Debunking Myself!

I was emptying out a three-ring binder yesterday and found a paper I had written on August 3, 1999 for a Philosophy 1100 class at Webster University.  I still considered myself a Christian in 1999 and it wasn’t until the following year that I even entertained the idea that I might be agnostic or an (gasp!) atheist.  I’ll continue to document that journey through my regular posts, but I wanted to take a moment to  transcribe this paper and show that even I, on the verge of a huge shift in worldview, could cling to the most outrageous and fallacious arguments in the hopes of retaining that failing grasp on a faith that had, for most of my life, defined me.  In a strange and somewhat satisfying twist I’ll address my own faulty reasoning and debunk myself.  Enjoy!

Debunking for Dummies

John seized the fluttering tails of his overcoat and exclaimed, “Boy!  The wind certainly is blowing today!”  Marie, who always considered herself a true Sophist and always one to interject her opinion, turned to John.  “And how do you know that?”  John rolled his head toward Marie and gave her a “don’t-start-this-again” look.  “Because it nearly blew my coat off of me, darling.”

“So you have observed that the force, which we call the wind, has affected your coat in a manner inconsistent with its normal state.  But have you actually seen the agent which moved your coat?”  John thought about it for a second and then realized that, no, he hadn’t seen the wind.  John had never, in his life, seen the wind but he’d always taken for granted that it was there.  He shrugged his shoulders.  “So you don’t actually know the wind exists, do you?”  Marie had a smug look on her face that told John he oughtn’t argue with her.

Isn’t that ridiculous?  Of course the wind exists!

We know the wind is there because we can see the effects of the wind on the trees, and we can feel the wind against our skin.  Nobody, however, has seen the wind.  We have taken the existence of the wind on faith.  We don’t know what color the wind is or where it comes from, but we know it’s there.

God exists in much the same way.  We can know God exists because we can see the effects of God on our lives and the world.  We see the orderly way in which our world and the Universe operate and can only ponder how they came to be that way.  However, because we cannot directly see, feel, or touch God, we are compelled to take His existence on faith.  Three philosophers have argued this point to my satisfaction (or close enough to it), Saint Anselm and Saint Thomas Aquinas (in moderation), and William Paley.

Saint Anselm argued the existence of God as a perfect, ultimate being.  The fact that we conceive of a being about which nothing greater, nor more perfect, can be conceived is proof enough for him that God exists.  Reflecting on this point, Anselm realizes that the idea of God exists in understanding (thought), and that idea is what defines God for us.  In fact, just having a word that signifies the being, “God,” further illustrates that such a being must exist.  The fool who says, “God does not exist,” in denying Him, has proved His existence in his understanding of the idea of God.

Because we cannot believe a being which does not exist to be perfect, God must exist.  For what is “perfect” for us if it does not include existence?  You could not say to someone that your mate is perfect for you if you’ve only imagined your mate.  In the same way, we cannot say there is a perfect God if we have only imagined Him.

Descartes holds fast to the idea that the lesser cannot give rise to the greater.  Consider a pencil.  This pencil could not have created a human to use it, because we know that the pencil was created by a human.  Therefore, we cannot assume that God, a perfect being, was created by an imperfect being, but that God, instead, created us.

If God were simply a notion, He could not create and set in motion the Universe.  A concept does not have any power in itself, but only a being which exists has power to affect other things around it.

Saint Thomas Aquinas brings to light the existence of God in regard to His effect on us and on the world.  For instance, how would we have an idea of what “good” is without having an idea of what “perfect” is?  Employing degrees of excellence imply a notion of perfection, which we call God.  Aquinas’ argument here rests on the idea that we compare all things to God.  Moreover, he argues that God affects the world around us.

Because all things seem to have a purpose, we must reason that there is an intelligence that directs things toward their “ends.”  He claims, “…it is necessary to arrive at a First Mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God (Aquinas, 58).”  We can’t force ourselves to believe that everything began from something that began from something else, because, logically, this implies that there never was a real beginning.  “It is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as has been already proved in regard to efficient causes (Aquinas, 59).”

Consider again the pencil.  The pencil has a necessity that was derived from another’s necessity.  The pencil could not have created itself to be used, just as we could not have created ourselves to use the pencil.  Suppose we set the pencil on our desk and leave it.  Without an external force, this pencil will remain on the desk indefinitely; it cannot move itself.

How, then, could the Universe have put itself in motion?  There had to have been a First Mover to set it in motion.  We call this First Mover “God.”  Using the Principle of Sufficient Reason, we understand that nothing can be the cause of itself.

William Paley insists that God exists in the context of a creator.  Whether this creator is perfect or has created things that are perfect is not the issue, but simply the fact that we can realize that He must have made the things around us.

For instance, if we were to find a watch lying on the ground, we cannot assume it had been there since the world began, even if we had never seen a watch before in our lives.  We must realize that due to the intricacies and disposition of this mechanism, someone must have made the watch and set it in motion.

