Earlier this year I wrote a post about Rebecca Goldstein's book, "36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction," citing several arguments that religiously-minded visitors to this blog often like to use.
Each has flaws, which Goldstein points out clearly and entertainingly in an appendix to her book. They can be read here in their entirety. (Scroll down past the book excerpt.)
I'd been slowly making my way through "36 Arguments," not finding the story all that engrossing. I liked the philosophical discussions, though, so decided to jump to the climactic debate between a religious skeptic and true believer.
Then I made another jump to the appendix and read the 36 Arguments straight through. Well, not exactly.
Because I've done so much other reading on this subject, most of the arguments were both (1) very familiar to me, and (2) spectacularly unpersuasive. So I didn't spend much time on these lame attempts to demonstrate that God exists.
A few, though, grabbed my attention. These also had come up fairly frequently in Church of the Churchless comments when people challenged religious skepticism in more than a simplistic Believe! manner.
Here are the two best arguments, in my opinion. Which turn out to be pretty bad -- just better than the rest of the thirty-six. I've summarized both the argument and the flaws Goldstein finds in it.
(33) The Argument from the Unreasonableness of Reason
Our belief in reason cannot be justified by reason, since that would be circular. So this belief has to be accepted on faith. Since faith provides good rational grounds for a belief, given that even a belief in reason requires faith we are justified in believing that God exists. This allow us to live coherent moral and purposeful lives, just as a belief in reason brings similar sorts of benefits.
Flaws. The attempt to 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.
Also, if the unreasonability of reason was taken as a license to believe things on faith, then which things should one believe in? A single God who gave his son for our sins? Zeus and all the other Greek gods? The three major gods of Hinduism? 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.
(35) The Argument from the Intelligibility of the Universe (Spinoza's God)
All facts must have explanations. So the fact that the universe exists, this universe, with just these laws of nature, has an explanation. In principle, then, there must be a Theory of Everything that explains why this universe, with these laws of nature, exists. The only way the Theory could provide this explanation is by being true. So the universe would be shown to exist necessarily and explain itself -- which is a definition of "God." Thus the universe is God, and God exists.
Flaws. It is not at all clear that it is God whose existence is being proved. Spinoza's God, which is identical with the universe, is sharply at variance with all other divine conceptions.
Further, the premise "all facts must have explanations" cannot be proved. Our world could conceivably be one in which randomness and contingency have free rein, no matter what the intuitions of some scientists are. Maybe some things just are ("stuff happens"), including the fundamental laws of nature.
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.
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.
[Note to above: Naturally I was thrilled to come across the phrase "stuff happens" in such a thoughtful book just a few days after I wrote my "Stuff happens -- meaning of life in two words" post. Clearly this is a message from God...Spinoza's God, a.k.a. reality.]