Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Response to McCloskey

              Is the existence of God tenable? Do the so-called arguments for the existence of God have any truth-value? Can an atheist live a more fulfilled and ultimately more comfortable life? H.J. McCloskey attempts to answer these questions and more in his treatise On Being an Atheist. McCloskey claims that atheism, not theism is a better explanation for the world we observe. In this paper I shall tackle some objections McCloskey makes about the “proofs” of God, namely the Cosmological and Teleological Arguments. I will then focus on answering his objections to a morally perfect God who would allow evil to exist in a world he created. Lastly I will look at McCloskey’s claim that life, as an atheist, is more comfortable than a life based on the belief in a supreme being.
            Within the first few paragraphs of his paper McCloskey consistently refers to the arguments for God’s existence as proofs. What does he mean by proofs? Is he placing an all to heavy burden on these arguments, burdens that need not be applied? McCloskey goes too far in suggesting that we need to prove the existence of God conclusively. What things are known with absolute certainty outside of particular branches of mathematics like geometry? What should be said rather is that upon examining and evaluating the arguments for God one could draw the conclusion from the premises in these arguments that they represent the most probable answer to the questions raised about design in the universe, the cause of the universe and the existence of moral values and duties. As theists, we are not trying to present any one argument as the sole case for God, rather we are attempting to build a coat of chain mail in which each link adds to the overall strength of the armor, or in this case sum total for the validity of belief in God. This is a cumulative approach to reasoning the existence of a necessary, all-powerful, immutable, immaterial, incorporeal being, and we call this being God. We need not prove God exists we merely need to give evidence that he is the best explanation for the universe and life we observe.

