Evidence for God’s existence

Theists and atheists each make a truth claim. Each must adduce evidence in support of their position.

As a theist, I claim that God exists. What is my evidence? I propose that God is the explanation for three phenomena which are otherwise mysterious. The three phenomena are conveniently listed by Owen Flanagan:

“First, why is there something rather than nothing? How is it possible that there is anything at all? Second, how is it possible that among the stuff that exists there is life? Third, how is it possible that some living things are conscious?”
(The Science of the Mind, chapter 8.)

Atheists claim to know that God is not responsible for these three phenomena. The claim is not self-evidently true. Atheists must supply alternative explanations for (a) the existence of matter/energy; (b) life; and (c) consciousness.

A bare assertion that God is not responsible is not an adequate response to theism. What evidence do my atheist readers adduce to show that naturalism is plausible?

I should point out that Flanagan himself is a naturalist. He accepts that atheists must supply answers, and his book is an attempt to address the third question.

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18 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. JewishAtheist
    Jan 06, 2007 @ 21:40:29

    “First, why is there something rather than nothing? How is it possible that there is anything at all? Second, how is it possible that among the stuff that exists there is life? Third, how is it possible that some living things are conscious?”

    The first nobody knows. “God” is no more an answer than “fairies” or “magic” or “Walt Disney in some sort of time machine.” Yeah, it could be, but nobody has a clue and it doesn’t make sense to go around making up stories when we have no idea whatsoever.

    The second has been answered, at least in the broad strokes.

    The third is currently being worked on and I suspect will be more or less answered within a hundred years.

    Reply

  2. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 06, 2007 @ 22:08:17

    With respect Stephen, the invocation of God has no evident explanatory power in relation to the three questions you pose. Consider:

    Why is there something rather than nothing?
    If we assume that God created the universe, then I could ask: Why is there god rather than nothing? The question is roughly equivalent. Since the second question has the same (or greater) scope as the first question, we have explained nothing by invoking god.

    How is it possible that among the stuff that exists there is life?”
    How is it possible that god is alive (assuming god is alive)? How is it possible that God created life?

    How is it possible that some living things are conscious?
    How is it possible that god is conscious (assuming god is conscious)? How is it possible that God created consciousness?

    The explanations involving God are far less elegant (think Occam’s razor) because God is a complex entity that requires explanation.

    Reply

  3. timbob
    Jan 07, 2007 @ 01:27:39

    I’m not sure as to how this will come out but here it goes. Scientists go to unbelievable lengths to explain the universe and how it behaves. How it came to be and where it’s going. My contention with the big bang theory is that if it really happened, you could point to the exact location of it by following the tragectory of the galaxies back. Not only this, all of the matter would be in the form of an ever-expanding shell, fleeing the point of the big bang.
    In addition, the existance of a spiritual realm would turn upside down all of the laws of physics. If you’ve ever known one who was clinically dead for a few moments, they will often tell of wandering around the hospital and have clear recollection of events that transpired while they were “dead.” If there is no spiritual realm, a dead person would be able to return. (because they’re gone.)
    We have this problem of thinking that we can figure it all out with a series of formulas and place all that is on a schematic. This simply isn’t the case. God inhabits eternity from everlasting and to everlasting. He desires a relationship with whosoever will call upon Jesus Christ who died for their sins.

    Reply

  4. Flavio
    Jan 07, 2007 @ 05:34:21

    As theists and atheists agree that the natural world exists, and atheists claim that there’s no need for a designer, or god, or other-than-natural explanation, it’s up to theists to bring evidence for the existance of a metaphysical entity.
    We are now ignorant about the ultimate explanation of why the worlds exists, ok, but as science in evolving atheists can say that we likely will come to a theory in the future: in the past people couldn’t explain thunders or the nature of stars and planets, now we know there’s no need for gods in that field.

    Reply

  5. Simen
    Jan 07, 2007 @ 09:03:58

    I’m not sure as to how this will come out but here it goes. Scientists go to unbelievable lengths to explain the universe and how it behaves. How it came to be and where it’s going. My contention with the big bang theory is that if it really happened, you could point to the exact location of it by following the tragectory of the galaxies back. Not only this, all of the matter would be in the form of an ever-expanding shell, fleeing the point of the big bang.

