Before we move on to the cosmological argument, I want to first add a few more observations on the teleological argument, but even before I do that, I want to take some time to review the series to date. This is now the tenth article, and it seems that some words of reminder are in order regarding the scope and purpose of this project.
The hard questions
We need to have firm reasons for our belief, and that is why I have attempted to write concise yet substantive articles on cogent issues in apologetics. Living a life of faith, especially in our present society, requires a sturdy and well-founded rationale for one’s beliefs. Yet we are often beset by doubt when we dare ask ourselves the Hard Questions. How do we know that our faith is really true? How can we lead a life that calls for self-denial and self-sacrifice unless we are certain of an ultimate reward (not because of our works, but by God’s grace)? We often think that those who fall away do so because of the enticements of the world, the desires of ambition, immorality, and social convention. We all have enticements to challenge us, but those who can answer the questions of faith overcome them.
The series hopes to enhance belief by dealing with these hard questions, the irresolution of which debilitates faith. We started with the problem of evil, easily the most vexing issue of apologetics, and one with very far-reaching implications. We continued with a footnote to that issue when we discussed the fairness (and justice) of God. Then we moved on to our present discussion, the big question, that of the very existence of God.
After we present the various evidences and arguments in the case for theism, we will then segue into the next logical topic, which God. That is, we will begin to explore a number of issues related to our particular understanding of God, in comparison and contrast with other religious persuasions, past and present. We will call this the issue of exclusivity. Also, at some point soon I plan to insert an article or two of extracts from a 17th century book on apologetics that has much to tell us today.
Presuppositions, methodology, and evidence
I want to move now to a matter alluded to in the introductory article, that of presuppositions and process issues. When asserting any position on a matter, we just can’t present facts and claim victory. Any instance of persuasive rhetoric is embedded in a broader view of human experience, which includes how we obtain and process information.
For instance, in the last article I presented the argument that the particular configuration of many physical parameters of the universe strongly suggests a planned intelligent design. This presupposes that: (1) Humans are able to accurately determine such data; (2) We are capable of the appropriate use of the data for evidence; (3) That there is a real connection between the evidence and the existence of God, and so on. In other words, when we take up an issue, we are assuming the existence of a number of perceptual (how we sense the world), cognitive (how our brain processes sense information), and epistemological (how we know things) issues. We can call the discussion of these presuppositions (or assumptions) “process issues.”
For example, a big process issue arises at the conclusion of an argument when we say, “because of these data, we conclude that God exists.” But there’s a big step from saying that “these data demonstrate a supernatural intelligence,” to identifying that intelligence as the God of Christianity, and even more in particular, our Christadelphian belief. This big step involves transferring the argument from science to theology. The leap from fact to God might seem obvious to those entrenched in theistic assumptions, but an agnostic or atheist will say, “Wait a minute. You haven’t proven anything, let alone the God of your belief.” What we might pass over unawares on any given issue is what we call a presupposition. The structure of atheism or agnosticism (religious skepticism) often involves raising awareness about these presuppositions.
Skepticism is the process of pointing out various places in our reasoning where we can draw unwarranted conclusions. Skeptics like to notice issues such as the possible defects in our sensory equipment, the inability of humans to know nature “as it really is,” the limitations of our cognitive apparatus, the limitations of knowledge, and so on. Inasmuch as unbelief and skepticism are closely aligned, and our job is to counter unbelief, we need to recognize these factors, and not just trot out some highly specific data and persuasively assert a proof of God. We need to recognize the structure of atheist belief formation. To meet the challenges of skepticism, we need to validate both what we believe and how we believe it.1
For the most part, however, we will continue to assume that our standard patterns of argumentation are valid. Yes, we can be mistaken. Yes, we have finite minds and only five senses. But as I’ve said all along, we aren’t going for proof, we’re going for the most rational explanation, because that’s all we can do as humans. It would be foolish indeed to reject theism in favor of “Well, you can’t prove it, so I’ll stay agnostic.” That’s manifestly irrational.
