Professor Raymond Tallis on good and bad arguments for atheism
|December 19, 2010||Posted by vjtorley under Intelligent Design|
I have often found that the best refutations of arguments for atheism are written by atheists. Raymond Tallis is a splendid example of this rule. In an article entitled “Why I am an atheist,” in Philosophy Now, May/June 2009, 73:47-48 (click here or here to read online), he manages to slay no less than three arguments for atheism, before advancing two much better arguments of his own. Interestingly, however, some of the best online refutations of Tallis’s own arguments for atheism have been written by …. you guessed it, atheists.
The relevance of all this to Intelligent Design should be obvious. Arguments for Intelligent Design are based not only on the existence of complex specified information in living organisms, but also on the fine-tuning of the cosmos. If there were a cosmic Creator, then it would have to be a God of some sort. But if there were compelling or even strong arguments against the existence of God, they would also be arguments against at least the cosmic version of Intelligent Design.
Without further ado, let’s have a look at what Tallis calls the bad arguments for atheism.
First, there’s the argument from lack of evidence for God:
The worst reason for not believing in God (though the least obviously bad), is that there is no evidence for His existence. This is a bad reason for atheism because no-one can agree what would count as evidence. Miracles, scriptures, the testimony of priests and prophets etc, can all be contested on empirical grounds: but for some people the fact that we communicate intelligibly with one another, or that the world is ordered, or even that there is something rather than nothing, is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that there is a Creator who not only made the world but also made it habitable by and intelligible to us. Therefore the appeal to evidence, or lack of it, will always be inconclusive.
Often atheists appeal to Occam’s razor when justifying their skepticism along these lines, but the philosopher Michael Anthony, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Haifa, Israel, undercut this argument in an incisive article entitled, Where’s the Evidence?. Allow me to quote a short excerpt:
The trouble is that Ockham’s Razor is of little use in disputes over whether some entity X exists. That is because it is typically an open question in such disputes whether everything that needs explaining can in fact be explained without X. Theists believe, or at least suspect, that there are features of reality which are inexplicable without appeal to a divine being: the existence of a contingent universe, the fine-tuning of physical constants, etc. We need not decide here whether a divine being is needed to explain these things: what is important is just that the Razor itself cannot decide such matters. It comes into play only assuming that a complete explanation of the relevant phenomena is possible without X; at which point it licenses us to eliminate X from our ontology.
The second bad argument for atheism which Raymond Tallis criticizes is the argument from the various evils that religious belief has inflicted on the human race – warfare, sectarian bigotry, clerical corruption and the oppression of women, as well as the hampering of open-ended scientific inquiry. Tallis’ rebuttal of this argument is commendably fair-minded:
However, the jury must still be out over the net benefit, because we cannot run the course of history twice, once with and once without religion, to determine whether religion has overall made us treat each other worse. Or, come to that, whether religion has blocked progress in understanding nature and making the world more comfortable to live in and life more bearable, or vice versa….
… Badly behaved priests and sickeningly venal and powerful churches do not demonstrate the untruth of religion. While they remind us of the corrupting influence of power, particular when it claims to have transcendental authority, this fact doesn’t support the Big Bang against the Six Days of Creation.
It is heartening to see that there are some atheists who are capable of separating the metaphysical truth claims of a religion from the moral goodness or badness of the people making those claims. Certainly, a corrupt founder can bring a religion’s metaphysical truth claims into discredit, if some of those claims pertain to him (or her); but it is hard to see how corrupt followers can inflict such damage on a religion.
The final bad argument for atheism is that belief in God traumatizes people, but Tallis has no time for this one either:
Another bad reason for being an atheist is that religious beliefs scare people witless, particularly children, with their doctrines of salvation and damnation. That argument won’t wash either. If God expects certain things of you – including belief in Him – and the punishment for disappointing Him is eternal damnation, then it’s a supreme kindness to frighten you into obedience to His Will, as interpreted by the experts.
