I’ve pretty much decided to retire this blog, and eventually import its archive into A Borrowed Flame (see here for why), however, why not go out with a bit of bang, with one last philosophical hurrah?
Ultimately, the questions you cannot and will not answer are: which god? why that one? and where is your evidence?
Well… allow me to try (grab some popcorn!).
These questions arise from the context of positing a rational intelligence behind the universe. Chrys and I agree that so-called ‘God of the gaps’ arguments are fallacious; to say ”God did it” in order to plug a lack of knowledge of something’s mechanics is simply a bad argument. However, we must also be careful not to confuse mechanics and agency. To understand how something works does not do away with agency. We need to remember that there are different kinds of explanations. Take, for example, the words on your screen. One kind of explanation is to describe the electronics, the LCD and all the physics and so forth which allow you to see words appear on the screen. Another explanation is to say that I had some thoughts I wanted to communicate, and so I wrote a blog post. Both explanations are true, but they are different kinds of explanations – one is about mechanics and the other about agency, and neither explanation precludes the other. The extent to which an understanding of the mechanics can inform us about agency is rather variable, and requires a whole stack of other background knowledge. An explanation of the physics of seeing words on a screen can’t tell you, for example, that I’m writing in English – you need further background knowledge for that*.
When we are talking about God, I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about any kind of mechanical explanation, but rather, am talking in terms of agency. In fact, this is rather foundational, in that, unless we agree that a mechanical explanation of something does not render a causal agent obsolete, we can go no further, for we are on different pages.**
The questions quoted, if I’ve understood the context properly, seem to assume, for the sake of the argument, that someone has come to a conclusion that there is some causal agent – be they a deist or a theist. The challenge appears to be that even if one concludes that there must be a god, how then do we decide who this god is, or what they’re like, given that there are many different ideas. I will come back to this, but given that this is a final hurrah, so to speak, I first want to briefly outline (and not elaborate.. perhaps in the comments if anyone is keen) why I hold that there is God.
Why believe there is a God?
I do not argue that one can prove that God exists, at least, not in the way my opponents generally frame / understand the term***, but we all believe any number of things which we cannot empirically prove; the question is whether we have good reason and evidence to hold those things to be true. I believe there is evidence and good reasons to believe that a causal agent does exist for the universe (the eminent American philosopher Alvin Plantinga suggests there are at least two dozen or so very good arguments for the existence of God - frankly, most of those go over my head!).
I share what Tim Keller refers to as “critical rationality”****:
It assumes that there are some arguments that many or even most rational people will find convincing, even though there is no argument that will be persuasive to everyone regardless of viewpoint. It assumes that some systems of belief are more reasonable than others, but that all arguments are rationally avoidable in the end. That is, you can always find reason escape it that is not sheer bias or stubbornness.
One of the most persuasive reasons, to my mind, is that the universe is rationally intelligible. This points towards the existence of a rational intelligence behind it. I’ve not seen any examples of order or intelligibility from chaos and mindlessness.
There are other philosophical questions, such as why there is something rather than nothing (I’m left underwhelmed by the reply that it’s dumb question because we wouldn’t be here to ask it if there wasn’t anything), and why there are such precise physical properties to allow a stable universe (again, I’m completely underwhelmed by the multi-verse theories that attempt to reduce the force of this question). I know that Atheists like to hate on the Kalam cosmological argument, but I’ve not yet seen anyone avoid the logic (or refute either of the premises):
1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause
2) The universe began to exist
3) Therefore, the universe has a cause
I find the moral argument to be particularly persuasive pointer that an external moral law-giver exists. Similarly, what might be called an aesthetic argument – an argument from beauty / art, is for me, a strong pointer.
I also very much appreciate an argument that the former Atheist, C.S. Lewis made, which was that fundamental, instinctive desires only exist where capacity for those desires to be sated also exists:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
Belief in a deity seems to be very nearly a human universal (on an historical and global scale, Atheism is a rather niche market*****), it is not unreasonable to ask whether this apparently instinctive human desire to connect with the divine is a pointer to the reality of such a ‘satisfaction’.
I find that Theism as a worldview has the most explanatory power of what science tells us about the universe, and how I understand the world to be. I don’t know of any good arguments to accept that Atheism is true, which means the most rational position for me to take, is the one my reason leads me to think makes best sense of what I know.
