Thirty-six arguments for the existence of God 197

Very interesting is this extract from a novel titled 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, consisting of Chapter 1 and an Appendix in which the 36 arguments are set out and systematically demolished.

It is the work of an atheist philosopher and novelist named Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.

The 36 arguments are all worth examining to a greater or lesser degree. They have all been examined many times, often at great length. Goldstein’s presentation of them and her neat counter-arguments constitute a masterpiece of precise sufficiency. Only thorough familiarity with the subject matter and long and deep thinking can produce such conciseness and such clarity.

In the counter-arguments, listed as ‘Flaws’, she occasionally reinforces her case with an apt quotation. Having knocked down Argument 11, for instance, The Argument from Miracles, she adds an observation from David Hume which I like: ‘If the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense.’

Number 25 is The Argument from Suffering. This is how she gives it and deals with it:

1. There is much suffering in this world.

2. Some suffering (or at least its possibility) is demanded by human moral agency: if people could not choose evil acts that cause suffering, moral choice would not exist.

3.Whatever suffering cannot be explained as the result of human moral agency must also have some purpose (from 2 & 3).

4. There are virtues — forbearance, courage, compassion, and so on — that can only develop in the presence of suffering. We may call them ‘the virtues of suffering’.

5. Some suffering has the purpose of our developing the virtues of suffering (from 4).

6. Even taking 3 and 6 into account, the amount of suffering in the world is still enormous — far more than what is required for us to benefit from suffering.

7. Moreover, there are those who suffer who can never develop the virtues of suffering–children, animals, those who perish in their agony.

8. There is more suffering than we can explain by reference to the purposes that    we can discern (from 7 & 8).

9. There are purposes for suffering that we cannot discern (from 2 and 9).

10. Only a being who has a sense of purpose beyond ours could provide the purpose of all suffering (from 10).

11. Only God could have a sense of purpose beyond ours.

12. God exists.

To which she answers:

This argument is a sorrowful one, since it highlights the most intolerable feature of our world, the excess of suffering. The suffering in this world is excessive in both its intensity and its prevalence, often undergone by those who can never gain anything from it. This is a powerful argument against the existence of a compassionate and powerful deity.  [Bold added here and throughout]

While I agree with her that every one of the arguments fails to prove the existence of God, I do not agree with all her contentions. For example, here is number 27, The Argument from The Upward Curve of History:

1. There is an upward moral curve to human history (tyrannies fall; the evil side loses in major wars; democracy, freedom, and civil rights spread).

2. Natural selection’s favoring of those who are fittest to compete for resources and mates has bequeathed humankind selfish and aggressive traits.

3. Left to their own devices, a selfish and aggressive species could not have ascended up a moral curve over the course of history (from 2).

4.Only God has the power and the concern for us to curve history upward.

5. God exists.

And here is the ‘Flaw’ as she sees it:

Though our species has inherited traits of selfishness and aggression, we have also inherited capacities for empathy, reasoning, and learning from experience. We have also inherited language, and with it a means to pass on the lessons we have learned from history. And so humankind has slowly reasoned its way toward a broader and more sophisticated understanding of morality, and more effective institutions for keeping peace. We make moral progress as we do scientific progress, through reasoning, experimentation, and the rejection of failed alternatives.

The sentence I have italicized is more a description of civilization than of moral progress in the heart or mind of the species. The idea of moral progress through human history is dubious, even when seen as a learning process rather than an evolutionary one. She does not discuss what it is that makes us behave morally. While she implicitly rejects the idea that God does, she does not introduce enlightened self-interest. Of course, such a discussion is not her immediate purpose. But it is a more efficient destruction of the argument to deny that there is any ‘upward curve  of history’ in the sense that mankind has become nicer, and she makes no convincing case that there is such a thing.

She makes a very good argument against Pascal’s Wager in number 32, The Argument from Decision Theory, ending with this analogy:

Say I told you that a fire-breathing dragon has moved into the next apartment and that unless you set out a bowl of marshmallows for him every night he will force his way into your apartment and roast you to a crisp. According to Pascal’s wager, you should leave out the marshmallows. Of course you don’t, even though you are taking a terrible risk in choosing not to believe in the dragon, because you don’t assign a high enough probability to the dragon’s existence to justify even the small inconvenience.

Number 32 is The Argument from Pragmatism, William James’s ‘leap of faith’.