Having cleared the table, Tallis puts forward what he considers to be the two best arguments for atheism: first, if a personal God exists, He is a morally capricious Being, which makes His existence implausible; and second, the concept of God is self-contradictory. First, let’s examine Tallis’s charge of capriciousness:
According to the religions in which I was brought up (though not, of course to all religions), God unites in His Person a risibly odd combination of properties. In order to uphold a world picture which links the great events that brought the universe about with the little events that fill our lives, it has to conflate metaphysics and morality, physics and politeness – something of the significance of the Big Bang with an Angry God who sulks because he is not adequately praised, and who intervenes at a personal or political level in an often random and sometimes quite repulsive way… The God who merges the power that slew thousands to avenge the slights felt by other thousands, or to lift a righteous person up, with the power to bring the boundless totality of things into being, is an ontological monstrosity – like a chimera uniting the front end of a whale with the back end of a microbe.
The charge that Tallis is making here is that the personal God of the Abrahamic religions is both big and small at the same time – and not only small, but petty to boot.
My initial line of response would be to ask Tallis what he considers more important than people. For it was he himself who wrote:
But we are quite different from other species, if only because, as the philosopher Schelling pointed out, it is in us that, “Nature opens its eyes . . . and notices that it exists.” We are the only species that quarrels over its own nature and has written about the origin of species. (You can be a beast, but I’m human.. Article in The Times, October 29, 2005.)
“OK,” you might be thinking, “so we’re not beasts. But why should an infinite God care about human beings in particular?” The best and most succinct answer to that question which I’ve ever seen comes from an online article by (you guessed it) another atheist, Jason Rosenhouse: Coyne lays an egg. In his article, Rosenhouse takes Professor Jerry Coyne to task for what he considers a very unsatisfactory review of Professor Michael Behe’s book, The Edge of Evolution (Free Press, 2007). At one point Rosenhouse quotes a remark made by Coyne in his review:
So what scientific reason can there be for singling out just one species as the Designer’s goal?
and answers Coyne’s question with a ready reply:
There is only one species with the intelligence to contemplate a relationship with God. That’s why we might single out just one species.
Bravo, Professor Rosenhouse! I couldn’t have put it better myself.
A God who takes an interest in human affairs is not a small God, then.
The next point I’d like to make is that the value of human life is not additive. Two lives are worth no more than one. To see why, consider the following moral dilemma discussed by the atheist philosopher, Philippa Foot, in a now-famous essay, The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect:
Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed.
In such a case, Foot declares, the judge “may not kill the innocent person in order to stop the riots.” And she is surely right. As the Talmud puts it:
Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 37a.)
It is not morally absurd, then, for God (if He exists) to take a personal interest in one particular human being. It would be utterly wrong to think that one person is too small to take an interest in. On the contrary, there is nothing in all the world which is larger than a single human individual.
Nor is there anything petty about God taking a personal interest in a particular tribe of human beings, provided that He has a morally significant reason for doing so – e.g. a special task that He wishes to accomplish through them.
Finally, I would invite Professor Tallis to make a distinction between what God does on a given occasion, and the way in which His actions are subsequently described by human beings. The Israelites, after passing safely through the Red Sea, may have gloried in the death of the Egyptian armies that pursued them: “Both horse and rider He has hurled into the sea” (Exodus 15:21). That sounds like gloating, and I for one do not believe in a God who gloats at the destruction of human beings, be they good or bad. But I have no problem believing that of all the peoples of the world, God might choose one (the Jews) as the people to whom He would first reveal Himself. After all, He had to pick somebody. I also have no problem believing that He may have providentially assisted the Jewish people to escape from the clutches of their captors, the Egyptians. To assert this is in no way equivalent to asserting He intended the destruction of the Egyptians who chose to pursue the Israelites; rather, it simply means that God intended to make sure that nobody who wished to harm the Israelites would be capable of pursuing them.
Thus people may be petty and vindictive in exalting God’s mighty works; but God Himself is never petty.
