Can we prove that God exists? Richard Dawkins and the limits of faith and atheism

Atheists sometimes argue the case against God is the same as the case against Santa Claus. Let's test the logic

Published November 29, 2015 3:30PM (EST)

God, Santa Claus   (Wikimedia/<a href=''>Milles Studio</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
God, Santa Claus (Wikimedia/Milles Studio via Shutterstock)

Excerpted from "What Philosophy Can Do"

Our first concern will be Richard Dawkins’s efforts to refute standard arguments for theism. These efforts suffer from a variety of logical mistakes. His critique of the cosmological argument confuses an implication with a presupposition, while his critique of the ontological argument makes an illegitimate move from distaste for a conclusion to its invalidity. His critique of arguments from religious experience ignores the distinction between when we can explain an experience as illusory and when we should explain an experience as illusory.

The cosmological argument, one of the most popular theistic arguments, is an effort to support a negative answer to this question: Can something come from nothing? Here’s an elementary formulation of the argument:

  1. There is something that is caused.
  2. Whatever is caused must be caused by a cause other than itself.
  3. If every cause is caused, then there is an endless series(an infinite regress) of causes.
  4. An infinite regress of causes is impossible.
  5. Therefore, there is an uncaused cause (i.e., the first cause: the cause of the series of causes that are themselves caused).

Dawkins thinks the argument is readily refuted: the theistic argument makes “the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to the regress.” In other words, there is no answer to the intelligent child who, when told that God made everything, asks, who made God?

But, contrary to Dawkins, the argument does not assume that God is “immune to the regress”—that is, has no cause other than himself. Rather, it states premises (1)–(4), from which it logically follows (5) that there is an uncaused cause (God). But none of these premises state (or assume) that God has no cause. Dawkins’s criticism works only if we make the elementary logical mistake of thinking that, because the argument’s premises imply its conclusion, it has presupposed the conclusion. That doesn’t mean the argument is compelling—we’ll see below that it isn’t, even in a more sophisticated form. But Dawkins’s comment isn’t even the beginning of a cogent critique.

Dawkins’s treatment of the famous ontological argument, first developed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century, is even less satisfactory. He correctly states the central idea that God, understood as a perfect being, would have to exist, since “a being that doesn’t exist in the real world is, by that very fact, less than perfect”. But he then goes on to express the argument as a playground taunt: “a really really perfect thing would have to be better than a silly old imaginary thing. So I’ve proved that God exists. Nur Nurny Nur Nur”.

Dawkins’s critique of the argument goes little beyond the emotional reaction of his mocking formulation: “The very idea that grand conclusions could follow from such logomachist trickery offends me aesthetically” and “isn’t it too good to be true that a grand truth about the cosmos should follow from a mere word game?” How can our distaste (or puzzlement or outrage) at the conclusion of an argument substitute for a cogent account of why it is logically invalid?

But here Dawkins’s critic also needs to be more careful. There are arguments that we rightly reject just because their conclusions strike us as absurd. Dawkins himself gives the case of Zeno’s paradoxes, a set of arguments concluding that motion is impossible. Zeno argued, for example, that even Achilles, the swiftest soldier in the Greek army at Troy, can never catch a tortoise who has a headstart in a race. This, he said, is because in the time it takes Achilles to reach where the tortoise was, the tortoise will have moved a bit further on. It’s not easy to say exactly what’s wrong with this argument without getting into higher mathematics, but it’s reasonable to conclude that there’s something wrong with the argument simply because its conclusion (that a faster runner can never catch up with a slower runner) is obviously, absurdly false. Isn’t the same true of Anselm’s argument?

No. Its conclusion is that God exists—a claim that is controversial but not, like Zeno’s conclusion, in direct contradiction to what we see every day. To carry out Dawkins’s comparison of Anselm’s argument with Zeno’s, he would have to say that he knows, without evaluating Anselm’s or any other theistic argument, that God obviously doesn’t exist. This is not a criticism but a gratuitous assertion that the argument’s conclusion is false.