            Part of the evidence we give comes in a support role of the premises in the different forms of the cosmological argument. For example in a simple version of Leibniz’s cosmological argument it states that:
1)    Anything that begins to exist has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.
2)    If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
3)    The universe exists.
4)    Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence.
5)    Therefore, the explanation of the existence of the universe is God.[1]
Reflecting on this argument we see it alluding to the existence of a necessarily existing cause of the universe, namely God. But would God need a cause at this point? Wouldn’t this lead to an infinite regress of causes? Evans answers this question for us when he rightly states that a necessary being is the only cause that removes the need for an infinite regress of causes.[2] Without an uncaused cause the universe would have just popped itself into being as Daniel Dennett suggests, in the ultimate bootstrapping trick.[3] However, there are only two things that could explain the physical existence of the universe that exist necessarily; abstract objects like numbers and minds or intelligences. Nevertheless, abstract objects do not stand in causal relations to one another, for example the number 7 doesn’t cause anything. You are left with one option at this point. The later is the historical understanding of God, namely that he is spirit or an unembodied mind. Even if we assume a non-temporal state of affairs it still does not hold that God is contingent. If he is to be called God, the greatest conceivable being, then existence, and necessary existence seems to be a quality of maximal greatness. Could we imagine maximal greatness not including the property of necessary existence? Would a being who is contingent really be considered maximally great? I think not.
            McCloskey continues his assault on the cosmological argument when he claims that it does not allow us to postulate an all-powerful, all-perfect, uncaused cause of the universe, all it allows is that the cause is powerful and imperfect enough to create the world in which we observe.[4] First, McCloskey assumes that because of his observation of the world that its cause must be flawed in some way. This clearly begs the question for atheism for he assumes like most atheists do that a good God could not allow evil to exist. We shall deal with this point later. Second, again McCloskey overstates the point. The argument does not try to show a perfect being as the cause of the universe, it merely addresses the need for a cause and for that cause to be necessary and not contingent as Evans rightly points to.[5] Though we could infer the other qualities of God from the cosmological argument, such as his omnipotence, that is not the chief aim of the argument. As I stated previously, the arguments for God are best when they are viewed as a cumulative case and not individually, though certainly these arguments are somewhat convincing on their own. Lastly, as mentioned above with Leibniz’s argument you are left with only two options, contingent and necessary explanations of the universe. One could argue that God must then need a cause for his existence. But that is misdiagnosed. God does not need a cause for he is eternal; his existence is required from his necessity. As the argument aptly states, anything that begins to exist has an explanation. The key word is begins to exist. Clearly the universe had a finite beginning according to modern cosmology, and even if you don’t grant a finite beginning to the universe, anything that we observe physically has a cause for its existence. To illustrate this, imagine that physical objects or beings did not have a cause. Anything and everything could pop into existence uncaused out of thin air. What is stopping a purple elephant from landing on my computer at this very second? Does McCloskey really believe that prior to the universe existing that there was nothing, no God, no space, no time and that it somehow came into existence?[6] But that is exactly what he is affirming if he continues to hold that the universe had no cause.
            Next McCloskey yet again places too heavy a burden on the arguments for God’s existence. The argument from design in the universe, the teleological argument, attempts to show the existence of a designer from the observable design in the universe. Indisputable evidence is not the purpose here. What indisputable evidence does McCloskey have that shows atheism is true about design? We need not show indisputable evidence; rather we must show inference to the best explanation. The cosmological constants have been so finely tuned so that if we altered any of the values on the smallest of scales, the universe, as we know it would not exist. In fact, as Evans points out, the odds of a single universe having the exact constants and quantities possible for the existence of life are so infinitesimally small.[7] To give an example of the likelihood of our life-permitting universe existing amongst the plethora of life-prohibiting universes, we should draw on the illustration of the lottery. Say for example that you had one red ball and a few billion black ones. Now while it is certainly true that the probability of choosing the one ball that is selected is fantastically improbable; nevertheless it is overwhelmingly more probable that any ball being chosen is a black one and not red. This is how we can view our universe or any other life-permitting universe. It is incomprehensibly improbable that such a universe exists with all the other life-prohibiting universes. It is this specified improbability that presents the most difficult hurdle for the chance hypothesis.[8]
            McCloskey implies next that the evidence of design is in fact illusory, as these evidences were dismantled as a result of the discovery of Darwinian evolution.[9] If we grant evolution in this case we are still not beholden to chance as a reasonable hypothesis for the design in the universe or the function of evolution. The role of evolution can be better explained if we invoke an intelligent designer. On the chance hypothesis, we just happen to be lucky enough to observe evolution operating as it does, but is this a plausible solution? Would it not be better said that, we observe the mechanism of evolution because it was properly designed? Just like a shoe manufacturer has a machine with a mechanized process that produces a shoe, should we not also seek to find out who designed the machine and analyze the designer’s purposes? Surely one would not infer a blind designer, for this seems illogical. Again, a cosmic designer best explains the design in the universe. Some, like Richard Dawkins, postulate that the designer must then be a complex entity to have designed such complexities.[10] But Dawkins misunderstands a mind’s idea with the mind itself. Surely ideas can be conceived as complex, yet the mind itself is simple, thus making the difficulty of a complex designer far more simplistic.
