Friday, September 3, 2010

Does the Universe's Existence Prove God's?

Believers ask:  Well, where do you think the universe came from?

Recommended replies:

1. Anyone who claims to know the answer to that question is a liar, a fool, or a madman.

(If they don't get your point and have proven that they don't deserve politeness, you can add "Which one are you?" )

2.The question of the universe's origin and the question of whether or not god exists are separate questions.  If you don't see that they are separate questions, then you are engaging in circular reasoning.

Followed by:

3.  No one knows the answer to the origins of the universe, including me, but as to the second question, it is clear that the correct conclusion is that god does not exist.


4.  I'll tell you what I do know:  The invisible magic man in the sky theory is obviously a primitive myth and not a serious theory.


5. Listen to yourself.  What you are saying is that just because we don't know the answer that means it must be supernatural.

The problem with almost all arguments posited by believers is that they are wrong on so many levels that it is difficult for a logical person to know where to start.  Furthermore, they almost always have an emotional appeal as well.  The often posited "argument from existence" is a classic example.  It is wrong in that it implies that the answer is currently known or knowable by mankind.  It is wrong in implying that mankind currently knows all (indeed, any) of the potential explanations and can therefore choose from among a competing set of explanations.  It is wrong in implying that atheists claim to know the answer.  It is wrong in implying that if atheists can't come up with a better explanation, then we have to accept the one offered by religion.  It is wrong in implying that there is only one possible answer.

The emotional appeal of the argument lies in the knowledge on the part of both parties that the atheist does not know where the universe came from.  The believer has subtly put the onus on the non-believer.  Unless this is made explicit, the believer will feel that he has put himself in a superior position and the non-believer may feel that he is in an inferior position.

When we hear the most common argument from believers that the very existence of the universe is evidence of god’s existence we must keep several points in mind and try to make them all if we can.

First,  the argument is simply based on circular reasoning.  The existence of the universe is the very mystery that god is meant to explain.  To use the existence of the question to prove your answer to the question is to engage in circular reasoning of the purest sort.  The mere existence of the universe tells us nothing about its origins UNLESS one assumes on some level that creation is the only possible explanation.  Such assumption implicitly includes an assumption that there was a creator—because that is the very nature of what is meant by the word creation.

Second, the biggest weakness of the assumption that a creator is necessary is obvious:  It is unfounded.  Human knowledge simply does not begin to extend far enough to begin to say what might or might not have caused the universe to exist.  At present, no hypothesis can be ruled out.  In fact, at present most potential hypotheses can't even be formulated, much less ruled out.  (I have been trying to make this point with theists for years without success.  But, I am happy to report I recently learned that I am not alone in thinking this.)

Third, not only is the assumption invalid and the reasoning circular, the supposed conclusion doesn’t really help answer the question.  This line of reasoning merely serves to introduce another mystery in the place of the first.  In other words, the question has merely been swept under a hypothetical and specious rug.   The alleged existence of the hypothetical magic man in the sky is at least as big a mystery as the universe itself.

Fourth, the universe's existence provides no more proof of the god hypothesis than it does any other hypothesis.  This point can be used when refuting both the assertion above that the universe is proof of god and its underlying (and mistaken) premise below that a creator is needed.

That underlying premise that a creator is necessary is usually expressed as the idea that something cannot come from nothing.  The most common response from atheists is to say:  If something can’t come from nothing, then where did the something that supposedly made the universe come from?"  This is a good start.  It points out that the theist's argument is self-contradictory--and thus logically invalid--and that it fails to give us a resolution because it merely substitutes a new mystery.

There are two points to make here.  First, this is where the believer's incorrect assumptions about his own knowledge become clear.  The origins of the universe are outside human knowledge and experience.  None of us can possibly say what is or is not possible in that situation.  Furthermore, compare this with primitive man believing that something had to be holding up the Earth because, in his experience, it was simply not possible for the Earth to simply be a ball hurtling through space.  Believers are making the same incorrect assumption here.  Call them on it:

"This is something beyond human knowledge.  We don't know what all the possible answers are and thus cannot conclude that god or nothing are the only possibilities."


"Who says something can't come from nothing?  Based on what evidence?"

This second question sometimes gives them pause, but probably only because they have never been challenged on the assertion and haven't thought about it.

If they start to explain that this assertion is based on their knowledge of how things are in our universe, point out that this question deals with things completely outside our experience and no such assumptions are warranted.  If the theist is dumbstruck, as sometimes happens, just go ahead and explain why he is wrong, using the "Earth cannot possibly be a ball hurtling through space" example.

Another revealing point about this line of religious reasoning is the way in which believers “solve” this dilemma.  They assume that the creator is somehow different from the rest of the universe.  In other words, they assume that the rules they were previously applying (after mistakenly assuming they know the rules) don’t apply anymore because god is "different" from the universe.  The problem is that they can't know this unless and until they prove god's characteristics, which would entail proving his existence, of course.  Thus, the argument is circular on yet another level because the conclusion has to be implicitly assumed to be true in order to explain a rather obvious contradiction between one of the assumptions and the conclusion.

(This assumption that god could have characteristics that would otherwise seem impossible to us is close to the right assumption but it is being made at the wrong juncture in the reasoning process.  This is the assumption that should have been made in the previous step when the believer assumes without evidence that his earthly experience can be analogized to the cosmological question of the universe’s origins.  In fact, the origins of the universe could well involve principles that seem impossible to us.)

Finally, at an opportune juncture, should one arise, you can make the argument that the existence of the universe does indeed prove that something can come from nothing.  After all, "everyone knows" that there is no such thing as invisible magic people and that the universe exists, therefore the universe must have just appeared out of nothing.  (Alternatively, use this reasoning to support some other explanation that the theist can't accept.)

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