As a final example, consider Dawkins’s critique of theistic arguments from personal religious experience, where he focuses on visions or voices of God or other supernatural entities such as angels and the Blessed Virgin. He rejects the veridicality of such experiences (the truth of what they present) in view of “the formidable power of the brain’s simulation software”. This software, he says, “is well capable of constructing ‘visions’ and ‘visitations’ of the upmost veridical power," even if they are false. Almost all of his discussion consists in giving examples of hallucinations and other deceptive experiences and explaining how the brain is able to produce them.

Here we need to formulate Dawkins’s argument more fully than he does. His claim is that we shouldn’t think that religious experiences are veridical because the brain’s “simulation software” is capable of producing them whether or not what they present is in fact true. But does the mere fact that an experience can be produced by simulation software show that the experience is not veridical? The question should give us pause, since almost any experience at all, including my experience of writing this sentence and your experience of reading it, could also be simulations occurring only in the brain. As Descartes famously argued and neuroscience confirms, any experience that seems to be of the world outside my mind could in fact be a dream or some other sort of illusion or hallucination. If the possibility of simulation is enough to cast doubt on an experience, then we need to doubt almost all of our experiences. Dawkins’s rejection of religious experiences holds up only if he is willing to doubt almost all of our experiences.

Dawkins’s critique of religious experience goes wrong by starting from the question, Can we explain this experience as illusory? He should instead ask, Is there a specific reason to think that we should explain this experience as illusory? To make his case, he would have to reflect philosophically on the conditions that make it appropriate to dismiss an experience as illusory, and then show that all religious experiences meet those conditions. There is an extensive epistemological literature—often very critical of religion—on how to evaluate the veracity of religious experiences. Dawkins’s argument needs to engage this literature.

Another problem is that Dawkins doesn’t take into account a much more common, though much less dramatic, form of religious experience. Many believers report experiences— often frequent—that they describe as a vivid (nonvisual and non-auditory) sense of the presence of a divine being. William James, in his classic discussion of religious experience, cites the following as one of many reports:

There was not a mere consciousness of something there, but fused in the central happiness of it, a startling awareness of some ineffable good. Not vague either, not like the emotional effect of some poem, or scene, or blossom, or music, but the sure knowledge of the close presence of a sort of mighty person, and after it went, the memory persisted as the one perception of reality. Everything else might be a dream, but not that.

Even if there is a strong case against accepting reports of dramatic apparitions and visions, this case would not automatically apply to these more ordinary experiences.

Dawkins’s Atheistic Arguments

We turn to a discussion of Dawkins’s major arguments against the existence of God: the no-arguments argument, his evolutionary argument, and his complexity argument.

The no-arguments argument maintains that we ought to deny God’s existence because there are no good arguments for his existence. To test this claim, we will try to construct a good cosmological argument by formulating and criticizing a series of principles of causality. Here we will use crucial distinctions between what needs explaining and what does not need explaining and between the contingent and the necessary. We will see that the cosmological argument needs a principle for avoiding an infinite regress of causes. Here we will need to distinguish between a principle that says an infinite regress is impossible and the (preferable) principle that says an infinite regress itself requires an explanation.

Assessing the force of the argument—and therefore of the no-arguments argument—will depend on a crucial distinction between what a rational person must believe and what a rational person can believe.

The No-Arguments Argument for Atheism

Although Dawkins’s critiques of theistic arguments are remarkably weak, he and most new atheists are convinced that they need make no special case for their position, but need only point out that theists offer no good arguments for their position. I call this the no-arguments argument for atheism.

Many atheists are fond of claiming that the case against God is the same as the case against Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy: there are no good reasons for believing in any of them. At least at first blush, it seems odd to compare the argumentative case for God with that for Santa Claus et al. There are, after all, well-known arguments for God’s existence, formulated by respected philosophers, that intelligent and informed people have found convincing. No one much over the age of six thinks there is a remotely plausible argument for the existence of Santa Claus.

