Thursday, March 8, 2012

Some Arguments for Atheism

Remember Richard Dawkins' bestseller The God Delusion? In it, he had a knockout argument against the existence of God, one which I defended at length against some very weak criticisms that had been launched by some Christian apologists in Atheism and Naturalism (Also available as a download here). In my book Selected Essays, in the chapter "Why The Universe is Not Just a Dream" I retooled Dawkin's argument and used it to argue against solipsism (the weird philosophical viewpoint that your own mind is the only thing that exists).

I recently found a post on Uncommon Descent which discusses the following argument(s) for atheism that are very similar to Dawkins' argument:

Argument A. An argument against the existence of the God of Classical Theism (an absolutely simple and omniscient Being)
1. Any entity that knows someone’s name has a representation of that name within his/her mind.
2. Proper names (e.g. Sam or Meg) have a minimal representation in excess of one bit.
3. If God exists, God knows everyone’s name. (By definition, God is omniscient, according to classical theism.)
4. Therefore if God exists, God’s mind contains representations whose length exceeds one bit.
5. A representation in excess of one bit is composed of multiple (two or more) parts.
6. Therefore if God exists, God’s mind has multiple parts.
7. But if God exists, God’s mind does not have multiple parts. (By definition, God is simple, according to classical theism.)8. Therefore God does not exist. (If P->Q and P->not Q, then it follows that not P.)

Comment at Uncommon Descent: "This argument will not trouble all religious believers. Some of them might be tempted to say: 'We can jettison classical theism but still retain our belief in God. Maybe God is omniscient, but complex.' But Dave Mullenix’s second argument discredits even this fallback position."


Argument B. An argument against the existence of an omniscient God who created life
1. If God exists, God knows each and every human language. (True by definition of omniscience.)2. Any entity that knows a language has a representation of all the rules of that language within his/her mind.
3. Rules have a minimal representation in excess of one bit. (A rule contains several words; hence you can’t represent a rule using only a single bit.)
4. Since the rules of a human language include not only phonologic rules, morphologic rules and syntactic rules, but also semantic rules and pragmatic rules, the total number of rules in any given language is vast.
5. Therefore any entity that knows a language is capable of holding a vast number of bits of information (let’s call it N) in his/her mind.
6. Therefore if God exists, God’s mind contains an extremely large number of bits of information. In fact, this number is much larger than N, as N is the number of bits required to specify the rules of just one language, and there are roughly 10,000 languages in existence, to the nearest order of magnitude.
7. However, the number of bits in the minimal representation of the first living cell is smaller than N. (A living cell is complex, but it cannot be as complex as the total set of rules in a human language – otherwise we would be unable to describe the workings of the cell in human language.)
8. Indeed, it is probably the case that the total number of bits required to explain the existence of all life-forms found on Earth today is smaller than N. (Many ID advocates, including Professor Behe, are prepared to assume that front-loading is true. If it is, then the number of bits in the minimal representation of the first living cell is sufficient to explain the diversity of all life-forms found on Earth today.)
9. The more bits an entity requires to specify it, the more complex it is, and hence the more antecedently unlikely its existence is.
10. Therefore God’s existence is antecedently even more unlikely than the existence of life on Earth – the difficulties of abiogenesis notwithstanding.
11. An explanation which is antecedently even more unliklely than what it tries to explain is a bad explanation.
12. Hence invoking God (an omniscient Being) to explain life is a bad explanation.

So, how do the ID folk get around this doozy? Here's their explanation:

The problem, I believe, lies in premise 1: 'Any entity that knows someone’s name has a representation of that name within his/her mind.' At first blush premise 1 seems obvious: surely all knowledge has to be in the mind of the knower. However, I’d like to challenge this assumption. Why should this be so? A clue to why this seems so obvious is contained in Dave Mullenix’s words, “that information needs to be ‘on line.’” If we picture God as having a conversation with us in real time, then of course He will need to be able to access relevant information about us – including our names – from one moment to the next. In other words, He will need to keep it in His mind. And since a name, being inherently composite, cannot be compressed to a single bit, there can be no room for it in the simple mind of God.
But God is not in real time. God is beyond space and time. This is true regardless of whether one conceives of God as atemporal (totally outside time) as classical theists do, or as being omnitemporal (present at all points in time) subsequent to the creation of the universe, as Professor William Lane Craig does. On either analysis, God is not confined to a single location in time. In that case, God does not have to store information about our names in His mind for future retrieval; it’s always immediately there for Him.


“All right,” you may answer, “but if God is talking to me, and He calls me by my name, then the information about my name must still be in His mind, mustn’t it?” Not so. I would maintain that all God needs is to have access to your name; it doesn’t need to be “in” His mind. I would suggest that God knows facts about the world (including individuals’ names) simply by having access to the states of affairs which make them true (their truthmakers, in philosophical jargon). These facts don’t need to be “in God’s mind”; He just needs to be able to access them. The fact that grounds my having the name I do is that my parents gave it to me, shortly after I was born. God, who holds all things in being, was certainly present at this event: if He had not been present, my parents and I would not have been there, for “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). If God has immediate epistemic access to the occasion when I acquired my name, then He automatically knows my name. It doesn’t need to be in His mind.
God, who holds all things, past, present and future, in existence, has immediate epistemic access to all events in the past, present and future. That’s how He is able to know my name."

My response: I don't think that works. The deity doesn't simply need to be able to observe all points of space and time to know everything. He'd have to have a complex mind capable of correctly interpreting information, too. For example, God could not be as stupid as a chicken, because a chicken will never get that my name is Ryan no matter how many times that sound is made by other people in my presence. He would also have to be capable of not only interpreting information but piecing it together so that God can do what he wants. For example, if God wanted to appear to me and tell me everything I need to know about him, he would have to understand how to piece together all the words he knew in order to make sentences that I would understand and that would make sense to me. And we also have the problem of God's creation of the universe. You see, the entire response that Uncommon Descent gave was predicated on the notion of God existing at every point in spacetime. But what about before God created the universe? God would have to know an awful lot about exactly how to create a universe in order to get it the way he wanted it (fine-tuning all the constants so they could support life, imagining the fabric of spacetime, imagining all the different particles he could make and choosing the right ones, etc. etc.). So the atheistic argument from complexity still stands.

Incidentally, Richard Carrier has recently blogged on argument like this and other arguments that show God is impossible (See The God Impossible). It's worth reading!

1 comment:

Ben Schuldt said...

So Christian theists are willing to fall back on "God, the Father is a complex machine," eh? Where's God, the Grandfather when you need an infinitely complex mind to be specified?

I would argue that if creation literally is Yahweh's knowledge base, this raises the issue of "creation" since that would entail that he created his own imagination at some point.

Further, since Yahweh "knows everything" literally every possible thing would have to exist just like us in his imagination. If you are willing to accept this aspect of Yahweh as "just existing" then what do we need with the "theocortex" of the metaphysical equation that doesn't even have a job to do?