Later in this article I will list some process issues regarding how we sense and utilize data that informs the teleological argument.
Social and emotional factors in forming beliefs
I have also wanted to specifically raise the role of social and emotional factors in forming belief systems. In the first few articles on theodicy, I did note the emotional impact of tragedy and suffering and how that affected people’s processing the problem of evil. Emotional considerations go far beyond theodicy discussions, however.
Most of us like to think that we are rational characters, and that we form our beliefs based on the best available evidence for a matter. The sciences particularly adhere to this principle, at least in writing. However, it is all too common for people to not even recognize that their beliefs are only serving social and emotional functions. People don’t reject the faith for rational reasons; the truth of the matter is they simply don’t want to live under (what they perceive as) moral constraints or social awkwardness. Perhaps they have ambitions and desire for ease and leisure, or they need to appear erudite and sophisticated. Maybe they succumb to other factors such as those nominated in the parable of the sower, for instance.
One argument in support of the worldview we call “the Truth” is that there isn’t any temporal social gain to be had by being a believer.2 Society doesn’t reward or reinforce religious sectarianism and moral absolutism. It requires a strong rational belief system to overcome the daily desire to just want to melt into the crowd and give up the fight against the flesh. And it certainly won’t get any easier as the world continues into its whirlpool of immorality, materialism, ambition, militarism, and subjective acceptance of everyone except those who actually hold real values. We don’t believe the truth for any secondary gain. You won’t get rich, famous, or respected by being a humble servant of Christ.
Are we ever certain?
In this endeavor we are not dealing with data such as are amenable to a mathematical proof. We all generally agree that we do have reasons (a presupposition that we are rational beings) for our beliefs, that we all have beliefs of some sort, that even those who list themselves as “agnostic” do have beliefs. My goal is to show that the general biblical world-view is the best choice we have, by far. It is coherent, morally impeccable, and it just makes common sense. In later articles we will see that the moral component also largely testifies to its veracity.
We all must make choices in life, and we want to make the best ones. To make no decision is a decision; it is the decision to make no decision. No one can delay life. The Bible worldview emphasizes the basics: life and death. A mature person cannot live a single day without recognizing that they are a day closer to death, a day closer to the day when our decisions of life will come to full fruition. We cannot delay a decision in hopes of someday getting all the possible knowledge of the world. We will never have that luxury, but we don’t need it. While we will never be absolutely certain, we do have more than adequate evidence on hand in a great many areas of inquiry to substantiate what we believe. To live as if these things were not so is folly and self-deception.
I would love to expand these thoughts and go into detail about the nature of sense perception, cognition, belief-formation, and the like. Perhaps if this series of articles becomes the basis for a book, I shall have the opportunity to do so.
Some questions raised by the teleological argument
An observation tells as much about the observer as the observed.
We will now discuss some process issues inherent in the teleological argument. As you recall from last month’s article, this argument draws on the orderliness and design of the universe. Modern forms of the argument rely on measurements of physical parameters such as wavelength, distance, mass, and force. In many situations, these parameters have precise values, so that if they varied ever so slightly, life could not exist. The argument states that this level of accuracy and precision requires an intelligent designer, namely God. Chance occurrence of all these parameters being “just right” is truly absurd. It is not a rational option.
I want to now raise a few peripheral questions regarding how we understand and use the data that informs the teleological argument. I don’t think the argument itself is at risk, but it is a good exercise for us to be aware of how we perceive, process, and apply data. We will consider our position as observers of the universe, and then raise a few points of discussion regarding what and how we observe.
Our observations of the universe, we smugly report, tell us much about its history, structure, and behavior. But what do these same observations reveal about the observers? They at least say we are an inquisitive and inventive lot! Let’s look a bit further.
