons to continue arguing in our general direction, though:
      (1) We create a context in which new generations are brought up with a lot of information to digest. It lessen the blow of indoctrination and makes it easier to “deconvert” when they’re at school.
      (2) Reason is a seed. You may not win someone over in a conversation, but given time and good tools to harness doubt people will slowly deconvert themselves. This isn’t true for everyone, and people of the WLC ilk who admit to praying when their faith is challenged (or consulting a pastor) will die off before they change their mind. But they are not the main collection of people.

      Also, Hitchens had a pretty good reason for having this conversation:
      “when Socrates was sentenced to death for his philosophical investigations, and for blasphemy for challenging the gods of the city — and he accepted his death — he did say, well, if we are lucky, perhaps I’ll be able to hold conversation with other great thinkers and philosophers and doubters too. In other words the discussion about what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is pure, and what is true could always go on.
      Why is that important, why would I like to do that? Because that’s the only conversation worth having. And whether it goes on or not after I die, I don’t know. But I do know that that’s the conversation I want to have while I’m still alive. Which means that to me, the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way, is an offer of something not worth having. I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don’t know anything like enough yet; that I haven’t understood enough; that I can’t know enough; that I’m always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
      And I’d urge you to look at… those people who tell you, at your age, that you’re dead till you believe as they do — what a terrible thing to be telling to children! And that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority — don’t think of that as a gift. Think of it as a poisoned chalice. Push it aside however tempting it is. Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.”

  4. This would make for a great opening statement

  5. “Things like logical laws are seen to require external management to maintain their existence and identity.” How is this argued? Do physical laws require external management?

    • 1) It’s normally argued via a false dichotomy: are the Laws of Logic physical or conceptual?
      You’re supposed to fall for it and say “conceptual” (given that they’re definitely not physical).

      2) The next step tends to be something akin to “would the Laws of Logic still exist is there were no minds to conceive of them?”, where you’re meant to say “yes”, because basic statements like “a rock is rock and isn’t not-a-rock” would be true even if no one was around to utter them. You are encouraged to not question what “exists” means in this context. I’d agree that “the laws of Logic are true in the absence of minds”, but I have a hard time understanding what “exists” means in this context.
      3) If you fall for the false dichotomy and don’t question the usage of the word “exists”, you are left with concepts existing in the absence of minds in the universe. It is then asserted that there must be a mind left over to conceive of these concepts, else they wouldn’t exist.
      4) ???
      5) God

      • Laws of logic are descriptors; they don’t exist. TILDEB posted a piece about this here on 02/15/14.

        • Oh, i agree completely. I simply wish to represent theists who make that argument.

          • Yes, I was just answering their claims. I also constructed a syllogism which I think throws a bit of a wrench into this idea that deduction is somehow foolproof in assessing the truth. At a certain time (and even now really given a lack of knowledge) the following was unassailable:

            All objects that begin at one point and reach another move
            The sun begins at one point and reaches another
            Therefore, the sun moves

            I also think it’s important to draw a line between a deistic and theistic view. All the logical arguments that theists give do not in any way support their religion but only the possibility of a First Causer type entity.

  6. Reblogged this on no sign of it and commented:
    I’ve recently come to realize that when theists ask us to believe in god, this is actually a secondary request. Their first demand is that we believe in *them* ( then what they say about god is vouchsafed by our acceptance of their credibility and veracity).

    There is no reasonable way to accede to this without surrender of our critical faculties. Refuse this and demand evidence, and all we get are smokescreen obfuscations.

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