The God Box

[This is an opinion piece that I wrote a while back discussing the appeals to divine mystery that underlie many apologetic and theological arguments. I still agree with many of the general points, but also see some of my more recent essays on theology, such as here, here, and here, for a more rigorous interaction with classical theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, as well as modern theologians, such as David Hart. -MWF]

As a sequel to my first blog, “God Mode,” I want to comment on a common gap that underlies most, if not all, apologetic arguments. Frequently apologists will argue that there is certain evidence or circumstances that are better explained by theism than naturalism (normally, even if these arguments were true, they would just point to some abstract god, but nevertheless they use the same arguments for their highly specific deity and religious creeds). Fair enough: 1) What does god explain? and 2) How does he explain it? Theists will provide all sorts of examples for the first question: miracles, reason, morality, math, life, existence itself, etc. The second question is virtually never addressed: “Okay, how does god make or cause any of these things and why is a deity absolutely necessary to explain them?” The common unstated assumption simply seems to be that, since god is omnipotent, he can do or explain anything that would allegedly be impossible under natural circumstances. Problem solved. But the problem persists: “How does god explain these things?” Blank out.

What I have observed is an inexplicable “God Box” that virtually every argument for theism must pass through.

God Box

It is easy to make assertions about things that god can do or has to do, but these assertions seldom address the same problem apologists argue confronts naturalism.

Let’s start with a basic example of the God Box: the resurrection of Jesus. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that all of the arguments for the resurrection via the empty tomb are more than bogus arguments relying on ancient hearsay and religious texts. Jesus died, and on the third day after his death the tomb was found empty, and people saw him in a resurrected and transformed state. Fair enough. The apologist will now argue that this evidence is impossible to explain with naturalism, so supernaturalism and theism solves the problem. But how does god really solve the problem?

The premise that Jesus had died entails certain physical consequences: Jesus’ heart would have stopped beating, his brain would have starved of oxygen, his neural system would have to disintegrate, massive cell death would decay his body, gases and acids would have filled his organs, body cavities, and extremities, and rigor mortis would have set in. Anything less than this could not be described as a full death.

Apologists argue that no natural explanation could reverse this processes and restore life, so it would require a divine miracle. But how would god raise Jesus from the dead? How would god reverse the cellular damage, destroyed organs, lost neural patterns, and rotting? Could the apologists describe any of these stages? Could they provide a diagram? Any naturalist who wanted to argue for such a resurrection would no doubt have to provide a highly rigorous and complex medical analysis. The apologists argue that god performed the resurrection miraculously. But how did he do it? Blank out.

As can be seen, we have nothing more than an inexplicable God Box. A dead Jesus goes into the God Box and a resurrected Jesus comes out of the God Box. No explanation, no process, just a gap in our knowledge and a leap in our credulity.

Belief in physical miracles is pretty clear example of the leaps in credulity that theists make, by assuming that god can explain the miraculous effect, without really providing any mechanism or explanation beyond “Goddidit.” Many apologists do not like defending such unbelievable events, so they retreat into philosophical arguments to prove god: “Well, if you won’t believe from miracles, surely you have no explanation for reason, morality, or existence, which theism can provide an answer for!” But does the assumption of a deity really explain these things any better?

The far more egregious and subtle abuse of the God Box that I witness among apologists pertains to philosophical arguments, designed to confuse and frustrate their opponent with arcane questions, simply relying on the underlying assumption that a god can magically satisfy all philosophical dilemmas. It were as if god was some incredible philosophical machine, where uncertainty would fly in and reasonable knowledge would pop out, where moral nihilism would pour into a funnel and moral objectivity would squeeze out a tube. Are there really any actual gears and mechanisms working inside this machine, or do we really just have another inexplicable God Box?

God Box 2

Take the argument from reason: apologists argue (really just assert) that we can have no basis for trusting our reasoning without their deity. Apologists often do not explain what reasoning is or how it works, so I will borrow a definition from naturalist philosopher, Richard Carrier: “Reason involves at least three abilities: 1) correspondence, 2) logic, and 3) retrieval and presentation.” These analytical abilities impart an incredible survival advantages for a mind that possesses them. In fact, even highly basic animals have them. In fact, machines now possess them as well. Carrier continues, “The power to carry out logical operations is the ability to analyze data in various ways, such as adding or subtracting, or identifying patterns within a larger pattern. Every form of logical operation humans can imagine has been performed by a computer, from Boolean Algebra to Fuzzy Logic – even creative scientific induction – and, like OCR and other recognition routines, we know the mechanical-causal steps that can carry out these functions.”

It is clear that nothing miraculous occurs with reasoning and that the process consists of little more than linguistic and informatic deduction. Why would a god be necessary? Normally because the apologist merely asserts it. But let’s assume that a deity were for some bizarre reason necessary. How would god make or necessitate reason? Surely he would have to program the same language, axioms, and deductive rules that we already use. But if we can program all of these into a computer without a god and nature programmed them in us through the evolution of the mind, in what additional way does a deity add anything? Blank out.

