A Newish Argument for the Existence of God

What follows is basically a variant of the biological design argument. Nonetheless, I’m not aware of anyone putting the point in quite this way before, so I thought it was worth blogging. If I wanted to present it rigorously, I would have to do some fancy stuff with probability and assign some spurious numerical values, but hey, this is a blog and not a peer reviewed journal.

We homo sapiens share a pretty interesting combination of characteristics. I have in mind specifically:

High intelligence: we have both the inclination and ability to conduct successful inquiry into the nature of reality.

Capacity for complex relationships: not only are we highly social by nature, but we are able to form deep relationships with just about anyone or anything, given suitable prompting, even to such extremes as ‘adopting’ members of endangered species half way round the world through wildlife charities.

Thoroughgoing moral agency: we are explicitly concerned with our moral choices, engage in often extremely complex moral reasoning, and some of us make quite extraordinarily good, and some quite extraordinarily evil, ethical decisions.

Religious instinct: pretty much every human society has some concept of the sacred, and religion in some form or other is flourishing and has flourished throughout the world and throughout history. It’s clearly, in some sense, hard wired, and doesn’t look like it could feasibly go away.

Of course, it’s not simply inexplicable that a species with just this bundle of characteristics should have arisen naturally. Nonetheless, there are very many ways in which life could have developed, and there doesn’t seem to be any special reason that these characteristics should have developed together at any point. Super, search-out-the-laws-of-nature type intelligence need never have arisen, and if it did arise, it could presumably have arisen in a less communal species, if even if it did arise in a communal species, that species presumably needn’t have had any strong religious instinct. Perhaps some evolutionary biologist could turn around and tell me I’m wrong, and that in some sense these characteristics were bound to co-develop, but that claim doesn’t intuitively sound plausible, and indeed my gut-feeling is that anyone who made that claim would probably have suffered a philosophical confusion somewhere.

Yet this bundle of characteristics is precisely what (some neutral, non-creative intelligence from beyond the universe) would expect to see if the theistic hypothesis were true. It is precisely these characteristics that allow for a meaningful relationship between creator and creation. A merely communal being couldn’t entertain thoughts about a creator, a merely intelligent being couldn’t love a creator, a being without significant moral agency couldn’t respond appropriately to the goodness of a creator. Finally, the religious instinct is just the orientation of these other traits towards their purpose: relationship with the creator. So the development of what we might call the sapiens bundle (or the image of God?) is highly likely on the assumption of theism.

To review. My point is not that the sapiens bundle is unlikely on a naturalistic hypothesis. In some sense it is, but in a similar sense you could point to the distinctive features of just about anything and claim that they were unlikely on a naturalistic hypothesis. There are many ways in which  life could have developed, and insofar as any concrete lifeform represents just one way among many it is trivially unlikely that it should have developed, just as the existence of any particular human being is trivially unlikely. My point is rather that the sapiens bundle is much more likely on the theistic hypothesis than the naturalistic hypothesis, and thus it renders the theistic hypothesis relatively more probable overall. Obviously, this is far from being a knock down argument, but it does strike me as interesting consideration in favour of of theism (and, as a corollary, some kind of guided evolution view)

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I could do with explaining in at least a little more detail the principles of reasoning to which I am appealing. Consider the following example. Suppose we’re playing paintball. We were given two paintball guns, and we were told that gun x contained 100 red pellets, and that gun y contained 99 blue pellets and 1 red pellet. You fire your gun and hit me with a red pellet. Then, the paintball people decided that we hadn’t filled in our paper work properly, and take our guns away. Was your gun x or y?

We have one datum, namely, the firing of the red pellet. We can reason like this. Given how many red pellets were in gun x, we can say that the chance that x, if fired, would fire a red pellet is 1/1, whereas the chance that y, if fired, would fire a red pellet is 1/100. Thus we can say that the probability of a red pellet being fired is greater given the hypothesis that the gun fired is x than the hypothesis that the gun fired is y. Given this greater probability, the actual firing of the red pellet supports the hypothesis that your gun was x better than the hypothesis that it was y. We therefore have good prima facie grounds to accept the hypothesis that your gun was x.

Bringing us back to the argument above. Our datum is the development of the sapiens bundle. Our two hypotheses are theism and naturalism. My contention is that the sapiens bundle supports the theistic hypothesis over the naturalistic hypothesis in much the same way the red pellet supports the gun x hypothesis over the gun y hypothesis.

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2 thoughts on “A Newish Argument for the Existence of God

  1. Nice post, Alec, very elegantly written. I’d like to add a few things.
    1) It’s quite a specific theistic hypothesis you’re referring to, namely, that a type of God exists who is likely to create social, intelligent, moral, worshipful creatures. I realise that this is exactly what most actual theists believe but it’s not obvious to me that the simplified ‘God of the philosophers’ – omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent – would be highly likely to create such creatures.
    2) There is some interesting evolutionary biology on the ‘religious instinct’. For example, it might have arisen as a by-product of a ‘hyperactive agency detection device’ – a propensity to assign agency can be very useful for a species’ survival. If Mr Caveman hears a rustling in the bushes, it is best if he instinctively assumes that there is something/someone there and legs it, rather than sticking around to assess the probabilities.
    3) There’s also a good chance that the probabilities of the characteristics you discuss are not independent. For example, religion is very socially useful, so the chance of a species evolving to be both (A) sociable and (B) having a religious instinct is not just P(A)*P(B).

  2. Re, getting from theism to creatures like us. I put it like this on facebook: ‘Let’s focus on the three traits of intelligence, sociality, and a religious instinct. I explain the development of these three traits as follows. There exists an omnipotent being whose nature it is to love. As this being’s nature is to love, we would fairly expect it to create beings in order to enter into loving relationship with them. So we would fairly expect it to create beings that are intelligent, social, and possess a religious instinct.’

    To take the next two points together. I agree that there are plausible naturalistic mechanisms that could explain our religiosity, and that our being intelligent and social makes it more likely that we should be religious. But my point is that it was a delicate cocktail of mutations and environmental pressures that got us where we are. Looking at the actual variety of life, and the complexity of the operations involved, it seems fair to suppose that a) the cocktail of factors involved could have differed in very many ways, and b) had the cocktail differed only a little, we would not be nearly as suited to entering into a loving relationship with God as characterised above. Thus the chances of ‘God-suitedness’ developing naturally are low, and the chances ‘God-suitedness’ developing with the aid of God is high. Thus the fact of God-suitedness supports the hypothesis of theism more strongly than does the hypothesis of naturalism.

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