    You’ve misunderstood Big Bang. There’s no “middle” of the universe, not even in theory. It’s impossible to find such a spot because it doesn’t exist. Instead of thinking about a point, think about a balloon. You draw to black dots on it before you blow it up. They’re close together. Then you blow air into it, and it becomes larger. Suddenly and mysteriously, the dots are farther apart! In any case, no spot on the balloon can be called its “middle”. That’s also how the universe works.

    As for the questions in the blog post, they don’t explain anything at all. You could rephrase the questions slightly:

    Why is their God rather than nothing?
    Why is God alive (assuming something conscious can be called alive)?
    Why is God conscious?

    See, invoking a god-concept explains nothing. If God can come to be with no cause, then so can the universe. If God can live with no creator, then so can life on earth. If God can be conscious with no creator, then so can life on earth.

    Reply

  6. Stephen
    Jan 07, 2007 @ 09:55:05

    The numbers are working against me here. I feel like the lone theist with a whole football team of atheists out to tackle him. Thank heavens for Timbob!

    Rather than reply to each of you in detail, I will respond to specific points in such a way as to continue developing my argument.

    Flavio:
    It’s up to theists to bring evidence.

    No, it’s up to each party to support its assertions. But we’ve already beaten this issue to death in the comments on the previous post.

    Michael:
    If we assume that God created the universe, then I could ask: Why is there god rather than nothing?

    You have yet to respond to my point in a comment on an earlier post. God, as hypothesized, has different properties than either matter or energy.

    We know the properties of matter, and it is self-evidently impossible for matter to generate itself out of nothingness. Likewise, we know the properties of energy: in particular, that energy continually spirals downward into entropy, at which point it can no longer do any work. Thus the cosmos is not eternal, or things already would have reached the end point of absolute entropy.

    But if the cosmos is neither self-generated nor eternal, how is it that anything exists?

    It is logical to posit the existence of another sort of entity: an entity possessing properties different from the known properties of matter/energy.

    The explanations involving God are far less elegant (think Occam’s razor) because God is a complex entity that requires explanation.

    I take your point that theists must develop an adequate conception of the complex entity, God. And I ruefully acknowledge that my own thinking is unsophisticated on this point.

    But Occam’s razor doesn’t state that complex explanations are necessarily false. A simpler explanation is to be preferred only if it is adequate to solve the difficulty in question.

    Science may achieve a simple, naturalist explanation at some point in the unknown future, as atheists confidently assume. But as long as no such explanation is on offer, Occam’s razor doesn’t apply.

    Simen:
    Think about a balloon. You draw to black dots on it …. Then you blow air into it, and … mysteriously the dots are farther apart!

    Your analogy supposes precisely the sort of expansion Timbob proposed: of a shell (the surface of the balloon) expanding outward from a more-or-less central point. But that isn’t an accurate depiction of the universe.

    If God can come to be with no cause, then so can the universe.

    See my comment to Michael, above. The pivotal factor is that God, as hypothesized, possesses different properties from the known properties of matter/energy.

    Reply

  7. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 07, 2007 @ 11:09:24

    timbob said: If you’ve ever known one who was clinically dead for a few moments, they will often tell of wandering around the hospital and have clear recollection of events that transpired while they were “dead.”

    So-called “positive” evidences, like near-death experiences, psychic phenomenon, ghosts, miracles, the purported effectiveness of prayer, and mystical religious experiences seemed powerful at one time, but research has shown naturalistic explanations to be far more creditable than supernatural explanations.

    Moreover, on those rare occasions when some event/phenomenon seems to pose a unique challenge to atheism, there still is the difficulty of knowing which god or other supernatural entity/phenomenon is responsible.

    Reply

  8. JewishAtheist
    Jan 07, 2007 @ 11:33:11

    Stephen:

    Your analogy supposes precisely the sort of expansion Timbob proposed: of a shell (the surface of the balloon) expanding outward from a more-or-less central point. But that isn’t an accurate depiction of the universe.

    The balloon is the analogy Hawking uses in A Brief History of Time. No offense, but I’ll go with the other Stephen in questions of cosmology. 🙂

    Reply

  9. Simen
    Jan 07, 2007 @ 12:20:29

    There can be something which is subject to different laws than those of matter and energy, and still isn’t God. The laws that work now didn’t work before what those laws operate on existed, so presumably some other laws worked instead. There’s no need to invoke a god.