Professor Tallis’s other main argument for atheism is that “God is a logically impossible object,” as he puts it in his provocatively titled article, In search of the G-spot. What he particularly objects to, as he writes in his article, “Why I am an atheist,” is the notion of a God who combines in His Being both the unbounded and the specific:
… the notion of a God who is infinite but has specific characteristics; unbounded, but distinct in some sense from His creation; who is a Being that has not been brought into being; who is omniscient, omnipotent and good and yet so constrained as to be unable or unwilling to create a world without evil; who is intelligent and yet has little in common with intelligent beings as we understand them; and so on.
As a religious believer, I completely reject Tallis’s assertion that the God of classical theism, or even the God of Judaism and Christianity, has any specific characteristics whatsoever. Let’s start with classical theism: God is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent Being Who created the cosmos. The latter part of that description (“Who created the cosmos”) sounds specific. However, it does not describe the essence of God (which is utterly unbounded), but a particular action, freely performed by God. Likewise, the actions performed by God in the Bible do not endow Him with specific characteristics as a Being; they are simply specific choices that He made at critical points in human history.
“But the God of Judaism is one God,” I hear you object. “That’s specific.” But what does “one” mean here? Does it mean “one and not two”? No. It means “one and indivisible.” God cannot be divided into parts; if he could, he would be contingent, and hence not God.
Someone might object that the God of the Jews is quite distinct from, say, Zeus and Thor, so He must have specific properties in His Being, to distinguish Him from those entities. Not so. Zeus and Thor have certain very specific properties; God is distinguished from these pint-sized deities by the general property of being totally unbounded in His essence. And lest anyone suggest that the word “His” implies specificity on God’s part, let me add that no Jew has ever attributed a body to the omnipresent God of the Bible, who forbade anyone to make an image of Him.
“But what about the Christian God?” I hear the skeptic ask. “By His very nature, He’s three persons – not two, and not twenty-five. Three sounds pretty specific, wouldn’t you say?” No, I wouldn’t. According to one popular explanation developed by St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.), the Trinity is simply a necessary consequence (even if we finite human beings are incapable of deducing it ourselves) of the general fact that God knows and loves Himself perfectly – God the Son being God’s knowledge of Himself, and God the Holy Spirit being God’s love of Himself. To say that God is a Being whose nature it is to know and love Himself perfectly is a completely general, non-arbitrary statement about the essence of God.
Turning to Professor Tallis’s remaining objections to the logical coherence of the notion of God: it should be readily apparent that an unbounded Being Who cannot fail to exist is necessarily “in some sense distinct from His creation,” since the cosmos is utterly contingent.
Nor can I see why Tallis objects to “a Being that has not been brought into being.” Or is he claiming that it is an a priori truth that whatever exists, has a beginning – or at the very least, a cause? But surely, the notion of an Uncaused Cause makes perfect sense. For instance, the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, in his famous 1948 BBC debate with the Jesuit priest, Fr. Frederick Copleston, upheld the view that “it’s illegitimate even to ask the question of the cause of the world.” The point at issue between Russell and Copleston was not whether there was an Uncaused Cause, but where one should stop in one’s quest for causes.
What about the problem of evil? It seems that Tallis has a point when he objects to the notion of a God “who is omniscient, omnipotent and good and yet so constrained as to be unable or unwilling to create a world without evil.” This would seem to imply a certain specificity on God’s part, wouldn’t it? No, not at all. I’ll answer Professor Tallis by directing him to an online article written by another atheist, Professor Bradley Monton, who describes what he considers to be “the most promising reply to the problem of evil,” as follows:
This isn’t the most formal way to present it, but I’ll present it with a parable. Suppose that God exists, and God is omnipotent and omniscient, and has the desire to be omnibenevolent. So God creates a very nice universe, a universe with no evil. We might at first think that God has fulfilled the criterion of omnibenevolence, but then we recognize that God could do more – God could create another universe that’s also very nice. Agents could exist in that universe that didn’t exist in the first universe, and so there’s an intuitive sense (which is admittedly tricky to make precise mathematically) in which there would be more goodness to reality than there would be were God just to create one universe.
