Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Can One Know That God Doesn't Exist? (Pt. II)

Monday's post on Gary Gutting's interview with UMass philosopher Louise Antony ended with the claim that there are dozens of good reasons for believing that God exists. One such reason is the modern argument from design, but Professor Antony tries to anticipate that argument in the interview:
Many theists think they’re home free with something like the argument from design: that there is empirical evidence of a purposeful design in nature. But it’s one thing to argue that the universe must be the product of some kind of intelligent agent; it’s quite something else to argue that this designer was all-knowing and omnipotent. Why is that a better hypothesis than that the designer was pretty smart but made a few mistakes? Maybe (I’m just cribbing from Hume here) there was a committee of intelligent creators, who didn’t quite agree on everything. Maybe the creator was a student god, and only got a B- on this project.
The problem with this objection is that the concession that the designer exists but is a bit incompetent is that it concedes too much. Once we grant the existence of a designer (or a committee of designers), even if the designer(s) seems to be unable to create a perfect world, then the atheist has essentially lost the argument. She's conceding that something beyond this universe exists which is powerful enough and intelligent enough to create this universe, even though imperfect. That's a concession that an atheist cannot afford to make.

Moreover, we may assume that this creator is also personal, since it has created personality embodied in beings like you and I. So it's plausible to believe that any designer of the universe would have to be transcendent, unimaginably powerful, unimaginably intelligent, and probably personal. If so, we're getting pretty close to the God of traditional theism. Too, close, certainly, for the comfort of most atheists.

Even a less than perfect designer is still a designer that transcends this universe. Even a team of designers are still designers which transcend this universe. It may not be possible to logically identify such a designer with the God of theism, but the existence of a transcendent designer(s) of any sort is certainly much more compatible with that God than it is with the naturalists' claim that the universe is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.
G.G.: Would you say, then, that believers who think they have good reasons for theism are deceiving themselves, that they are actually moved by, say, hopes and fears — emotions — rather than reasons?

L.A.: I realize that some atheists do say things like “theists are just engaged in wishful thinking — they can’t accept that death is the end.” Theists are insulted by such conjectures (which is all they are) and I don’t blame them. It’s presumptuous to tell someone else why she believes what she believes — if you want to know, start by asking her.
When atheists allege that theism is an expression of wishful thinking it should be noted that if so - and I have little doubt that that's part of why many theists hold to their convictions - it must also be the case that atheism is also an expression of wishful thinking. If wishful thinking lies behind the believer's faith then it also lies behind the unbeliever's lack of faith. In other words, the atheist disbelieves because she simply doesn't want there to be a God. You can read a couple of very bright atheists admitting this themselves here.

The claim that theism is just wishful thinking is a two-edged sword that cuts both ways. As such it reminded me a little of mathematician John Lennox's retort to atheist biologist Richard Dawkins in a debate between the two. Dawkins averred that theists believe in God because they're afraid of the dark. Lennox responded by saying that atheists disbelieve in God because they're afraid of the light.

Part(III) tomorrow.