Of course, the mere existence of theistic arguments doesn’t refute the no-arguments argument. More careful examinations than Dawkins offers may still show that all such arguments are worthless. I myself think that there’s no argument that decisively establishes that God exists. But, I will argue, this doesn’t support the no-arguments argument. To see why, let’s dig deeper into the cosmological argument, which, I claim, can be formulated in a way that refutes the no-arguments argument.

The Cosmological Argument

The idea of a cosmological argument is to move from certain known effects to God as their cause. To construct such an argument, we need a principle of causality: a statement of which sorts of things need causes to explain them. The simplest such principle would be: everything has a cause. But this is too strong a claim, since if everything has a cause, then God will have a cause and so be dependent on something else, which would, therefore, have a better claim to be God. A cosmological argument will work only if we have a causal principle that will not apply to God. (This is the way serious versions of the cosmological argument respond to the “Who made God?” objection.) So we need to look for an improved principle.

Here’s a philosophical line of thought that seems like it might do the job. We are always looking for explanations. Why did my car break down? Why did the apple tree bloom early this year? Why do my children do so poorly on standardized math tests? Much of science is the relentless extension of this quest for explanations. Sometimes we find an explanation by referring to things we already know about. My car broke down because I haven’t changed the oil for three years; the tree bloomed early because we had an exceptionally warm spring; my children do poorly because they don’t study enough. But sometimes seeking an explanation leads to a discovery: perhaps my car broke down because a computer chip I didn’t even know about failed; or the tree bloomed early because of an increase in local radiation levels; or my children do poorly because they lack a special “math” gene.

A cosmological argument is an effort to carry the search for an explanation as far as it can go, to see if we can discover not just an explanation of some single thing but an explanation of everything—for, we might say, the world (kosmos in Greek) as a whole. Let’s call this an ultimate explanation. We want, therefore, an argument that will show that God is the ultimate explanation. Perhaps, then, the causal principle we need is that there must be an ultimate explanation (provided by an ultimate cause).

Now, however, we need to think more carefully about what an ultimate explanation would explain. We’ve said it’s an explanation of everything, but just what does this mean? Something that needs explanation is, by definition, not self-explanatory. It needs to be explained by something other than itself. As we’ve seen, if we sought an explanation of literally everything, then there would be nothing available to provide the explanation.

If there is to be an ultimate explanation, then, it must be something that itself requires no explanation but explains everything else. The world that the cosmological argument is trying to explain must not be everything but everything that needs an explanation. But what things require explanation?

One plausible answer is that we must explain those things that do exist but might not exist, things that, to use the traditional technical term, are contingent. Almost everything in our daily experience is contingent: my cell phone might never have been manufactured; the Earth might not have a moon; Germany might not have won the 2014 World Cup; I myself might have never been born. (In fact, I cited Germany’s winning the World Cup as an example before the final game was played, knowing that I might have to replace Germany with the Netherlands.)

Correspondingly, for the cosmological argument to work, the explanation of everything contingent must be something that is not contingent; namely, something that not only exists but also cannot not exist; it must, that is, be necessary. If it weren’t necessary, it would be contingent and so itself in need of explanation. (Notice that what is necessary is not contingent, and vice versa.) Simply put, the God the cosmological argument wants to prove exists has to be a necessary, not a contingent, being.

Here, then, we move to a still better principle of causality: that every contingent thing requires a cause. But we still need to be careful. Most contingent things can be explained by other contingent things. The world (the totality of contingent things) is a complex explanatory system. One possibility would seem to be that the world itself could provide all the explanations that we could reasonably ask for. In particular, each contingent thing might be explained by another contingent thing. For example, larger-scale objects, from grains of sand to galaxies, might be explained by the molecules that make them up, with molecules being explained by atoms, atoms by electrons and protons, and these by quarks. If this makes sense, the cosmological argument can’t get off the ground because, as we’ve seen, its God is a necessary being that’s needed to explain what contingent things can’t.

