Part 3 of a discussion and critique of John R. Shook’s The God Debates
Let us look at one more example of Shook’s straw-man methodology. He says, “The basic ‘fine-tuning’ argument for god has this form:
- If god exists, then it is highly probable that this universe would permit life;
- The universe is organized to permit life;
- In the naturalistic “multiverse” theory it is not highly probable that the universe would permit life;
- It is more reasonable to accept the theory that makes it more probable that this universe exists;
Conclusion: God exists.(8)
First of all, what reputable theist — philosopher or theologian — has ever argued for this hodge-podge? Can Shook document anyone but a philosophical naïf presenting this argument?
Once again, we are back to the main problem in The God Debates — Shook is making up straw-man parodies of theist arguments in order to refute them. This example shows how far he is willing to go. All sorts of different arguments are mixed up: the existence of God, the existence of life, a gratuitous premise about multiverses as well as a debatable premise on what is or is not reasonable to believe. These are so sloppily put together that they do not form any kind of argument at all, and it is disingenuous to lead readers to think that intelligent theists argue like this or that this is the best theism can do.
The fine-tuning argument for God’s existence — which is a probabilistic proof — might go as follows:
- Our universe is extremely fine-tuned in regards to a large number of fundamental physical constants without which none of the cosmic structure and life we know would be possible;
- These constants all lie within an exceedingly narrow range;
- Even a change in one or a small number of constants makes the current universe impossible;
- The odds of such an inter-related web of fine-tuning or the conditions for such fine-tuning arising by chance are so low as to be almost zero.
Conclusion: The more unlikely a natural cause for this fine-tuning, the more likely it is that a non-natural or super-natural cause, i.e. God, exists.
This probabilistic proof is, of course, not an absolute proof, but it has the advantage of being linked to the current research. Moreover, it makes the decision to believe in God a rational, evidence-based decision and works with calculable probabilities.
It might be objected that if the universe has enough time — infinity supposedly — then this rare combination of fine-tuned factors will inevitably arise. This is arguing like my neighbor that his wife’s chances of producing a boy improved with each pregnancy. (They wound up with six girls.) Odds close to zero remain close to zero no matter how many times the universe or universes re-configure. We could, of course, discuss variations on this scenario, but that would take us too far from exposing Shook’s straw-man parodies.
Let us sample one more problematic argument from The God Debates.
According to Shook, “Recent cognitive psychology and brain experiments have been able to duplicate many of the characteristics of religious mystical experiences.”(9) To his credit, he admits that these experiments cannot eliminate the possibility of God. But then he proceeds to argue that because science can induce a brain experience of “an X that doesn’t probably exist anyway”(10) then “You have never really had an interaction with an X.”(11)
X, for those who haven’t guessed by now, is God.
He thinks this argument is “logically effective against gods”(12) — but this is a sad mistake. Why should not a lab-induced experience of X be just as valid as a natural one? The fact that X is given as a brain-experience is no surprise — how else do the scientists expect a vision to appear to a human brain? And how does the lab experience prove that X is not real?
One is reminded of an incident in Shaw’s St Joan, in which the Inquisitor asks Joan if St Catherine appears in her head and Joan replies, that of course she does — where else could St Catherine appear? Appearing there was no proof that Joan never saw St. Catherine or that St Catherine was unreal. The same applies to X. The only way that Shook can even make his semi-syllogism appear plausible is to make it circular, i.e. to introduce the “an X that probably doesn’t exist anyway”(13) in the first premise and then use that to conclude “You never really had an interaction with X.”(14)
To conclude: The God Debates is a disappointing book — disappointing because it promises so much and delivers so little of real substance to the aware reader. The civil tone is a welcome and major step forward in “the God debates” but it is not enough to make up for the serious mistrust aroused by the numerous fallacious arguments such as we have sampled.
Shook seems intent on strengthening the case for secular humanism by straw-man parodies of theistic arguments — which is surely a losing strategy and does nothing to advance our understanding of this important subject.
============= References ==================
8 The God Debates, p. 142.
9 The God Debates, p. 103.
10 The God Debates, p. 104.
11 The God Debates, p. 105.
12 The God Debates, p. 105.
13 The God Debates, p. 104.
14 The God Debates, p. 105.