            Lastly McCloskey once again places a weighty burden on the teleological argument, one that should not be. Because of the seemingly imperfect state of the creation, McCloskey believes that this is evidence against a divine design. However we need not show that this designer can create a perfect design, or that the designer himself is perfect. All we need to do is infer something is the best explanation; we need not be able to explain that explanation.[11] If an archaeologist is digging and discovers some pottery shards in the sand, they are completely within their right to claim that these are the result of some unknown group of people rather than some Star Trek like materialization of particles from no where. They need not explain or know more about these people, just that they were the most probable explanation for the materials discovered. 
            The main brunt of McCloskey’s assault is levied against the theist with the ammunition of the problem of evil. It is true this has historically been the greatest objection to theism and more specifically Christianity. However, we can address this problem in a few different ways. The logical problem of evil attempts to show that the existence of evil and the existence of God are logically incompatible.[12] First, we are not in a position as finite beings to assume that God has no possible use for evil in the world. God very well could have a purpose for allowing moral evil in the world, however this purpose may not always be evident to the creatures viewing it. It may take countless generations to finally realize the purpose of suffering, yet again we are no in a position as limited creatures to make such an assessment of evil. Second, the very existence of evil seems to imply the existence of good. How could we determine evil if there was no objective standard of good? How could someone be courageous without the possibility of harm?[13] McCloskey in his attempt to blame theists and God for the implication for evil in the world has undoubtedly placed the burden of proof squarely on his own shoulders. Give me some proof that God does not have good reasons for allowing evil. Show how the existence of God and evil are logically incompatible. If he cannot do so in a convincing fashion he has defeated his very own argument, and as we have seen atheists cannot provide evidence against the logical compatibility of God and evil.
            McCloskey finally addresses the issue of free will in reference to the actuality of evil. McCloskey boldly asserts that God could have easily ordered the world that man would always freely chose what is right.[14] Right from the start his assertion is fallacious. How can one be free to make decisions, namely to choose right, while at the same time being causally determined to choose what is right? These are clear contradictions of one another. Now if we grant that there is a logically possible world in which free creatures always freely chose to do what’s right that does not follow that God can in fact create this world. According to philosopher Alvin Plantinga, there are some logically possible worlds that God cannot create, the possible worlds God could create depends on the free decisions made by the creatures in that world.[15] Plantinga gives an example of the condition he calls transworld depravity in which a creature with this condition will freely choose to do some evil in every possible world.[16] This is the free will defense. It is not describing what God’s actual reasons are rather what God’s reasons could be for allowing evil.
            As a final attempt to appeal the attractiveness of atheism versus theism McCloskey makes the assumption that the life led by atheist is more comfortable than that of theists. The theist’s suffering are the direct cause of God if McCloskey is right and this same being that caused your suffering is also the one you come to for comfort. In this scenario it is certainly shown to be a miserable existence to have a God who both causes and comforts your pain. However, is this really the case? Does God look down on his creatures and look for an opportunity to inflict pain and suffering on them only to come to their rescue the next instance? This would only be possible on a deterministic view of God. Nonetheless, given libertarian free will how can this be logically possible?
If the atheist does assume his life has more meaning, value and purpose he has certainly bought into the noble lie introduced by L.D. Rue. Without the existence of God and immortality life has no ultimate purpose. Certainly you can perceive value in your life but if the universe ultimately ends up a cold desolate place what ultimate value does your life have? Notice I am not saying that one must believe in God to have meaning in their life, but his existence is necessary for this to be the case. Thinking about Pascal’s wager here will illustrate the state of the atheist and his deception quite nicely. If a believer dies and there is no God he has lost nothing, and if he dies and God does exist he has infinite gains. On the contrary if an atheist dies and there is no God he has lost nothing, but if he dies and God does exist then he has lost ultimately. The atheist’s life would be tragic here because his downside potential is infinite while the theists are zero.
A last point about the problem of evil; on what grounds is McCloskey claiming an action is evil? How is he determining his moral values? Surely he does not believe moral values are relative, for he is affirming the suffering of innocent people as an objective standard. Yet on atheism one cannot do this. If the atheist is right and there is no God then Dostoyevsky comment that all things are permitted is validated. However, then evil and good would cease to exist. How then could you lead a moral, or in this case more comfortable life? Morality is meaningless in a relativistic world, so how does McCloskey blame evil on God? For the atheist to be truly happy he must live consistently, however if the atheist did live consistently he could not possibly be happy considering the ultimate value, purpose and meaning of their live without the existence of God. Thus it can be seen that theism is far more comforting than atheism.
I have shown evidence here that that claims raised by McCloskey about the arguments of God have been for the most part misdirected and ill-conceived. The strength of the theistic arguments for God relies on their working in unison with one another to provide a comprehensive argument for the existence of God.  The evidence of design in the universe is decidedly the cause of a cosmic designer and not chance. Though the problem of evil is certainly pervasive it in no way implies the non-existence of God. Yes there is a certain emotional aspect to the problem of evil that cannot be ignored nor answered easily in a conventional way, however I believe theism has a better explanation and value of comfort than a cold, meaningless, purposeless existence given atheism. I will close with some words from William Lane Craig,
“If God does not exist, then life is futile. If the God of the Bible does exist, then life is meaningful. Only the second of these two alternatives enables us to live happily and consistently…It seems to me positively irrational to prefer death, futility and destruction to life, meaningfulness and happiness.”[17]

