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Reasonable Argument for God’s Existence or a Whole Bunch of Silliness?

I dispise inter-blog debates. I think they’re juvenile, modern-day schoolyard shouting matches with a tiresome and alarming amount of “Yeah”s and “Oh, burn”s and “You’re an idiot”s and “Our point of view is the awesomest”s streaming from the writers and commenters in poisonous, vitriolic language that exposes the desperation and intellectual bankruptsy of all involved. But I’m not above it.

I don’t mean for this to turn into one of those. I just feel compelled to point out what appear to be some grand lapses in reason in Rabbi Adam Jacobs’ March 6th entry on HuffPo called, A Reasonable Argument for God’s Existence.

(Jacobs’ post is actually a summary of Rabbi Moshe Averick’s analysis of what is termed “the origin of life problem that confronts the naturalist camp within the scientific community”. You can find the full treatment in Averick’s book Nonsense of a High Order, but I will reference Jacobs’ piece only.)

The first thing that caught my attention in this article was the title, “A Reasonable Argument for God’s Existence”. I wondered if in fact someone was finally going to posit a reasonable argument for the existence of a deity.

Well, I’ll spare you the suspense and tell you after the fold:

Nope. Not even close.

A tired tactic for someone with no reasonable argument in favor of his or her point of view is to attack the opposition; in Jacobs’ case, naturalists/scientists. And Instead of providing a reasonable argument for God, Jacobs begins the piece by inventing a shortcoming of naturalist philosophy:

. . . . I have noticed a consistent theme. It was frequently remarked that religious lines of argumentation lack reason. The contention seems to be that most, if not all, religious systems rely solely on wholly unsubstantiated faith to support their beliefs.

Is this contention in fact true? From a theistic perspective the reality seems quite inverted in that it would appear to require an unreasonable commitment to naturalism to maintain a denial of the transcendent.

Well, no. That’s just not true. It does not require an unreasonable commitment to naturalism to maintain a denial of the transcendent. It requires a very minimal commitment to naturalism, an embarrassingly basic understanding of logic, and the most minuscule bit of intellectual honesty to maintain a denial of the transcendent. There is simply no evidence for divinity. And anyone thinking about the subject free of biases and emotional attachments will maintain denial as a matter of course, and then re-assess his or her stance if and when evidence comes to light.

Nothing unreasonable about that.

But maybe Jacobs doesn’t want to show his hand just yet. Maybe he’s building up to the advertized reasonable argument for God’s existence. 

Well, the next few paragraphs seem to be more song and dance about the failures of his opposition. He touts the fact that in the decades since the discovery of DNA, science has yet to come up with solid leads as to the origin of life. Presumably, the origin of life on Earth is the key to God’s existence.

The truth of the matter is that we see scientists coming up surprisingly empty-handed and that even within scientific circles, the few hypotheses they do have are shredded to ribbons by their colleagues within the scientific community.

Forget for a minute that we have made great progress with some wonderful ideas about the origin of life, I’ll just comment on this tidbit by saying, we certainly hope  the few hypotheses they do have are shredded to ribbons by their colleagues within the scientific community. We should be suspicious of any hypotheses that are accepted without anyone attempting to shred them to ribbons. That’s why science works so well. Hypotheses are shredded to ribbons all the time. It’s called peer review. It’s called testability. The door must remain open for re-assessment, but it’s how we know the hypotheses that cannot be shredded to ribbons are most probably true.

But we still haven’t heard Jacobs’ reasonable argument for the existence of god.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t come quickly in the article, as he then takes great pains to show how little progress science has made in solving the origins of life question. He also confuses “faith” with “confidence” with this head-scratching pronouncement:

. . . There just is no evidence for [how life began]. Not one [scientist] has the foggiest notion about how to answer life’s most fundamental question: How did life arise on our planet? The non-believer is thus faced with two choices: to accept as an article of faith that science will eventually arrive at a reasonable, naturalistic conclusion to this intellectual black box or to choose to believe in the vanishingly small odds that the astonishing complexity, intelligence and mystery of life came about as a result of chance, . . .