Again, there is no argument that is going to be persuasive to everyone regardless of their viewpoint, and I certainly don’t expect that a committed Atheist will suddenly be persuaded, that is not my point, but I hope they would agree that the most rational and reasonable position to take is the one we find most reasonable. I very much doubt that Chrys, for example, would expect me to simply adopt her worldview if I don’t actually find it persuasive. I find the combined weight of the things above to be sufficiently persuasive that a First Cause exists.
There is much more that could be said, but I’ll move on to the original questions.
If if we come to the conclusion that some kind of creator / first cause / prime mover god-agent exists, how do we know which one? Is it Yaweh, Allah, Zoroastra, Zeus or some other god altogether? Given the context of the question, we can initially rule out any ideas of gods which are not external to the universe – which would rule out the Graeco-Roman pantheon, for example. But more importantly, we have to push the question back a step and ask “Can we know any possible god?” and the answer is: “only if they choose to reveal themselves to us”.
We might be able to philosophise about certain characteristics of said god, e.g. that logically, they have to be necessary, eternal, omnipotent etc., but that doesn’t tell us who they are, for that, we need revelation. This concept is almost always met with hostility from Atheists I’ve spoken with, but I’ve never really seen a basis for their objection to it. I suppose if one has any reductionist presuppositions, the idea that we can gain information from anything but a scientific investigation of a physical thing is going to not sit well, but as the astro-physicist Eddington pointed out, “science isn’t the only way of knowing”. The Oxford mathematician and philosopher of science, John Lennox uses the example of Aunt Matilda’s Cake to show that revelation is sometimes needed as a means of learning information.
I believe that this prime-mover is Yahweh, the Judeo-Christian God. Why? Because I believe that he has revealed himself to us in the person of Jesus. The question, then, turns to history. (Time to refill the popcorn!)
The tangible God
Christianity stands or falls with Jesus, and specifically, the resurrection. The apostle Paul made that clear enough. At this point I need to take a moment, once again, to take a short detour into the various possible background beliefs which might impact how people approach the historical question.
I realise there are going to be people who will reject the resurrection on principle: it is simply impossible within a naturalist worldview+. As it happens, the initial question has already conceded the possibility of an external causal agent, i.e., the supernatural (that’s what the word means, after all). There may be some who are not strictly naturalists, who concede that the universe might not be causally closed but who hold the Humean maxim that any extraordinary explanation is, prima facae, less likely than being mistaken. I reject the axiom, as it seems rather flawed to me. According to such Humean reasoning, an 18th century pacific Islander would have been justified in rejecting the existence of ice that European explorers told them about, even if their tribal chief was taken to witness it, because it was outside the ordinary experience of the rest, to them, it would be more likely that the chief was mistaken. They would, of course, be totally wrong in such rejection. What the axiom boils down to is a rejection of anything that an individual hasn’t experienced, which is totally flawed in my opinion. If we take ‘extraordinary’ to mean ‘outside of our normal experience’ we’d be forced to reject a lot of things we ought not reject, which is perhaps why it’s often wielded in a much more subjective manner!
As I’ve already shown that I’ve a reasoned belief in an external causal agent, the idea of said agent intervening is an open possibility. The Christian claim of resurrection is not for a normal event, but a unique intervention by an external agent. If we haven’t shut off the possibility with philosophical background beliefs, and we’re open to the possibility of it being possible, then we simply need to ask an historical question of “did it happen?”.
As an indication of the possible depth we might get into on this questino, the NT scholar Tom Wright, a leading figure in the areas of early Christianity and 1st century Greek culture recently wrote a 700 page tome on the subject, so I will have to suffice here with a mere fleeting glimpse.
For the sake of brevity(!) I’m going to assume the historicity of the the crucifixion (circa 30AD) – it is accepted by the vast majority of historians, from the whole spectrum of views, including those who reject resurrection. The idea that Jesus ben Joseph (Jesus of Nazareth) never existed has virtually no traction in contemporary historical scholarship++, and as such, I won’t bother with it.
