Religious Bait and Switch – times two

This past week was something of a novelty for me – in the following way: I read no less than two intelligent arguments for the existence of God. One was a Reason piece, the other cropped up in the comments section to a Samizdata entry.

Now, what’s surprising isn’t that there are intelligent people who believe in God; I’ve been aware of those for a long time. But I will admit that I was starting to think that intelligent commentary on God had gone the way of the dodo. To quote myself nearly three years ago:

There used to be a time as recently as 50 years ago when Christian apologists were not this silly. There used to be a time when they read philosophy and science and put a lot of time and thought into coming up with intelligent, if flawed, arguments in favor of their worldview. What happened?

The answer, thankfully, is apparently “nothing.” But of course calling someone intelligent is not the same thing as admitting that they’re right, and while I welcome the return of more intelligently-stated arguments for the existence of God, I nevertheless think that neither of these two really rises above the traditional Christian bait-n-switch.

Let’s start with the one in Reason. The crux of it is that there are four basic laws of thought, that these laws are not just laws of thought but also truths about reality, that taken to their conclusion the laws of thought seem to contradict one another, therefore there must be a mystical element to the universe which can allow them to contradict each other without voiding their truth. The laws of thought are: (1) identity (a thing is what it is), (2) non-contradiction (a thing cannot be and not be), (3) excluded middle (a thing MUST either be or not be) and (4) causality (no uncaused thing exists). There are many routes one can take from here, but of course the most famous – made so by Thomas Aquinas – was the argument that the law of causality implies that the universe must have a cause/origin, but that this cause/origin must itself be outside the realm of possibility (else it too would need a cause). The twist that the article in question takes on this is to establish that “actual infinities” do not exist, that the only concept of infinity that we can relate to is of a potential infinity. So, we can only state infinities as sequences defined by rules. For example, the set of real numbers is infinite because we can always perform the operation of adding one to whatever number is currently greatest in our sequence. It is actually impossible to count to infintiy, but we nevertheless know the process by which it is achieved. To meet the qualification of being an uncaused cause, however, God would have to be an “actually” infinite thing, in the sense of “infinitely old.” Since such things cannot exist, then God is outside the realm of possibility – i.e. He does not exist, at least not in the conventional sense. However, the universe needs an uncaused cause in order to exist without violating the law of causality. Since the only cause that meets the requirements cannot “actually” exist in reality as we understand it, it must be mystical in nature. No doubt the author would object to my crude summary, but I believe that is the essence of the argument.

I have two problems with it as stated, and they are the bleeding same two problems I have with just about every remotely plausible-sounding religious argument I encounter. First, as someone who has read and largely agreed with Kant, I see no reason to accept that the four laws of thought are also laws of reality. They are merely laws of the way that humanity perceives reality. What reality actually is in itself, we cannot say. We receive information from outside ourselves, and our sensory apparatus organizes this information in the way we are accustomed to experiencing the universe. I have no idea whether “in reality itself” a thing must be itself and not some other thing. I know only that I interact with the universe as though that were the case, and that I cannot imagine interacting with the universe on any other basis. The conclusion a Kantian draws is that there are things we cannot know, that there are limits to human knowlege. The origin of the perceptable universe is one such thing.

Second, there’s a bait-n-switch going on with the word “universe” in any case. On the one hand, in order to establish the Law of Causality, we need to treat “the Universe” as the sum of its composite parts. Everthing that exists is part of “the Universe,” and everything that exists was caused by some other thing(s). On the other hand, once one has convinced his reader of the necessity of the Law of Causality, we switch tactics and start talking about “the Universe” as though it were a single thing that has a unified cause. And therein lies the balderdash – because “the Universe” is precisely NOT a thing like other things. It’s a manner of speaking, and that is all – a linguistic shortcut that allows us to refer to everything at once. To the extent that I concede the religious argument that there must be “an original cause” that is “outside the realm of possibility,” there is nothing that compells me to believe that this cause must be something outside of the Universe itself. Rather, the cause simply is the Universe itself, the required mysticism is in the contradictory nature of the category “universe” (which is surely a category unlike any other), and one need not look to a God at all to tie up all the loose ends. The problem is that the concept “universe” is problematic; the solution is that there is no solution because we humans are not equipped to enquire into the true nature of our linguistic shortcut. And that, really, is all. Labeling a conceptual box “universe,” showing everyone what’s inside, and then closing it and swapping what’s inside is amazing at first, but it’s nevertheless a trick. And so I maintain that no defender of religion can ever win an argument in which he is required to stay on topic. At least, I have yet to see an example of it.

The problem with the comments section in Samizdata is similar, but more emotional. Here the argument is that anyone who is an atheist is also a nihilist, because he believes that there is no inherent meaning to life. Meaning, such as it is, must be created by the individual, and essentially imposed by that individual on a purely material universe. Again, I’m giving a crude summary – but again, I think that’s only fair – not so much because of my space limitations but because the person putting forth this argument is begging the question. Namely: why must meaning be inherent to be meaningful, and what about a purely materialistic universe denies the inherency of meaning? Why can meaning not be inherent in the way that a material object comes to perceive itself and its surroundings? In short, this argument (largely from Nietzsche, for the curious) similarly stacks the deck in favor of religion – in two ways. First, it basically assumes, without proof, that nothing that is not mystical can be sufficiently meaningful for its purposes. Maybe, maybe not. Personally, I feel that my life is plenty meaningful without any mystical dimension, but for the sake of argument, let’s grant that this might be a perceptual deficiency on my part. Which leads to the second problem. If, for whatever reason, the only things that count as “things worth believing in” are mystical things, then I suppose I have to concede that I am a “nihilist” by their definition – since I believe in “nothing” – at least, on their terms this is true. OK, but this is where we’re back into bait-n-switch territory. I can to some qualified degree accept that I am a “nihilist” by that extremely narrow definition. But the point is surely that this is NOT the conventional definition of “nihilism,” and that, more to the point, the conventional use of “nihilism” is wholely negative: that is, in popular parlance a “nihilist” is someone who believes that there is no purpose and no basis for morality in life. So the mechanism is the same as above: we have one definition of nihilism as long as it suits us to get the atheist to buy into it, and then having bought into it, once he’s holding the title to the house, so to speak, we give him the keys to another house. Very clever … in a used car salesman kind of sense, I mean.

And so I persist in my belief that all religious arguments amount to this. Tell someone one thing to get him on the lot, and then once he’s on the lot talk him into buying something superficially similar but substantially different.

To recap: yes, everyTHING must have a cause, but talking about the Universe itself as though it is one of these THINGs is an abuse of language. The Universe is not a THING like other THINGs, and once you realize that the problem that you need God to solve vanishes. Yes, atheists are “nihilists” in the strict sense that they typically believe in nothing over and obove what they can verify, but this is simply not the way that the word “nihilist” is typically used, and using it in this way is misleading. Just because meaning is not mystical does not mean it isn’t meaning, and once you give up your prejudice that only mystical meaning matters, the problem – again – vanishes.

Put simply, religion exists to solve problems of its own making. Just look at the “problem” harder, realize it isn’t really there, and you can avoid the salesman’s tricks. Like any smarmy salesman, the religious believer is selling you something you don’t need and are in fact better off without – which is why I think it is not a coincidence that the tactics are the same.

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