We will first consider matters of scale, because what we consider enormous or infinitesimal is relative to our normal experience of life. To the nearest order of magnitude, Homo sapiens is one (100) meter long, (that is, closer to one meter than to ten meters or one-tenth of a meter), has a mass of 102 kg, and a life span of 102 years.3 Where do these measurements fall on a universal scale? Let’s start with the distance to the sun, a huge figure by our estimation. The average distance from Earth to the Sun (known as 1 Astronomical Unit, or AU) is about 1.5×1011 meters, or 11 orders of magnitude greater than the length of an average human. As for mass, we’re nothing compared to the sun (1030 kg). We consider a 20-microgram (2×10-5g) flea tiny, but a flea, in turn, is enormous compared to a protein molecule, which would have a mass on the order of 10-21g, or 1 zeptogram.4
From this consideration of our place in the hierarchies of nature, we can propose at least five questions or musings for further reflection.
1. Limits of Natural Experience.
Our natural, unaided senses and cognitive abilities allow us to experience and comprehend only those aspects of the world that lie within a few orders of magnitude of our own dimensions. For instance, we can see items only as small as about 10-4 meter (one-tenth of a millimeter, about a hair’s breadth). Going the other direction, we can readily visualize or imagine distances on the order of 106 meters, or about the distance fromWashington,D.C. toChicago. Another two orders of magnitude and we’re out of our world, so to speak. We can, of course, see with the naked eye celestial objects many light-years away; we can measure their distance, but we can’t form any mental image of that distance. We can estimate and form a good mental image of masses up to, say, a few thousand kilograms. But could we do the same for a planet?
When we call things “incomprehensibly” long or short or big or small it only fixes our position in the scale of nature — these are relative values to our normal frames of reference. What if we occupied a different place in the scale of nature?5
2. Scale and belief.
Is our position on the scale of nature part of God’s design to help us understand concepts such as eternity and infinity, attributes of the kingdom? We need to be overwhelmed beyond our senses, because that’s as close as we can come in the mortal realm to appreciating that realm which is beyond measurement. Perhaps the incomprehensible expanse of the universe is part of God’s design to help us understand our insignificance and give us at least some tangible representation of the overwhelming concepts of endless time and space. A naked-eye view of the expanse of the heavens is probably the most overwhelming unaided sensory experience we can have. Perhaps that is why God used the physical heavens to represent eternity and infinity to Abraham (Gen. 15:6). God had Abraham view the night sky, and then proclaimed, “so shall your seed be,” not referring to multitudes of descendants, but to the resurrected eternal nature of the single seed, the Lord Jesus Christ.6
3. Technology-expanded sensory ability.
Do we have adequate cognitive capacity to appropriately handle such data? Technology has given us, so to speak, more extensive sensory capacity. We can see objects so small that no one until relatively recently in history could even imagine their existence. We can measure the heat inside the sun and the speed of light and the gravity of Neptune. We can measure the electrical transactions of brain waves, “see” infrared like a bee does, and so on. We have augmented our five senses so that we can sense the universe and nature in ways unimaginable just a few generations ago.
With technologically enhanced sense perception, we have far exceeded our cognitive ability to form mental images of the data we obtain. Even though we can easily measure 10-6 seconds, no human can form a mental image of that small a time increment. We can do the mathematical operations, of course, but we get to a range where numbers cease to have meaning. What’s the difference if we said the sun is 93,000,000 miles away or 93,000,000,000? Sure, that’s a big difference mathematically and scientifically, but I’m just talking about forming a conceptual image of quantities far from our normal experience. When we get to galactic measurements, we are dealing with orders of magnitude so far from our ordinary experience that these numbers have no meaning other than “beyond comprehension.”
4. Technology and belief.
Can technologically obtained data about the universe possibly be necessary for believing in God? Obviously not — consider the example of Abraham cited above. Only a few hundred years ago, humans had little quantitative comprehension of physical matters. People knew that stars were very far away, but no one thought in terms of galaxies, light-years, and subatomic structures, for instance.7 The staggering, beyond-comprehension numbers we encounter result from the technological expansion of our sensory abilities.