But can we actually make sense of the idea that each contingent thing is explained (caused) by another contingent thing? In other words, could there be a chain of contingent causes, each in turn explaining another contingent thing? To vary our example, recall the oft-repeated story of Bertrand Russell’s alleged encounter with someone who insisted that the Earth was a flat plate supported on the back of an elephant. What, Russell asked, supports the elephant? A large tortoise, was the reply. But what, said Russell—going in for the kill—supports the tortoise? The reply: It’s tortoises all the way down.

But can it really be tortoises all the way down? No, at least not if there are only a finite (limited) number of tortoises. Then we would face two equally bad alternatives. First, there might be a tortoise that wasn’t supported by anything—a clear violation of our principle of causality. Second, there might be a circle of tortoises: one tortoise supporting a second tortoise, but that second tortoise somehow also supporting the first. This would require the absurdity of each of these tortoises supporting itself (or at least a supporting circle of tortoises that itself has no support).

Returning to physics from amphibian biology, if the chain of contingent explainers ended with quarks, they would either have no explanation or would have to explain themselves. Neither of these two cases makes sense. The first violates the principle that every contingent thing has a cause. The second amounts to saying that there is something that explains the existence of its own explanation—which would mean that it somehow preceded itself. Therefore, for contingent things to explain everything, there must be an infinite chain (regress) of contingent things, each explaining the existence of some other contingent thing.

What does this mean for our effort to construct a cosmological argument? It means that our argument must deny that there is an infinite regress of contingent things that explains everything that needs explaining. Otherwise, there’s no need for a necessary God.

This is a crucial stage in our search for a cosmological argument. We have a plausible principle of causality: any contingent being needs a cause. We now see that we need another premise: that an infinite regress of contingent things cannot explain everything that needs explaining.

But we still need one further step, because there are two ways a cosmological argument can deny an infinite regress of contingent explainers. First, we could simply deny that there could be such an infinite regress. This seems plausible if we think that an infinite chain of explainers never really explains anything but merely defers the explanations forever. If molecules explain rocks, atoms explain molecules, and so on without end, then have we really even explained rocks? If an infinite regress leaves each of its members with no explanation, its existence would violate our principle of causality.

But this way of thinking loses its force once we realize that an explainer does not cease to explain just because it itself has an explanation. I can explain my headache by noting that I recently had a concussion, even though the concussion is itself explained by my banging my head on a car trunk lid, which is explained in turn by the fact that I was drunk.

Given this, we can rightly claim that each item in an infinite series of explained explainers is explained by the immediately preceding item. In that way, every item in the series is explained. If every item in a series has an explanation, why do we need a separate explanation of the series as a whole? For example, if I can explain why each of twenty people is attending a party, I don’t need a further explanation of why all twenty are there. On reflection, a cosmological argument that denies that there can be an infinite regress of explainers does not seem promising.

But a second way of eliminating an infinite regress may do the job. We can agree that there might be an infinite series of contingent explainers but still maintain that such an infinite series itself needs an explanation. We might, in effect, grant that there could be an infinite series of tortoises, each supporting the other—and the whole chain supporting the Earth—but still insist that there must be some explanation for why all those tortoises exist. That is, our argument will require that an infinite regress of contingent things must itself have an explanation. This gives us the two key premises of our cosmological argument: a principle of causality and a principle for excluding an infinite regress.

Now we can formulate our argument:

  1. There are contingent beings.
  2. The existence of any contingent being has an explanation.
  3. Such an explanation must be provided by either a necessary being or by an infinite regress of contingent beings.
  4. An explanation by means of an infinite regress of contingent beings is itself in need of an explanation by a necessary being.
  5. Therefore, there is a necessary being that explains the existence of contingent beings.

This argument is logically valid; that is, if the premises are true, then the conclusion is true. Premise (1) is obvious—almost everything we know of is able not to exist. Premise (3), as we’ve seen, has no plausible alternatives: without an infinite regress, the explanation of contingent beings by contingent beings will either be circular or terminate with an unexplained contingent being. The success of the argument, then, depends on the truth of premise (2)—our principle of causality—and premise (4)—our principle that excludes an infinite regress.