    Reply

  10. addofio
    Jan 07, 2007 @ 12:37:06

    This entire thread supports my own position as an agnostic–but of course doesn’t “prove” it. One of the things that would clarify this kind of discussion is some clarification of what would constitute “proof”.

    Each of us has some belief regarding the existence and nature of God (I debated taking out the “and nature of” but decided to leave it in–atheists generally are atheistic with regard to some specific concept of God). And if we’ve thought about it much–as clearly everyone posting here has–we each have reasons supporting our beliefs. But what constitutes a reason that is convincing to one person may well not be convincing to another. So if what we’re after is some set of arguments, or evidence, that is not only supportive of our own belief system, but also persuasive and convincing to others, particularly others who have contrary beliefs–the empirical evidence is that we aren’t going to find such argumants or evidence. (By “empirical evidence” I mean that these questions have been debated for centuries by some very intelligent people, with no resolution in sight.)

    Now, just because I’m agnostic with regard to proofs of God’s existence doesn’t preclude me from believing in God, nor from being an atheist. I can quite logically believe whichever–I just don’t think such beliefs are susceptible to “proofs” of the kind we are accustomed to from science (and still less of the kind found in mathematics.)

    I do think that it’s valuable to people to share and discuss what they believe and why, as long as we all understand that what we find fully convincing and satisfying regarding such beliefs won’t necessarily be to others. I find “this is what I believe and here’s why I believe it”, or even “here’s why I find my beliefs reasonable and rational”–to be a more helpful stance than “Here are the proofs for my position.”

    PS With regard to the Big Bang and the balloon analogy–the balloon analogy is just that, an analogy. Real balloons are two dimensional surfaces within three-dimensional space. The analogy is intended to help us ordinary mortals (non-physicists and non-mathematicians) understand the expansion of the universe. Thus the three-simensional (or four-dimensional, if you count time as a dimension, which physicists do but that has always bugged me) is expanding within a space of more than three (or four) dimensions. So if there is a center out from which the universe is expanding, it is a center in the higher-dimensional space, and not a center to be detected within our three (or four) dimensional universe. All the reality that we live in and can detect is, in the sense of the analogy, on the surface of the balloon–and there is no “center” on that.

    Reply

  11. Jamie
    Jan 07, 2007 @ 16:22:13

    Michael: [T]he invocation of God has no evident explanatory power in relation to the three questions you pose.

    The problem that theists are trying to get at is that there are certain elements of the world that seem inexplicable within a purely naturalistic system. (In the natural world, all events have causes, for example. Life does not come from non-life. And so on.)

    Since the natural world can’t seem to account for itself, it seems logical to posit the existence of something non-natural (supernatural), to which the laws of the naturalistic world don’t necessarily apply. That is the point of God. This position has explanatory power in the sense that it allows for something outside the naturalistic system, which is the problem in the first place. I realize this is all getting pretty abstruse, but surely you grant that this is logical?

    Flavio: We are now ignorant about the ultimate explanation of why the worlds exists, ok, but as science in evolving atheists can say that we likely will come to a theory in the future

    I find it interesting that you are arguing for your belief based on the possibility of future scientific explanations. Given that atheists are currently lacking explanations for crucial aspects of their own worldview, it is curious to me that you assert that “there’s no need for a designer, or god, or other-than-natural explanation.” You recognize that right now you don’t have natural explanations, and you only cling to naturalism through faith in the future possibilities of science.

    (This, by the way, is why I agree with Stephen that atheists have the burden of proof as much as theists do: it’s not as if atheists have a thoroughly fleshed out worldview, and theists are trying to tack on a superfluous deity. The fact is, atheism isn’t currently able to account for critical aspects of the world we live in. Presumably atheists need to justify their faith that we will someday be able to provide that account.)

    One final note: it is incredibly odd to me that the case for atheism in this thread has been substantiated largely by appeals to science. A brief review of the history and philosophy of science would show that philosophers are highly skeptical about scientific realism (the idea that science is providing us with accurate descriptions of how the world works). Science is productive, and therefore intoxicating. But to have such faith in science to help us answer ultimate questions about the world is philosophically rather risky.