[1]             William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed., (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2008), 106.
[2]             C. Stephen Evans and R. Zachary Manis, Philosophy of Religion, ed. C. Stephen Evans, 2nd ed., (Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 69.
[3]             Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, (New York: Viking, 2006), 244.
[4]             H.J. McCloskey, “On Being an Atheist,” Question 1 (1968): 63.
[5]             Evans and Manis, 77.
[6]             Craig, 113.
[7]             Evans, 84.
[8]             Craig, 165.
[9]             McCloskey, 64.
[10]             Craig, 171.
[11]             William Lane Craig, “Richard Dawkins on Arguments for God,” in God is Good God is Great: Why Believing in God is Reasonable and Responsible, ed. William Lane Craig and Chad Meister, (Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 27.
[12]             Evans, 158.
[13]             Ibid, 160.
[14]             McCloskey, 66.
[15]             Evans, 165.
[16]             Ibid, 165.
[17]             Craig, Reasonable Faith, 86.


  1. Chris wrote:
    "Show how the existence of God and evil are logically incompatible."

    The belief in a good God sure doesn't seem more-compatible-than-not with the reality of evil/suffering. The apologist can show that incompatibility can't be PROVEN (as expected), but can't show that the belief actually lends itself well to compatibility.

    The arguments for incompatibility (between a good God and evil/suffering) are much more compelling to me, and much simpler. Here's the belief: A good/loving God created a world of diverse and beautiful lifeforms that must survive by killing and eating each other. That airs on the inconsistent side, not the consistent side. You may show that's it's not logically impossible, but it seems to me that's all the further you'll get. "Compatible" and "probable" are still miles off. And disproving incompatibility is not a great feat, it can be done with virtually any belief, true or false.

    Chris wrote:
    "McCloskey boldly asserts that God could have easily ordered the world that man would always freely chose what is right.[14] Right from the start his assertion is fallacious. How can one be free to make decisions, namely to choose right, while at the same time being causally determined to choose what is right? These are clear contradictions of one another."

    You're implying that God, while creating, was subject to some external laws of contradiction. If so, then those laws are greater than God so he's not really God. If not, then he created those laws himself, and could have created them in an infinite variety of ways.

    1. Thanks for the reply. Welcome to the new daddy group!!

      On your first point, if you are to assert that something itself is evil or that someone suffers, without an objective moral value how do you declare that God allows evil? I can at least make this assertion about evil existing because as God is properly viewed he is good, thus he provides the objectivity to moral values therefore allowing me to see the opposite of his nature, this is understood as evil. The very existence of an objective moral goodness points to the antithesis which is evil. So as I asserted this is far more logically compatible than a system of belief which does not allow for objectivity. On atheism, everything is relative, particularly in this instance with moral values. How can an atheist claim something is universally wrong on a chance hypothesis? How do you claim that, "God created a world of diverse and "Beautiful" lifeforms that must survive..." On what grounds do you claim this world is beautiful? (I am not asserting that it is not or is beautiful, I just want you to think about how you can claim such a statement given your worldview)
      Secondly, the original creation that you speak about may have been in fact a beautiful thing in which animals did not kill to survive, but with evil the result of free will decisions it is possible the world came into its current state away from a creation ideal (this is the idea of Creation Scientists, however do not merely dismiss this as ridiculous because I mentioned scientist who believe the earth is only 6,000 years old). Additionally, social constructs cannot explain universality in ethics. You must ground ethics in objectivity otherwise everything remains relative. However without grounds for objectivity on this worldview you cannot achieve your position.