Once more, some inexplicable step is ascribed to god, through which no knowledge can pass into the God Box and reason can pop out. Ironically, this leap is entirely unreasonable.

Moral objectivity, the apologists love to use it. “You have no basis for your morals without God!” “Any opinion is just as good as another under atheism!” Okay, well how then is a god necessary for morals? More importantly, how would a god make or necessitate morality through any greater steps than the ones we use already?

Apologists will argue that you cannot get an “ought” from an “is.” Since naturalism and empiricism supposedly just explain what “is,” they cannot derive any “oughts.” I explained in a previous blog why this is not the case, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that the apologists’ assertions are correct. As far back as Plato the Euthyphro Dilemma had dispelled any notion that adding on an additional divine layer takes us any steps further in justifying moral rules. Framed in terms of the is/ought dilemma: “Why ought god establish the moral rules that he does?” Some apologists will fall for the first horn and argue that god is the author of morality because god’s laws ensure the greatest welfare of the universe. But if the greatest welfare of the universe is the standard of morality, then really the apologists have just appealed to utilitarianism, a purely secular moral philosophy. Adding a deity does not add anything, when we can just create rules for the greatest welfare ourselves.

Apologists caught by the second horn will argue that god’s rules are what is correct, simply because god “is” correct. Yet this does not breach the is/ought dilemma. Some will try to move the goal post further and argue that god’s nature, not just his arbitrary whims, establishes what is right and wrong. But the problem persists: “Why ought god’s nature be the way that it is?” If they provide another standard, they are trapped by the first horn. If they argue that god’s nature “is” just the way that it “is,” then they have once more failed to address the is/ought dilemma any more than the naturalist. Once more, adding a deity provides for nothing.

This is further exacerbated when one argues that I “ought” to obey god. Apologists will argue that without a god then it is only human power that establishes the law and rules about right and wrong. “Might makes right under atheism!” But how does adding a deity make things any different? Say for example that a god ordered me to sacrifice my son to him. I do not wish to do such a thing, so I refuse. If god is impotent and has no power, then his order is meaningless. If he coerces me to do so under the threat of torture or punishment, then he has merely compelled me through might. Apologists will argue that god can decide what is right and wrong because he created the universe. But, just as they accuse the naturalist, this merely equates to the philosophy of “might makes right.” Suppose instead the apologist argues that I should obey god, because doing so will lead to my greatest happiness and well-being. Once more, however, this is a standard apart from god and merely an appeal to self-serving utilitarianism.

Once the god moral-making machine is opened and examined, it is revealed that there is no greater assembly line of steps than any secular and naturalist moral philosophy. If there were something more, it is merely an inexplicable God Box. Moral nihilism flies in and moral objectivity flies out. How does this happen? Blank out.

Finally apologists will argue that existence itself necessitates the existence of a divine being (sounds so incredibly circular when you frame it that way). “Something can’t come from nothing!” But this only moves the goal post back further. Where did god come from? “Well, God just always existed!” But why then can’t our universe, assuming that it is finite and that there was a beginning, just come from a non-temporal, uncaused, natural origin? How does god add anything? Moreover, while let’s say a quantum wave fluctuation could be an explicable and articulable first cause under naturalism, how would god create the universe? How did god create material? And if god is immaterial, how can god exist in any substantive sense at all? If all decisions require time, but god created time, then how could god decide or plan the creation of the universe? If apologists want to argue that god was necessary to create the universe, how did god do it? Can theists provide diagrams or give a step-by-step break down that supersedes a scientific explanation? Blank out.

Once more, apologists merely rely on an inexplicable God Box, where nihil goes into the God Box and creation ex nihilo flies out of the God Box. No actual explanation is given at all. We only have the same gap in knowledge with a mere leap in credulity, labeled with the title “God,” but actually providing no explanation at all beyond pure mystery.

I won’t pretend that there aren’t difficult big questions for any worldview: How do we really know what we know? How do we determine what is right from what is wrong? Why is there something rather than nothing?

The flaw in any apologetic argument is that it merely assumes that a deity answers these questions better than naturalism, while either using all of the same steps that a naturalist would or simply not providing any explanation at all. They just assume a magical God Box that solves everything, but can precisely explain nothing. In contrast, while the progression of naturalism and science has been slow and difficult, natural mechanical forces have been incredibly successful in explaining everything that was previously inexplicable, from weather and harvest cycles to the formation of our universe and the cosmos, from the origin of life to the very mechanical workings of our brains and minds that was once a mystical and inexplicable soul.

For naturalism, no matter how difficult and complex, diagrams can be provided, steps can be explained, and a coherent theory can be offered. Yet theism merely provides the inexplicable God Box and assumes that this incredible philosophical machine miraculously solves everything. Would you use the God Box to explain natural disasters, illnesses, and your health? Well, people once did and look how good it did them. And yet the same God Box is used to fill in areas of science that we don’t yet know and complex issues of philosophy. Will the God Box offer anything more in these areas? The universal progress of secular methods, institutions, and societies, and the stagnation and lack of any unique religious discovery, would almost universally suggest otherwise.

-Matthew Ferguson

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