These days, popular argument about the existence of God remind me a bit of my learning about snakes on moving to the US. Of course when I first arrived I expected to see them slithering up and down the walls, but although it’s nothing so Indiana Jones-esque, common sense leads one to learn at least a little. One useful skill is being able to differentiate the highly venomous Coral Snake from the non-venomous Scarlet Kingsnake. At first sight, they look similar, but with a little extra information, and the following rhyme as a reminder, they’re easy to tell apart: “Red on yellow kills a fellow, red on black venom lack.”
The basic lesson is, make sure you know which is which, and if you want to mess with a Coral Snake, you’d better know what you’re doing. I just wish the current batch of atheist apologists – a lot of what I see from them looks remarkably like defense of a faith – would take the same approach.
Take, for example, the following argument attacked by Richard Dawkins at the beginning of Chapter 3 of his “The God Delusion”:
“There must have been a time when no physical things existed. But, since physical things exist now, there must have been something non-physical to bring them into existence, and that something we call God”
- Every thing was caused by something else
- Every thing that caused something else was itself caused by something else
- Every thing that caused something else that caused something else was itself caused by something else
- So the thing that started it all is God
Now one of the most obvious clues that the above is not the argument made by minds as bright (I said merely “bright”, which is not always the same as “right” – see, always watch out for mimicry) as Thomas Aquinas, is that it is so clearly invalid as to be brain-dead. How can anyone of any intellectual capacity today, think that someone of Aquinas’s intellectual capacity in the 13th century would ever fail to notice that the conclusion of the above contradicts the first premise? A far more likely explanation is that neither the above, nor Dawkins’s version, actually is the Cosmological Argument. Rather, it is to the actual Cosmological Argument what the King Snake is to the Coral Snake, an innocuous mimic of a far more dangerous, weaponized species.
Look, if I, someone with no formal training in biological science let alone zoology, were to think that I had produced an argument refuting Dawkins’s position on the Concord Fallacy, my first (and second, and third, …) and most sensible response would be to check my work again, and assume until I had done that I’d made a mistake. If I, even though I do have some formal training in Physics, were to think I’d come up with something to show that Hawking Radiation was a figment of Hawking’s imagination, once again I’d be advised to keep my mouth shut and go review my argument – a lot – before risking public ridicule. Those cautionary notes are not my succumbing to arguments from authority. They are sensible strategies built on lots of experience that when rank amateurs tackle professionals, they are usually (although not always) talking nonsense. And the reason is simple, and obvious. It is increasingly difficult, and therefore rare, for one to be able to make useful contributions to Zoology, or Cosmology, without first accumulating the now extensive background intellectual structures, skills, and discipline needed first to understand the position one is then trying to refute or augment.
But precisely the same applies to the philosophy and metaphysics upon which the actual Cosmological Argument of Aquinas are based. As with the snakes, King and Coral, a superficial glance at the theistic arguments, Phantasmagorical and Cosmological, makes them appear similar, but it’s not too hard to tell the difference once what knows what to look for. The clue is in the first premise of each argument. Here, again, is that premise from the Phantasmagorical Argument:
- Every thing has a cause
And now here is the far more dangerous first premise from the Cosmological Argument:
- Every contingent thing has a cause
And in that word "contingent" lies the Cosmological Argument’s powerful venom, a venom entirely lacking in its innocuous Phantasmagorical mimic. Contingency is what explains why the following examples are useless as refutations of the Cosmological Argument:
- Well what caused God then? Nothing; God is argued (argued, not asserted) as being necessary. That's the bloody point! The fact this objection is even raised shows the objector hasn't understood the thing in the first place.
- Why can't The Universe itself be the first cause? Because it's contingent. Again, the point is being missed. The Universe is made up of bits and pieces, flying around and banging off each other, and, crucially, need not have been that way. God, by comparison, is argued as being profoundly simple, not contingent, and a necessary being (or, more subtly, not is a being, but is being).
- Well what about the Flying Spaghetti Monster as God? Same deal. I mean, all that spaghetti and those meatballs slithering about, and the sauce getting everywhere on the cosmic tablecloth -- that's all contingent and demands an explanation.
- Well Lawrence Krauss has shown it all just popped up out of "nothing"? Oh Gawd.
Of course, fully to grasp the Cosmological Argument, or to attempt to refute it, one needs a lot more than just an awareness of that extra word. At the heart of such arguments are extremely sophisticated concepts, and arguments thereon, of: being, nothing, cause, actuality, potency, and so on. Tackling such things is possible by anyone of reasonable intelligence who is prepared to put in a lot of work, but you have to do the work, and the majority of what we see among the so-called "new" atheists isn't backed by that work. (I do make an at least temporary exception in the case of Sam Harris, whose views on consciousness and on "sprituality" suggest a much deeper level of analysis on his part, and so make me think he may be a new atheist with whom I could do business.)
For me, there’s still a puzzle though. I’ve already argued that if you think you’ve spotted sheer stupidity on the part of someone smart, you’re probably wrong. And I have to apply the same here to Dawkins. Richard – may I call you Richard, Richard? – is clearly not stupid; not in general anyway. Before he turned into what seems to be a ranting slavering anti-religious-person menace, I read and loved several of his earlier books. This is not a silly man; again, not in general anyway. Even when asserting, in “The God Delusion”, that Aquinas’s position is vacuous, he notes: “though I hesitate to say so, given his eminence”. So Richard seems to suspect that there may be more to Aquinas than he yet understands; he seems to sense that he may be walking into a bigger fight here than he has been able to see. And in that sense, he’s right. He thought he was dealing with a King Snake, when in fact he had picked up a Coral Snake. So why does he persist?
I can think of one reason. Dawkins – I think we need to revert to surnames for this – is, I believe, on the one hand a compassionate man. He is attacking religion because he genuinely believes that it has been and continues as a source of immense suffering for mankind. And insofar as arguing that some, even a lot of suffering, has arisen for religious motives, he’ll will get no arguments from me. But on the other hand, his compassion seems to be being smothered by its near enemy of righteous anger. And it, in turn, is degenerating into hatred and vitriol.
And as a result, Dawkins seems to have left the path of reason and, yes, of even the scientific method. He has backed himself into an emotional corner of faith-based fervor from which it may be extremely difficult to escape. It’s a shame, when a once bright and agile mind goes all religious on us, isn’t it?