Further questions arise as to the existence of God that are pertinent in proving His existence.  One such question is, “If God does exist, is He everything we think Him to be?”  My belief is that no, He isn’t what we think He is.  Looking first at the claim that God is omnipotent, one might argue that if God were omnipotent He would be able to create a rock so huge and heavy that even He couldn’t lift it.  Of course, if He couldn’t lift it, we couldn’t consider Him omnipotent.  And if God were omniscient, could He think of a riddle that He couldn’t solve?  And once again, if He couldn’t solve it He wouldn’t really be omniscient.  God is obviously more powerful than we are and He knows more than we ever will.  But I don’t believe that there really could be an “omni” anything.  We take comfort in the fact that God watches over us and shouldn’t bog down our lives determining whether or not He has boundaries.

Another question posed is, “Does it make sense to believe in God?”  Yes, it does.  If believing in God drives us to live a life that is pleasant to those around us and to be helpful and selfless, then we can consider ourselves “good.”  Let’s suppose that when we die, we find that we were wrong and there really is no God.  What did it hurt to live such a good life, and haven’t we left a positive impact on the world we’ve left behind?  In the same respect, if there is a God after all, we ought to be much happier in the afterlife (assuming, of course, that there is one) having lived such a good life.

God is a necessary being.  God explains a lot of questions about the world that science, by itself, cannot answer.  Without a concept of God, we couldn’t gauge the “goodness” of our lives and we would have no hope for the future.  Because we as humans look for something constant in the changing Universe to make sense of our lives, we grasp onto God (whether it be the Judeo-Christian God or the ancient Greeks’ Zeus) as an unwavering foundation for hope, security, and knowledge, and we always have.  The proof of God’s existence is in our lives.

Ouch.  Where to start?  This entire paper is founded on an argument from ignorance.  In several spots I assert, “we must assume” or, “we cannot conceive.”  Those assertions are nothing more than a lack of imagination — and this coming from someone who believed that an invisible being created the world and listens to humans via telepathy!  A typical argument from ignorance states that either because my assertion cannot be disproven or because I cannot personally think of a better explanation, my assertion must therefore be true.  Anybody can see how horrible this line of reasoning is.

I started the paper by asserting that you cannot rule out the existence of the wind just because you cannot see it.  Nobody really disputes this because we know that “wind” is just a word we use to describe moving air.  Drawing this parallel to a god is fallacious because when one speaks of “God” they’re indicating a specific entity with an ill-defined relationship to the physical world who cannot be measured or tested in any way.  Knowing this, we cannot say with any certainty that god exists in the same way as the wind.  The wind is, in fact, more real than any god concept could ever hope to be.  If one asserts that god exists in much the same way as the wind then I can rightly assert that they are conceding that “god” is nothing more than a word to describe a concept and not an existent being.

Saint Anselm’s argument for a perfect being is ludicrous.  Right now, I’m thinking of a being much more perfect than the Christian god.  Does that mean that my imaginary being exists, simply because I can conceive of it?  If the idea of unicorns defines unicorns, does that necessarily mean that unicorns exist?  And if a fool says, “There are no unicorns,” doesn’t that mean that he has acknowledged the existence of unicorns simply by understanding the idea of unicorns?

The pencil argument is terrible.  A pencil is a manufactured tool, not a conscious entity.  Regardless of how you draw the comparison between a pencil and a human, it will always be illogical.  Because we’ve already established that words and concepts don’t have to exist in order to be valid (unicorns), there’s no problem in accepting that humans created the concept of gods in order to fill in gaps in knowledge or to exert dominance over other humans.  Since we understand gods as concepts, it’s very reasonable to say that humans (what I called “the lesser”) gave rise to gods (what I called “the greater”).

The First Mover (or “Unmoved Mover”) argument is fallacious because it introduces unnecessary complexity into existence.  If the universe cannot be eternal, how can a god be eternal?  If the everything requires a creator, who created the creator?  If you assert that the creator didn’t need to be created, then why did the universe?  Attributing eternal existence to the creator but not to the universe is just special pleading.  Comparing a pencil to the universe is ridiculous because of the massive difference in their properties and their functions.

Paley makes the argument that if we were to see a watch laying on the beach we would have to assume that it had been made by some conscious entity.  He’s right, of course.  Because of the form and function of a watch, the numerals on the face and any possible inscriptions on the case, we couldn’t be faulted for assuming that it had been made by an intelligence because it’s so far removed from the things we find in nature.  Certainly, there are some very complex organisms in nature but they’re not complex in the same way as a watch or a computer or an airplane.  How complex is a rock?  On the surface, a rock is not very complex.  Would a rock be evidence for a creator?  What if wind had eroded it in such a way that it had the appearance of a mushroom?  Does that mean an intelligence was involved?  At what point does something become complex enough to where it couldn’t have arrived by any means other than a conscious being?  Paley doesn’t really think through his argument any more than a believer who swallows it and views it as a perfect argument for the existence of their specific deity.

Eroded Rock
That thing would house a giant Smurf!

Finally, does it make sense to believe in god?  Does it make sense to believe in elves?  Gods are only necessary beings if you close your mind to rational explanations.  If I woke up in the morning to find shoes next to my bed that hadn’t been there the night before I would be silly to assume that elves had made the shoes for me while I slept.  Why don’t we consider it silly when people assume that gods affect the universe when we have perfectly reasonable, naturalistic explanations for almost all of it?  I’m so glad I broke free of the intellectual bondage that spawned this paper.

Facepalm

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1 Comment

  1. Excellent, thanks for that, John – it’s a rocky road back from Damascus, glad you made it
    🙂