    Reply

  12. Paul Wright
    Jan 07, 2007 @ 18:38:27

    Couple of points: someone has already said that in the balloon analogy, you’re supposed to imagine that our universe is the surface of the balloon and we are two-dimensional creatures, so ideas about an expanding shell of matter don’t hold. What’s really going to bake your noodle is that it’s not necessary to suppose that the universe is embedded in a higher dimensional space (as the surface of the balloon is in the 3D space which contains the centre of the balloon). So there isn’t really a centre anywhere to trace back to, as far as we know.

    The page at http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/astronomy/bigbang.html is an excellent discussion of what the Big Bang theory is about and of some of the common objections to it. On that page, there’s some discussion of objections based on conservation of energy and on entropy. I’d also recommend Brian Greene’s book “The Fabric of the Cosmos” as an excellent introduction to these ideas.

    Science must cheerfully admit its ignorance about the very early universe, but theoretical advances are pushing back the boundary. Things back then were profoundly strange, and I’m not sure how far common sense arguments about causality or something coming from nothing can be convincing. BTW Jamie, as far as I can tell, the atheists are appealing to science because the theists are attempting to claim that our current understanding of what happened in the big bang goes against science: something you might have thought the scientists themselves would have noticed.

    You’ve free to posit anything you like to fill the gaps left by science, but I’d object to someone using that as an argument in favour of any particular sort of God. A discussion I had recently at http://the-alchemist.livejournal.com/387650.html?thread=4041794#t4041794 will illustrate what I mean, but briefly, why suppose that Christianity should answer these currently unanswered questions better than Hinduism, Pastafarianism or anything else?

    Reply

  13. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 07, 2007 @ 18:40:34

    Stephen said: I feel like the lone theist with a whole football team of atheists out to tackle him.

    LOL. I can imagine. I’ve felt like that once or twice. It’s hard to address every single point or issue that you want to. Just realize that it’s okay because, theists and atheists alike, none of us are likely to change our minds. 😉

    As for your other point, when you first brought it up I didn’t realize that you were expecting a response. Let me gather my thoughts a little bit and I’ll respond later.

    Reply

  14. Stephen
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 06:39:30

    I appreciate the respectful nature of the discussion here. Kudos to all participants!

    Let me pick up on Addofio’s point: Each of us has some belief regarding the existence and nature of God…. And if we’ve thought about it much–as clearly everyone posting here has–we each have reasons supporting our beliefs. But what constitutes a reason that is convincing to one person may well not be convincing to another.

    I want to make it clear, I’m not trying to prove God’s existence. In my two posts on “The God Who May Be”, I made the modest claim (following Richard Kearney) that God may exist. I suggested that certainty is unattainable, either for theists or for atheists.

    Subsequently, I made the suggestion — which some of you find audacious — that theists and atheists alike bear the burden of supporting their assertions with evidence.

    I don’t claim to be able to prove God’s existence. I only claim that atheism is not self-evident, as some of my readers seem to assume. Put another way, many atheists are more confident of their position than the evidence permits them to be.

    Re my observation about the balloon analogy: I raised the point simply because I was struck by a certain irony in the exchange between Timbob and Simen. Timbob argued, if [the big bang] really happened, you could point to the exact location of it by following the tragectory of the galaxies back. Not only this, all of the matter would be in the form of an ever-expanding shell, fleeing the point of the big bang.

    Simen replied, You’ve misunderstood Big Bang. There’s no “middle” of the universe, not even in theory. It’s impossible to find such a spot because it doesn’t exist. Instead of thinking about a point, think about a balloon.

    But that misses the point. Timbob is saying that if the Big Bang explanation is true, there ought to be a centre to the universe. Simen’s appeal to the balloon analogy is ironic, because it pictures a universe expanding like a shell — another of Timbob’s assertions.

    Whether Timbob’s reasoning holds up, I don’t presume to know. (And why should I care that Stephen Hawking uses the same analogy? Is this that logical fallacy, an appeal to authority?) I only wanted to point out that Simen’s response doesn’t meet Timbob’s objections.