The best sources for Jesus are the gospels and some of the epistles, which were later collated into the New Testament. Some will want to dismiss these documents a priori, but that is not what historians do, nor should they. That these texts were collated into a single volume at a later date, and are revered as sacred by some communities is actually irrellevant to the question at hand. We must treat them the way we would treat any text from antiquity, which is to say that we apply the normal historical test and criteria to establish what is reliable within them taking into account whatever bias ancient text inevitably have (the gospels certainly contain some theological reflection on the events described, but that by no means disqualifies them) . We need not assume any kind of inerrency (which is to say that we don’t throw it out if there are some inconsistencies). There are also a number of Jewish and Greaco-Roman references to Jesus, which, while interesting and occasionally corroborative of certain points, generally don’t tell us anything we don’t already know from the canonical sources. There are also a number of later gnostic gospels, but they are, frankly, a bit like reading a Punch article about Queen Victoria’s prowess at Draw Something because she had a custom made oversized iPad.
We have, then, several independent sources for Jesus. Wait.. I can hear someone questioning my use of the word ‘independent’. Yes, largely they are. There is the hypothetical Q documents and yes, for parts of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels there seems to be ‘Markian priority’, but there are also large swathes of which they both appear to have other sources (Mark was probably Peter’s translator, and Luke traveled with Paul on some of his journeys in Asia Minor). Even if you count those parts of Matthew and Luke as a single source, there’s still John’s gospel, Paul’s epistles, Jame’s epistle and the rest of Matthew and Luke. Quite simply then, they fulfill the normal criteria of multiple attestation.
Some will object that they contradict eachother (which would seem to imply that they didn’t copy from one another, btw). Remembering that we need not expect inerrancy, and indeed, if they were all exactly the same we’d have very good reason to doubt them, whatever alleged contradictions (remember not all apparent contradictions are actual!) are usually thrown up, I don’t recall seeing any which significantly impact the central events. There is agreement across the documents that Jesus was crucified, that his tomb was found empty, and that he appeared alive again to whole bunch of people. Nor is this a late development. This claim is found in the very earliest reference (Paul’s first letter to Corinth, of which authorship is not in any dispute, btw), which dates from around 50AD, only twenty years after the crucifixion (itself considerably early for antiquity) but which can be reliably traced to within 2-5yrs!
Another interesting point about the gospels is that they were all written outside of the area in which the action is set, from between 30-50 years later (pre- destruction of the temple) and yet, as recent archeological data shows, have a remarkable accuracy regarding the culture and landscape the accounts are set in. An analogy would be if I write something set in the 1970′s Italy. Without the aid of google, would I get the names right (what were the popular Italian names in 9174?), or the fauna? What this tells us is that the accounts, while written outside of Judea and Jerusalem, have a reliable heritage to that context – the writers are not likely to be making it up (and indeed, it would be extraordinary if they all made up the same basic storyline, got all the contextual details right, all writing from four different places!)
There are little details too, which point to reliability, such as the inclusion of the women being the first witnesses of the resurrection. This would be very unlikely to have invented. It is what is referred to as an ‘embarrassing detail’, things that one would leave out unless it actually happened.
Much more could be said, suffice it to say that, like the eminent classicist Prof Edwin Judge, I find the accounts to be reliable. There is solid historical evidence that the tomb was found empty (corroborated by the hostile Jewish apologetic), and it is also the majority view that the disciples had some kinds of experiences which they referred to as ‘appearances’ of the risen Jesus. Whatever explanation we offer, we have to account for these experiences, for the empty tomb, and for the unlikely, rapid growth of the movement.
While Christianity clearly grew out of a Jewish context, the claim of a single person being resurrected was rather foreign to 2nd Temple Judaism, either denied explicitly as per the majority Sadducee party, or understood as something that happened to everyone at the end of the world. How then, this claim took off as it did, is very difficult to account for apart from “it actually happened”. Further data that needs accounting for is the conversion of Jesus’ brother after his death. What would convince us that our crazy, dead brother was the risen Messiah? It was also contrary to the prevailing Greek ideas of the day. Effectively, the average 1st century Jewish, Greek & Roman Joe Blow would have been as open to the claim as a modern Joe Blow, which is to say, not very.
While I’ve seen many offer various explanations for various pieces, I’m yet to see another explanation that has sufficient scope for all the historical data.
