Thursday, January 21, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Four, section two

Proving God’s Existence (Chapter Four, section two)

The author brings up Antony Flew, the famous atheist philosopher who, at the age of eighty one, became a believer. The author claims that it was Dr. Flew's “objective scientific research which caused his transition from atheist to believer.” What the author neglects to mention is that many of Dr. Flew’s colleagues felt that his change of heart was brought on by the infirmity of old age. Further, the belief Dr. Flew espoused was a kind of deism, a Divine force that shaped the world and does not currently interfere with it in any way. This is not the omnipotent omniscient micro-managing God of modern Judaism.

Surprisingly, Dr. Flew’s stated reason for changing his mind “is the apparent impossibility of providing a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species.“ This single problem led him to accept Intelligent Design (which we will discuss at length in a moment). While I have not read through Dr. Flew’s arguments and am not a biologist, this would seem to be an argument from ignorance. There are a number of theories that describe how abiogenesis occurred, and while a lot more work needs to be done to determine which, if any, are correct, it seems strange that a noted philosopher would make such a flimsy argument.

Next comes a sub-section titled, “Newton’s Intelligent Design Argument.”

We are treated to a story in which Newton’s “atheist friend” marvels at a clockwork model of the solar system and reacts in disbelief when Newton tells him that it just “fell together.” Newton then asks him how he can insist that the model must have a maker when he believes that the real solar system has none. The author also quotes Rabbi Akiva who said, “As a house implies a builder, a garment a weaver, and a door a carpenter, so does the existence of the universe imply a creator.”

The theological argument that design implies a designer (Argument from Design) is usually referred to as the “Watchmaker Argument” after it’s most famous form devised by Reverend William Payley in 1802. He wrote:

“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (...) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (...) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.”

The watch in Payley’s hypothetical anecdote serves the same purpose as Newton’s clockwork solar system in the example given by the author.

The argument from design was refuted by the philosopher David Hume decades before Payley expressed it as his famous Watchmaker Argument. From Wikipedia:

“[Hume] argued that for the design argument to be feasible, it must be true that order and purpose are observed only when they result from design. But order is observed regularly, resulting from presumably mindless processes like snowflake or crystal generation. Design accounts for only a tiny part of our experience with order and "purpose". Furthermore, the design argument is based on an incomplete analogy: because of our experience with objects, we can recognize human-designed ones, comparing for example a pile of stones and a brick wall. But to point to a designed Universe, we would need to have an experience of a range of different universes. As we only experience one, the analogy cannot be applied.”

While someone might try to counter the first argument by claiming that snowflakes and crystals are designed by God, this would be begging the question. It assumes God exists and is responsible for all design, therefore we see that everything that appears designed has a designer, therefore the universe, which appears designed, must have a Designer – God.

Ultimately, unless we can conclusively show that all things that appear to be designed have a designer, claiming that because one thing that appears to be designed (the watch) has a designer, another thing that appears to be designed (the universe) has a designer is a non-sequitur.

There is no answer for the second argument (not even a fallacious one). The analogy comparing the watch to the universe is powerful because it speaks to our experience. But that in itself is the rebuttal. We expect that watches are made by watchmakers because in our experience all watches come stamped with a manufacturer’s brand name. Before mass production a person could go to a watchmaker’s shop and see him put the watch together. In our experience watches are manufactured objects, so if we come across a watch we assume it is like all other watches we have seen up till that point.

On the other hand, we have no experience with universes being created. It doesn’t have any obvious manufacturer’s mark, and we weren’t around to witness it come into existence. The findings of our investigations into the origin of the universe, while they don’t rule out the existence of a Creator as the Prime Motivator, also don’t make such an assumption necessary.

So while assuming watches have creators based on our experience makes good sense, we have no similar reason to say the same for universes.

Hume goes on to point out that if “a well-ordered natural world requires a special designer, then God's mind (being so well-ordered) also requires a special designer. And then this designer would likewise need a designer, and so on ad infinitum. We could respond by resting content with an inexplicably self-ordered divine mind but then why not rest content with an inexplicably self-ordered natural world?” (Wikipedia)

As the famous joke goes:
“A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever", said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!" (Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time)

The Argument from design is, ultimately, “turtles all the way down!”

I hope that tired old arguments that were refuted hundreds of years ago isn’t the best the author can do to “scientifically” prove God exists. If it is, reading through the rest of his “proofs” is going to get annoying very quickly.


  1. I think the "create" in context of Universe and God is integrally attached to the idea of "creating something from nothing". Most theists tend to ask, if not for God, how did the Universe come into existence? When theists give analogies of objects like watch to point out that a creator needs to be there, they are making a fundamental mistake by overlooking the fact that no one created watch from "nothing" - only certain building blocks were transformed into a watch. But nobody (human) had created those building blocks. They were "always" there. For one thing to transform into another, it does not necessarily take an external agent like humans. Likewise, for original building blocks to have transformed into the Universe as we know it need not have an external agent like God.

  2. An excellent point.

    I think the watchmaker analogy is more about order being indicative of design and therefore implying a designer than about where the matter/space/energy that make up the universe originally comes from. It's not a Prime Motivator argument. Still, your point is yet another reason that it fails to be convincing.

  3. A scientific uncertainty can almost always be defended on the basis that maybe someday science will figure it out. This is based on faith, guided to some degree by a reasoned appreciation of the triumphs of science in the past. But it is essentially a form of faith, none the less.

    It follows then, that if you subscribe to such faith, you can always argue that arguments such as those advanced by this philosopher are flimsy, because science will *surely* emerge triumphant in the end.

    I'm willing to wager that we will never see DNA, or a bacteria, or a virus spontaneously generate in front of our very own eyes, without laboratory scientists *seriously* loading the dice. But even this point of view of mine is an expression of faith, not faith devoid of reason, mind you- spontaneous generation is (based on its improbability) an absurdity, but perhaps not an impossibility.

    We all choose where to place our faith when we arrive at the limits of our knowledge. If it's an issue of sufficient important to us, most of us, then, organize around ourselves like-minded individuals, who share our psychological investment in those areas we can't really place a number on. So you see the proliferation of Jewish atheist blogs, frequented by like-minded individuals, who appear oddly similar to their religious counterparts; they are often self-congratulatory, and oddly confident about areas of knowledge that are fundamentally lacking in certainty.