      Furthermore, the arguments for God are not put forth as proofs, for that would be an impossibility. However, when viewed in their proper light, namely as an inference to the best explanation (something the judicial system uses) then we can be more certain than its denials that the inference we make is the correct one. Truly in the brief length of this academic paper I cannot reply to all of the evidences in support of even one of the premises of one argument for the existence of God however might I point you in the direction of "The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology" or "Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview" to see the evidence for these arguments as presented by the leading scholars of the day.

      On your point about laws and God, we are talking about causality and free will. If something is created free how can this creature then be expected to always choose one particular position? For example, if you were always given a choice of tacos or hamburgers for meals, an we are assuming you are a free creature, how can I assure that you will always freely choose this with out causally determining the outcome beforehand? I cannot effectively do this much in the same way you could not always guarantee your wife will cook dinner every night. With libertarian free will no decision is causally determined by another being, that is why creatures are free to choose right or wrong (which of course requires an objectivity to right and wrong, as we discussed above).

      Lastly, God is not bound by anything that is not logically contradictory. So as you assert that God could have created laws an infinite variety of ways is in itself a contradictory idea. To create a free creature who always chooses something right is a logical impossibility. Just as the concept of a married bachelor is a logical incompatibility so to is the idea that God could create a world of free creatures who always chose to do right. God cannot create lion who has scales because by the very definition of what is known as a lion they do not have scales. If there were such a creature then it would not be known as a lion but some other type of creature.

      Thanks again for the response to the post!

  2. Thanks! It's great to be in the new daddy group.

    There was a big misunderstanding in my usage of the word "evil".

    "without an objective moral value how do you declare that God allows evil?"

    I don't believe in objective/supernatural/universal evil, or objective/supernatural/universal morality. I think "Evil" is a label used by a group to describe things that are really harmful for that group. A family barbueque may be morally upright from the family's perspective, but the Foster Farms chickens on the grill, if they had a voice, would call us the most evil monsters to ever exist.

    "How can an atheist claim something is universally wrong on a chance hypothesis?"

    You're right, and I don't claim that. I will avoid the use of the word "evil" from now on, as it implies the objective/supernatural/universal. Just pretend I wrote "suffering" or "extreme harm" instead. What I do claim is that suffering and harm are "universal" within the human species (and most other species). Given our biology, gouging out a healthy human's eyeball is always harmful and causes suffering. This is an absolute fact, no relativity involved. It's these types of absolutes that I believe we derive human morality from, but alas human morality is indeed relative to the human species.

    "On what grounds do you claim this world is beautiful?"

    Surely I didn't imply universality/objectivity in beauty! Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    "However without grounds for objectivity on this worldview you cannot achieve your position."

    My position doesn't include universal objectivity.

    I'll write more later, Howie's gone cranky!

    1. You seem to view the laws of logic/contradiction as inherent and not part of God's creation. Is my assessment correct?

      It brings up interesting questions for me. (I'm switching out of debate mode here) Is it valid to ask where the laws of logic/contradiction came from? Or can we conclude they didn't come from anywere? I can see both sides.

      I suppose the laws of logic/contradiction are different from natural laws/constants. There seems to be a spectrum of types of laws, and associated difficulty in imagining those laws being different than we know them. It's not hard for me to imagine the gravitational constant being different. It's a little harder to imagine F=2MA. It's extremely hard to imagine the angles in a triangle adding up to more than 180. And it's essentially impossible for me to imagine a married bachelor.

      As it becomes more difficult for one to imagine a law being changed, is one more justified in viewing that law as unchangeable, even by God? (on the Christian worldview) Is one justified in viewing the seemingly changeable laws as designed by God, and the seemingly unchangeable laws as not designed by God? I think it gets harder to justify that stance the more one contemplates what a tiny ant farm they live in. Our perspective on laws only reaches within our ant farm, and the ant farm is completely designed (on the Christian worldview). Is it like an ant thinking that God must operate within the glass walls?

      Can I simply say that the laws of contradiction are purely linguistic/cognitive entities? Akin to Platonic forms? What are your thoughts?