Again, much more could be said+++, and again, there’s no knock-down argument – respectable historians sit on both sides of the resurrection debate. It seems to me that once again, pre-existing beliefs and presuppositions will play a big role in how one views the evidence – and there are around a dozen things which historians on both sides agree actually happened (none of which are themselves supernatural). To my mind, when the normal historical criteria of argument to best explanation are applied, the best explanation of the data – the one with the most comprehensive scope and explanatory power – is the earliest explanation given: that God raised Jesus from the dead.
C.S.Lewis was right when he said that Jesus doesn’t give us room to think him merely a good teacher; as his famous trilemma puts it: if he’s not who he said he was (i.e. God), then he’s either crazy, or lying. I don’t think the evidence points to crazy or lying.
Tying it all up
That’s all rather a lot of ground for a single blog post, and we’ve certainly run fairly quickly across some pretty fertile ground, but I think I have answered, somewhat basically, the initial questions, at least, as far as they relate to my own views. I believe in the God I do because philosophy, science and history all appear to me to point to it. The Christian account of the world has, to my mind^, the most explanatory power (and I haven’t even begun on sociology or how I see that its account me as a person is so accurate), and moreover, because the risen Jesus is knowable^^. My worldview is not only based on reason and evidence as I see it, but on my own experience (which is, I realise, hardly persuasive, but it would be odd to hold a view that didn’t account for one’s own experience).
Will this change someone’s mind about the existence of God? I doubt it****. Is my belief based on evidence and reasoning? Yes. If there’s one thing to take away from this post, let it be to realise that not being persuaded by the evidence and reasoning which persuade another does not equate to there being no evidence or reason.
So, my Atheist friends, the next time you’re tempted to say “there’s no evidence for God..” please remember this overly verbose post and just add “… which I find persuasive”, it will save us all the hassle of going over it again!
* John Lennox points out that semantic meaning, while emergent from letters, cannot be explained by a reductionist view of the physics and chemistry of ink on paper.
** Much of the Theist/Atheist debate that takes place, fails to recognise these differences in background beliefs, and so usually start off in different directions, and end with people shouting past one another.
*** From the discussions and debates I’ve had, proof is understood to be empirical demonstration, that is, via the methodology of science. Don’t get me wrong – science is wonderful, but it is by definition, limited to studying the physical universe, so of course, anything that is not a part of the physical universe (e.g. a universal causal agent, meaning, art, love, purpose, or any range of meta-physical things) is not going to fall within science’s scope.
**** I reject ‘Strong rationalism’ which is the view that on one should believe a proposition unless is it proved empirically; not only is it impractical, it assumes an impossible ‘view from nowhere’ and is, ultimately a self-refuting view – i.e. itself not proved! See this article about how facts alone rarely persuade anyone.
***** Mark Baddeley suggests it’s a bit like designer drugs, the purvey of a particular western elite. Given that most “gnu” Atheists like to distance themselves, understandably, from officially Atheist Communist regimes, I suspect that Baddeley didn’t have Mao in view. Also on this point, Dr Olivera Petrovich has been doing some interesting research, which seems to show that the common claim that children are born ‘Atheist’ is not true.
+ I’ve never seen anyone try to defend a causally closed universe without using a circular argument.
++ Even Bart Ehrman is completely dismissive of the suggestion that Jesus never existed.
^ It seems to me that if the atheistic naturalist account of the world is true, my mind is somewhat illusory. In such a deterministic, reductionist view, I’m not actually responsible for what I think – that’s nothing more than the firing of neurons in my brain. Or even if I do have some responsibility in what I think, who says that atheistic evolution is interested in truth? It would seem that it’s more interested in adaptive behaviour. I can’t see how, on Atheism, I’ve got a good reason to trust my intellect to know what is true, merely that it will think what is helpful to survival. Christianity, on the other hand, gives very good reason to think that I can use and trust my intellect to know truth.
^^Again, someone with a naturalist worldview will no doubt be content to reduce such things to nothing but chemistry – yet again, it’s the background beliefs that are in conflict.
- alvin plantinga | arthur eddington | chrys stevenson | cs lewis | faith | god | gospel | history | jesus | john dickson | john lennox | new testament | olivera petrovich | proof | reason | resurrection | science