    Reply

  15. Simen
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 09:32:19

    Did you even open the link Paul Wright provided. You’ve misunderstood both the concept and the analogy. To all observers, it appears as if they are center of the “explosion”, which isn’t an explosion at all. In reality, there is no center. It is space itself that’s expanding, and there’s nothing it is “expanding into”. Big Bang wasn’t an explosion: rather, it was an extremely hot, dense period where everything was close together. Timbob has misunderstood the premises; hence his conclusion is false.

    Reply

  16. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 10:33:15

    Perhaps a better analogy would be an inflating foam, rather than a balloon.

    Reply

  17. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 12:20:02

    Stephen said: You have yet to respond to my point in a comment on an earlier post.

    We were talking about why there is something rather than nothing. I won’t cut and paste all the relevant text. I’m not sure it would be wise of me to remove statements from their context. Interested parties can read back.

    We agree that matter cannot generate itself out of nothingness. But matter and energy are interchangeable; matter can come from energy and vice-versa. This may be all the explanation needed, but perhaps not. We might just ask where matter/energy comes from.

    I and other commenters have pointed out that the universe/cosmos may not have had a “beginning” that can be recognized in the ordinary sense of the word. It seems like time and space and other concepts that we make use of in our daily lives break down when we talk about ultimate origins.

    It is possible that the universe oscillates between different states of which the current state with our current physics is only one. I admit that this is highly speculative – all talk of origins tends to be so.

    The point is, physics tends to be insufficient to explain the existence of everything. What is left over is metaphysics, which means simply “after the physics.” It’s about what we can know that physics can not tell us; in large part, metaphysics is about the assumptions that physics is based on. Cosmology and ontology, which are the studies of causation and being, respectively, are a part of metaphysics.

    It could be the case that matter as we understand it is dependent on some little-understood metaphysical entities or processes – whether those processes occurred “before” the current state of our universe, or whether they go on “now” is unclear.

    Stephen said: the cosmos is not eternal, or things already would have reached the end point of absolute entropy.

    I’m aware that the universe is tending toward absolute entropy; but I don’t understand how you reach this conclusion. Perhaps you could elaborate.

    Stephen said: Occam’s razor doesn’t state that complex explanations are necessarily false. A simpler explanation is to be preferred only if it is adequate to solve the difficulty in question …. Occam’s razor doesn’t apply.

    Actually it does, because we should hypothesize a very simple metaphysical entity before a very complex one, namely God.

    Reply

  18. Stephen
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 21:24:26

    Michael:
    It is possible that the universe oscillates between different states of which the current state with our current physics is only one. I admit that this is highly speculative – all talk of origins tends to be so.

    I should have acknowledged that argument earlier, when Addofio first raised it. As long as we acknowledge how speculative it is, I’m prepared to accept it as a valid hypothesis.

    • re my argument about entropy:
    Eternity stretches in both directions, of course. Eternity doesn’t mean only that the cosmos has an infinite future ahead of it; it also means that the cosmos has an infinite past behind it.

    If energy is spiralling downward toward entropy, and the past stretches back into infinity, surely we would have reached the state of absolute entropy by now.

    Unless, as you say, the known laws of physics didn’t apply in the past. But of course, that’s the sort of argument that theists get crucified over: explaining away evidence by claiming exceptions to the known rules.

    We should hypothesize a very simple metaphysical entity before a very complex one, namely God.

    (I assume you don’t mean that you personally believe in a metaphysical entity, but call it something other than God.)

    Perhaps your highly speculative theory of an oscillating universe is within the realm of possibility; and arguably it is probably (on balance) a simpler hypothesis than my complex entity, God.

    On the other hand, the hypothesis addresses only one of the three objections I’ve raised. You concede, I imagine, that the laws of physics were in effect when life first arose. The oscillating universe is unable to explain that event. So here you have to propose a second highly speculative hypothesis; whereas I’m sticking with my original answer, God.

    And you must still address a third problem, human consciousness. I understand (though I haven’t studied the evidence yet) that the evolutionary explanations for consciousness are still far from satisfactory. Here you must appeal to speculation for a third time, while I continue to stick with my original answer, God.

    My single (if highly complex) entity is arguably a simpler, more elegant solution than your three highly speculative explanations to the three difficulties I’ve identified. So even if you’re right, and Occam’s razor applies (though I continue to doubt it), I don’t feel overly vulnerable to criticism.

    Reply

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