The currently available catalogue of precise values for life-critical cosmological and physical parameters, impressive though it is, is at best incidental to our belief. Technology can enhance our belief, or it can, in the minds of some, pretty much put God out of business (see quote below).
5. Technology and theology.
It is one thing to say that the structure of the physical universe requires an intelligent creator, but are we then justified in identifying that intelligent source as the God of our traditional understanding? Clearly, there is more to the argument that must enter the discussion at this point. We can’t set out a series of (to our sensibilities) impressive data and then say, “See, this proves the existence of the God of the Bible.” We need to fill in some gaps here.
When we say something can’t just happen, but has to have a designing force behind it, then we are only arguing for a designing force. Other attributes of that force must come from other evidences and other lines of analysis. Some materialist scientists might acknowledge even some superior form of force, but that’s as far as they’ll go. If such a person can find any sort of way to exclude God as a causative or designing entity by showing the universe has no need of such, then that person’s quest for truth has ended.
God, in the full personal sense of our belief, is far more than just a designer. We don’t get the fullness of God from just these sorts of philosophical and scientific musings. The evidence provided by the teleological (and cosmological, to follow) arguments does not directly prove the God of our worship. It is an important, and, for many people, a necessary start. Moving from “an unknown force” to YHWH, our Heavenly Father, is a project that we will light upon many times in future articles, God willing.
We will now turn, finally, to an introduction to the cosmological argument. Unlike the teleological argument, which depended on specific data and patterns of nature, the cosmological argument (at least in the form that we will investigate) is refreshingly simple. The former stresses design and specificity, the latter seeks to locate the cause of the universe in general.
As a way of “throwing down the gauntlet,” we will introduce this section by quoting materialist scientist Carl Sagan:
This book is about God…or perhaps the absence of God. The word God fills these pages. Hawking embarks on a quest to answer Einstein’s famous question about whether God had any choice in creating the universe. Hawking is attempting, as he explicitly states, to understand the mind of God. And this makes all the more unexpected the conclusion to the effort, at least so far: a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end in time, and nothing for a Creator to do.8
Sagan’s conception of God is limited to being a cause of the material universe. If he can formulate a “causeless universe,” then he can proclaim, “See, we don’t need God after all.” As we continue to examine the cosmological argument, we will expose this fallacy, and show how we can progress from a “mere” mechanical God of causation and design to the personal God of our worship and salvation.
David Levin, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
1. Would that the anti-theists were so exacting in their arguments. The field of organic evolution is rife with speculations, assumptions, and extravagant extrapolations. Again, a story for another day.
2. Yes, I know of all the inward satisfactions, but I’m talking about living in our world as a person of faith. It’s an oddball life of being “other,” not fitting in, differing from the conventions of society at every step.
3. “Order of magnitude” means “the nearest multiple of ten.” Orders of magnitude are expressed as powers of ten. Any number to the zero power (e.g., 100)= 1, and any number to the first power is itself. For a really neat demonstration of powers of ten in distances, go to http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/primer/java/scienceopticsu/powersof10/. This website shows successive images, starting with a view of the Milky Way from ten million light-years away (1023 meters). Each image zooms in by one order of magnitude (ten times closer), until we see a single leaf on an oak tree, and then it goes microscopic, down to subatomic structure on the order of 10-15 meters.
5. Voltaire wrote a clever little fantasy tale, Micromegas, which I recommend highly. In it, two space aliens, endowed with different scales of reference, visit Earth. The story shows us how limited we are indeed in understanding our place in the universe.
6. For a full explanation of the figures of speech used to describe the seed of Abraham, see my article in the July, 1998 Tidings pp. 265-268.
7.Eratosthenes (c. 273-192 B.C.) accurately calculated the distance to the sun and the circumference of the earth. Those must have been considered remarkable figures in his day.
8 Introduction to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.New York: Bantam Books, 1988.