Premise (2) would perhaps be questionable if it had to be understood as including the entire world. In that case you could argue that the world is the collection of all contingent things and so does not require a separate explanation as long as each member of the collection can be explained. But in our argument the premise need only apply to individual contingent beings, not collections of them, and our experience massively supports the claim that any individual contingent being does have an explanation. For example, think once more of the list of contingent things I mentioned above. There must be some explanation for why my cell phone was made, why the Earth has a moon, why Germany won the World Cup, and why I was born.

Our argument, then, seems to depend only on establishing premise (4): that an infinite chain (regress) of contingent explainers would itself require explanation by a necessary (non-contingent) being.

But why should we think that the existence of such a regress has an explanation? In contrast to premise (2), our principle of causality, we have no direct experience to support the claim, since we have no experience of an infinite regress, just as we can never count all the numbers. We can point to the fact that in science we always seek further levels of explanation, but our practice of looking for explanations does not guarantee that they must be there to be found.

Nonetheless, an infinite chain of contingent things is still a (complex) contingent thing, so why shouldn’t it need an explanation? Also, as we’ve seen, there’s good reason to think that any finite chain has an explanation. What reason is there for thinking that going to infinity somehow gets rid of the need to explain contingency? None of these considerations is decisive proof that premise (4) is true. But there’s no reason to say that you would be irrational if, after thorough reflection, you found such considerations convincing. Remember what we concluded regarding ethical and political convictions: even if there’s no proof, it can be rational to maintain what—after looking at all the evidence and arguments—still seems obvious to you. Of course, a parallel line of thought shows that it is also rational for those who don’t find this obvious to reject the premise. It’s a premise about which reasonable people can reasonably disagree.

Failure of the No-Arguments Argument

The result at which we have arrived for the cosmological argument typifies many seriously developed philosophical arguments for God’s existence. There are, in particular, arguments (based on classical versions by Aquinas, Averroes, and Leibniz) that use a variety of causal principles. Also, Plantinga’s formulation of an ontological argument requires only the premise that God’s existence is possible (although possible in a suitably strong sense, which leaves room for disagreement).

There are, then, theistic arguments that are logically valid and depend on one or two premises that are not obviously or demonstrably false and have a certain intuitive appeal. Some people may, on reflection, rationally accept the premises and therefore the conclusion. But there is no rational requirement to accept the premises, and it can be equally rational to deny them.

I imagine that some readers will feel our detailed discussion of the cosmological argument has little relevance to actual religious belief. Who, they may say, depends on such logical esoterica to justify their commitment? But I would remind such readers that the point of our discussion was not to show how believers justify their belief in God. It was to answer atheists who claim that their denial of God is justified because there is no serious case for theism. It is the atheist, not the believer, who provokes this discussion.

I emphasize this point because many atheists, like Dawkins, dismiss theistic arguments as obvious nonstarters, and ignore their subtlety and complexity. Of course, there’s no general obligation for believers or nonbelievers to enter into this philosophical tangle. But those who make much of the failure of theistic arguments need to support their claims with a detailed analysis of what’s available.

So, finally, what about the no-arguments argument? It goes like this:

1. There are no good arguments for God’s existence.
2. If there are no good arguments for a claim, then, if we are rational, we should deny it.

Conclusion: If we are rational, we should deny that God exists.

But our discussion of the cosmological argument has just shown that both premise (1) and the argument’s conclusion are false. There are good (if not decisive) arguments for theism, and a person can rationally believe that God exists. So the argument is not sound.

In sum, there are what we might label credible but not conclusive arguments for God’s existence, and these undermine the no-arguments argument for atheism. Therefore, to make his case for atheism, Dawkins does need an argument against the existence of God. As it turns out, Dawkins has such an argument, based on the theory of evolution.

Excerpted from "What Philosophy Can Do" by Gary Gutting. Published by W.W. Norton and Co. Copyright 2015 by Gary Gutting. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Gary Gutting

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