May 12 2017

Rational Arguments for God?

BuddhismI honestly don’t care what people choose to believe about unknowable speculations outside the realm of science and human knowledge. As long as they don’t use such belief as justification for public policy or to infringe on the rights of others, believe whatever you want.

However, once someone claims that they have scientific evidence for a supernatural belief, or can prove such a belief logically, then they have stepped into the arena of logic and science and their claims can be examined.

One such claim is that the existence of God can be proven through various logical arguments. I have never seen such an argument that I found even slightly compelling. They all have gaping holes in their logic. The latest incarnation comes from Robert Nelson, who appears to be promoting his 2015 book, “God? Very Probably.”  He claims to have five rational arguments that lead to the conclusion that God very probably exists. Let’s take a look.


He writes:

Despite the many other enormous advances of modern physics, little has changed in this regard. As Wigner wrote, “The enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and there is no rational explanation for it.”

In other words, as something supernatural, it takes the existence of some kind of a God to make the mathematical underpinnings of the universe comprehensible.

Nelson makes a very muddied argument about math existing, or not existing, separate from physical reality. He argues that mathematicians discover mathematical laws without there ever being any physical analogue. Also, physicists discover mathematical relationships in nature, sometime before the math is worked out.

OK, so what? At no point does he actually address the obvious counterpoint. Math is nothing more than a logical system dealing with numbers. It seeks only to be internally valid. However, of course nature follows the laws of math, because nature cannot be internally inconsistent.

To take a very simple example, in the abstract 2+2=4. But that also means if I have two apples and then add two more apples, I have four apples. The reality of the apples has to obey the abstract math. All of Nelsons examples are exactly analogous to this situation. The only difference is that the math is much more complex.

He uses the example of gravity and calculus. Calculus is an abstract system dealing with numbers, and gravity is a force of nature. Calculus was developed, in fact, to help describe this new aspect of nature that existing math could not deal with.

Sometimes we observe how nature is behaving and then match the math to it. Kepler used accurate observations about the motion of planets and then came up with his mathematical laws of planetary motion to match those observations.

In a universe without a God, what would be the case? Would nature not follow math? How could that possibly work?


He writes:

How can physical atoms and molecules, for example, create something that exists in a separate domain that has no physical existence, human consciousness?

It is a mystery that lies beyond science.

This is utter nonsense that I have already dealt with extensively. Nelson is just playing a word game, and relying on philosophers like Plato who struggled to understand the universe prior to any knowledge of science, and specifically neuroscience.

Consciousness is not itself a thing, it is a process of the brain.

He then doubles down on dualism, not sure if he is counting this as a separate argument:

Recognizing that he could not reconcile his own scientific materialism with the existence of a nonphysical world of human consciousness, a leading atheist, Daniel Dennett, in 1991 took the radical step of denying that consciousness even exists.

This is a straw man. Dennett is not simplistically saying that consciousness does not exist, but only that it is not a separate phenomenon of the universe that requires new physics or new dualist phenomena. Consciousness, rather, is simply what the brain does.

Looked at another way, Dennett is saying there is no hard problem of consciousness, it is made of all the easy problems. If you just keep following the activity of the brain it just keeps going, talking to itself, taking in information, etc. That ongoing process is consciousness. There is no separate thing required.

I think that Dennett is probably right, or at least he is close to the truth. Neuroscientists may discover some network in the brain that has some function essentially to consciousness that we are not currently taking into account. But that is the how, not the what. It is clear that consciousness is what the brain does.


Here comes a real howler:

In recent years, however, traditional Darwinism – and later revised accounts of neo-Darwinism – have themselves come under increasingly strong scientific challenge. From the 1970s onwards, the Harvard evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould, for example, complained that little evidence could be found in the fossil record of the slow and gradual evolution of species as theorized by Darwin.

In 2011, the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist James Shapiro explained that, remarkably enough, many micro-evolutionary processes worked as though guided by a purposeful “sentience” of the evolving plant and animal organisms themselves – a concept far removed from the random selection processes of Darwinism.

With these developments bringing standard evolutionary understandings into growing question, the probability of a God existing has increased correspondingly.

In this argument Nelson is just an evolution denier, and shows he simply has no idea what he is talking about. Creationists have been trying to use Gould to doubt evolution for decades, and they have always been wrong. So Nelson is recycling an old argument debunked decades ago.

Gould was in no way casting doubt on common descent or natural selection. He was simply saying that the pattern of evolutionary change over time is more complex than first imagined by Darwin. Darwin assumed that species would slowly and continuously change over time as they adapted to their environment. That view, however, did not match the fossil record that increasingly came into focus.