1. The consequences for the believer’s life of believing should be considered as part of the evidence for the truth of the belief (just as the effectiveness of a scientific theory in its practical applications is considered evidence for the truth of the theory). Call this the pragmatic evidence for the belief.

2. Certain beliefs effect a change for the better in the believer’s life — the necessary condition being that they are believed.

3. The belief in God is a belief that effects a change for the better in a person’s life.

4. If one tries to decide whether or not to believe in God based on the evidence available, one will never get the chance to evaluate the pragmatic evidence for the beneficial consequences of believing in God (from 2 and 3).

5. One ought to make ‘the leap of faith’ (the term is James’s) and believe in God, and only then evaluate the evidence (from 1 and 4).

Of her refutations here the one I like best (though I’m not saying it is stronger than the others) is this:

Why should we only consider the pragmatic effects on the believer’s life? What about the effects on everyone else? The history of religious intolerance, including inquisitions, fatwas, and suicide bombers, suggests that the effects on one person’s life of another person’s believing in God can be pretty grim.

An important case is made in number 33, The Argument from the Unreasonableness of Reason, that ‘our belief in reason cannot be justified by reason, since that would be circular’ so ‘our belief in reason must be accepted on faith’.  Of her counter-arguments here, I particularly liked these:

[T]o justify reason with reason is not circular, but rather, unnecessary. One already is, and always will be, committed to reason by the very process one is already engaged in, namely reasoning. Reason is non-negotiable; all sides concede it. It needs no justification, because it is justification. A belief in God is not like that at all.


If one really took the unreasonability of reason as a license to believe things on faith, then which things should one believe in? If it is a license to believe in a single God who gave his son for our sins, why isn’t it just as much a license to believe in Zeus and all the other Greek gods, or the three major gods of Hinduism, or the angel Moroni? For that matter, why not Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy? If one says that there are good reasons to accept some entities on faith, while rejecting others, then one is saying that it is ultimately reason, not faith, that must be invoked to justify a belief.

And then there is the most interesting argument of them all to atheists, number 35, The Argument from the Intelligibility of the World – ‘Spinoza’s God’.

Whenever Einstein was asked whether he believed in God, he responded that he believed in “Spinoza’s God.” This argument presents Spinoza’s God. It is one of the most elegant and subtle arguments for God’s existence, demonstrating where one ends up if one rigorously eschews the Fallacy of Invoking One Mystery to Pseudo-Explain Another: one ends up with the universe, and nothing but the universe: a universe which itself provides all the answers to all the questions one can pose about it. A major problem with the argument, however, in addition to the flaws discussed below, is that it is not at all clear that it is God whose existence is being proved. Spinoza’s conclusion is that the universe that is described by the laws of nature simply is God. Perhaps the conclusion should, rather, be that the universe is different from what it appears to be — no matter how arbitrary and chaotic it may appear, it is in fact perfectly lawful and necessary, and therefore worthy of our awe. But is its awe-inspiring lawfulness reason enough to regard it as God? Spinoza’s God is sharply at variance with all other divine conceptions.

The argument has only one substantive premise … which, though unproved, is not unreasonable; it is, in fact, the claim that the universe itself is thoroughly reasonable.  Though this first premise can’t be proved, it is the guiding faith of many physicists (including Einstein).  It is the claim that everything must have an explanation; even the laws of nature, in terms of which processes are explained, must have an explanation. In other words, there has to be an explanation for why it is these laws of nature rather than some other, which is another way of asking for why it is this world rather than some other.

She points out that:

Spinoza’s argument, if sound, invalidates all the other arguments, the ones that try to establish the existence of a more traditional God—that is, a God who stands distinct from the world described by the laws of nature, as well as distinct from the world of human meaning, purpose, and morality. Spinoza’s argument claims that any transcendent God, standing outside of that for which he is invoked as explanation, is invalidated by the first powerful premise [‘all facts must have explanations’] that all things are part of the same explanatory fabric. The mere coherence of The Argument from The Intelligibility of The Universe, therefore, is sufficient to reveal the invalidity of the other theistic arguments. This is why Spinoza, although he offered a proof of what he called “God,” is often regarded as the most effective of all atheists.

There’s a feast for discussion here; not just dishes but whole courses. Bon appétit!

Jillian Becker    November 24, 2009