But of course there’s no reason to stop at two – God should create an infinite number of universes. Now, he could just create an infinite number of universes, where in each universe no evil things happen. But in doing so, there would be certain creatures that wouldn’t exist – creatures like us, who exist in a universe with evil, and are essential products of that universe. So God has to decide whether to create our universe as well. What criterion should he use in making this decision? My thought is that he should create all the universes that have more good than evil, and not create the universes that have more evil than good.
So that’s why an omnipotent omniscient omnibenevolent God would create our universe, even though it has evil – our universe adds (in an intuitive sense, setting aside mathematical technicalities) to the sum total of goodness in the universe, and hence it’s worth creating.
I don’t personally endorse Professor Monton’s solution to the problem of evil myself. Still, I wouldn’t rule it out either, and I think Professor Monton does a commendable job of showing that a promising reply to the problem of evil can be made, without any special pleading on the theist’s part.
Finally, we are left with Professor Tallis’s objection to the concept of a God “who is intelligent and yet has little in common with intelligent beings as we understand them.” Tallis is right to be wary of a purely apophatic theology which tells us what God is not, but doesn’t tell us what He is. There are, however, two viable alternatives. The first is the classical theism of St. Thomas Aquinas, who asserts that the attribution of intelligence to God is neither an equivocal one (where the word “intelligence” has a totally different meaning for human beings from the meaning it has when applied to God), nor a univocal one (where the word “intelligence” has the same meaning for humans as it does for God), but an analogous one. For Aquinas, the statement, “God is intelligent” simply means: “There is something in God which is to God like intelligence is to human beings.” The other attributes of God can be construed in the same fashion. As the philosopher and former atheist Edward Feser puts it in his excellent article on Classical Theism:
For the Thomist, this is the key to understanding how it can be the case that God’s goodness is His power, which is His knowledge, which is His essence, which is His existence. Such a claim would be nonsensical if the terms in question were being used univocally, in exactly the same sense in which we use them when we attribute goodness, power, knowledge, etc. to ourselves (and as they are used in Paleyan “arguments from analogy”). But neither are the senses utterly equivocal. Rather, what we mean is that there is in God something analogous to what we call goodness in us, something analogous to what we call knowledge in us, and so forth; and in God, it is one and the same thing that is analogous to what are in us distinct attributes.
Not all Christians find Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy persuasive, however, and some Christians would hold that “intelligence” means the same thing for us as it does for God. Some very famous Christian philosophers and theologians, such as St. Anselm (c. 1033-1109) and Duns Scotus (c.1265-1308), have argued that since “knowledge” is a pure perfection, which does not impose any limitations on its possessor, the term “knowledge” must have the same meaning for God and creatures alike: it can be applied univocally to both. (In this respect, knowledge is unlike the perfection of “rationality,” which is limiting because it requires its possessor to arrive at a conclusion only after reasoning his/her way from premises.) Thus although the manner in which God knows is utterly different from our own, and although God’s knowledge is infinitely greater than ours in degree, the actual meaning of the word “know” is the same for God as it is for other intelligent beings.
In any case, as I have argued before, the differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus on this issue have been greatly exaggerated. Moreover, in formulating his doctrine of univocal predication, Scotus was not opposing the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, but those of the theologian Henry of Ghent. And speaking of Aquinas, here is what he wrote in his Summa Contra Gentiles Book II, chapter 46, paragraph 4, about why the cosmos would have been lacking in perfection if God had not made intelligent creatures:
[T]he highest perfection of things required the existence of some creatures that act in the same way as God. But it has already been shown that God acts by intellect and will. It was therefore necessary for some creatures to have intellect and will.
Duns Scotus couldn’t have put it better himself.
I conclude, then, that the concept of God remains a defensible one, that Intelligent Design therefore remains an intellectually viable undertaking, and that Professor Tallis’s arguments have failed to undermine belief in God. I would also like to commend Professor Tallis for refuting three popular arguments for atheism, and I would urge him to read from the writings of other atheists and ex-atheists who have progressed beyond the more serious philosophical arguments he puts forward on behalf of atheism.