Rather, the picture is more complex. Many species reach an equilibrium point with their environment and will be stable over a long period of time, even millions of years. But that equilibrium will eventually break, leading to migration, extinction, or evolutionary change. Small fringe populations adapted to the edge of the range of a species may suddenly find themselves adapted to the changing environment and then become dominant.

Some species do show gradual change over time. Some ecosystems are relatively stable then experience a rapid turnover. None of this complexity calls into question the more fundamental scientific conclusions of common descent or natural selection. In this argument Nelson exposes himself as an intellectual lightweight.

Regarding Shapiro, Nelson is cherry picking a fringe crank as if they are about to overturn a mainstream scientific theory. There are always fringe cranks. Jerry Coyne has been taking him down nicely.

“…there may be some people out there (including the science editor of PuffHo) who think that Shapiro’s lucubrations are scientifically supported. They aren’t: they’re the misguided ideas of a contrarian who thinks that he alone has the key to overturning the modern theory of evolution.”

Evolution is not coming into “growing question.” Creationists have been crying that for decades, and it is still just their own fevered delusion. Evolutionary theory is more solid than ever.


It gets worse:

In the Axial Age (commonly dated from 800 to 200 B.C.), world-transforming ideas such as Buddhism, Confucianism, the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, and the Hebrew Old Testament almost miraculously appeared at about the same time in India, China, ancient Greece and among the Jews in the Middle East – these peoples then having little interaction with one another.

His argument is that changing ideas had a profound effect on our civilization, and he is not sure how those ideas spread so quickly, therefore God. Yes, this is a “god-of-the-gaps” argument from ignorance, and a particularly lame one.

There was greater interaction among ancient civilizations than most people realize. It also doesn’t take that much contact to have cultural contamination. Revolutionary ideas especially would tend to spread.

There was actually quite a lot of long-distance trade in the ancient world:

When the first civilizations did begin trading with each other about five thousand years ago, however, many of them got rich…and fast.

Trade was also a boon for human interaction, bringing cross-cultural contact to a whole new level.

There’s nothing miraculous about trade.

Religion proves itself

His last argument is that people believe stuff therefore God:

In several of my books, I have explored how Marxism and other such “economic religions” were characteristic of much of the modern age. So Christianity, I would argue, did not disappear as much as it reappeared in many such disguised forms of “secular religion.”

That the Christian essence, as arose out of Judaism, showed such great staying power amidst the extraordinary political, economic, intellectual and other radical changes of the modern age is a fifth rational reason for thinking – combined with the other four – that the existence of a God is very probable.

First he plays around with definition, making any secular philosophy into just another form of religion. There is an element of truth to this, but that very element serves to debunk his premise.

Neuroscientists do find that there is a general human tendency (not universal, but common) to desire a connection to something greater than ourselves. We have a desire for the profound. Further, when listening to a charismatic leader we actually turn off the critical thinking part of our brains and engage with the emotional and identity part of our brains.

Nelson makes the ultimately circular argument that God probably exists because we have an inherent tendency to believe in stuff. Of course, we believe in God or other ideologies because of that tendency. The real question is, why do we have that tendency?

Nelson just assumes it is because of God, but no deity is necessary to explain why our brains would work that way. Even a chimp will follow their leader into battle and do their death. This requires a certain amount of surrender to a charismatic leader for the benefit of the group.

Humans are a social species. We cooperate. We form social groups, and those social groups find cohesion in complex cultural and psychological phenomena. We are also tribal, and will often make war between tribes.

It is not difficult to imagine why selection would have favored groups made of individuals who would sacrifice for the idea of their group, on the say-so of their leaders, because they believe in something bigger than themselves.

I am not offering this line of reasoning as proof of anything. I am just pointing out that no god is necessary, and therefore it is not evidence that God probably exists, as Nelson claims.


Nelson’s arguments, as with all such arguments I have encountered, are exceptionally thin, logically challenged, and really only represent Nelson’s motivated reasoning.

His philosophy is childish, but when he ventures into anything resembling a factual claim it gets embarrassing. He clearly doesn’t understand neuroscience, evolution, or even history. He displays only the most superficial knowledge of these topics, what he can skim off the surface that seems to support his thesis.

He has not done what a serious scholar would do – to really dig deep and try to challenge his own arguments. In fact, offering arguments (like Gould) that have been thoroughly trashed decades ago is downright intellectually lazy. At the very least you should not put forward arguments that Google can destroy in minutes for anyone with the slightest interest.

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