First of all, the non-believer (or naturalist in this case) does not have to accept as an article of faith that science will eventually arrive at a reasonable, naturalistic conclusion to this intellectual black box. We can be confident that science will eventually arrive at a reasonable, naturalistic conclusion, but that is not faith; at least it’s not the connotation used by Jacobs.

And for the record, there are no time tables for discovery. There is no deadline. So even if we, as naturalists, are confident, we understand that an explanation may not be coming any time soon.

But that doesn’t mean we are incapable of solving the mystery. It just means we don’t have the answer yet. We currently don’t know. And science has no problem with “I don’t yet know”. It does, however, have a big problem with “I don’t yet know, so there is obviously no natural explanation”.

Jacobs then goes on to show how incredibly unlikely he thinks it is that life would arise by being overly impressed with long odds. He quotes some people out of context, and then finally, FINALLY he lays out his reasonable argument for God’s existense:

I posit to you that all the evidence points, in an obvious and inextricable way, to a supernatural explanation for the origin of life. If there are no known naturalistic explanations and the likelihood that “chance” played any role is wildly minute, then it is a perfectly reasonable position to take that a conscious super-intelligence (that some of us call God) was the architect of life on this planet. Everyone agrees to the appearance of design. It is illogical to assume its non-design in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

Really Rabbi? That’s what you’re going with? That’s your reasonable argument for God’s existence?

I wonder if Jacobs realizes that saying, “If there are no known naturalistic explanations . . . then it is a perfectly reasonable position to take that a conscious super-intelligence (that some of us call God) was the architect of life on this planet.” is tantamount to saying, “If there are no known naturalistic explanations, then it is a perfectly reasonable position to take that Liberace’s ghost (that some of us call Sparkletor) was the architect of life on this planet”. Or that it is tantamount to saying, If there are no known naturalistic explanations, then it is a perfectly reasonable position to take that a Unicorn fart (that some of us call Fancy Fluff) was the architect of life on this planet.

There is the exact same amount of evidence for God, Sparkletor, and Fancy Fluff.

Basically, Jacobs argument is, “I don’t understand it, so it must be God.”

Odd that a reasonable argument for God’s existence would trigger a flashback to, “Fucking magnets. How do they work?”

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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21 Comments

  1. And science has no problem with “I don’t yet know”. It does, however, have a big problem with “I don’t yet know, so there is obviously no natural explanation”.

    Perfect! I don’t think there’s a more clear and concise way to summarize the conflict between the scientific and anti-science approaches. At every turn, where we see an opportunity for exploration and discovery, they see a reason for us to all just give up and adopt their prescientific superstitions. This goes for cosmology, life origins, psychology, medicine. . .

  2. At least it’s vaguely encouraging that they are trying to frame their arguments as being reasonable. Clearly they’ve understood that reason is the way to go.

    Although of course, if you have to TELL people that your argument is reasonable, as if they wouldn’t discover that themselves when reading it, really rings of “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”.

  3. I have a sense of respect for persons of any faith or belief that are willing to learn as much as they can about that faith. I have greater respect for a person willing to critically examine (or to have their hypothesis critically examined), and considers it progress when that hypothesis is shredded.
    But persons that continuously repeat what another person has said without advancing the hypothesis, and then consider their flawed logic as “reasonable,” are not trying to advance knowledge; they are trying to advance faith.
    Actually, they’re trying to sell Faith. I’m not buying it; at least, not with the arguments they’ve presented so far.

  4. does anyone else find the statement that “the likelihood of chance is minute” very odd?

    I mean obviously when he says “chance” (with quotes) he doesn’t mean chance, he means some system I don’t understand

  5. Excellent rebuttal to this article. I read it yesterday and threw up in my mouth a little. It was the same old tired god of the gaps argument and not a very good one at that.

    To summarize the original article “I dunno how, so must be god”.

  6. I love when all these “forward-thinking,” “liberal” religious leaders just go for the God of the Gap. What I always hear is “God is a second choice to rationalism. Go to God when your first choice fails.”

    Alrighty, sounds good. Rationalism hasn’t failed me yet, so I’ll just stay over here.

  7. Unlike you, Sam, I love these debates. They let you sharpen your claws.

    However, this article was so… tired. Nothing new at all. And (some of) the commenters ate it up, like he had intellectually vindicated them.

    God of the gaps? Check
    Argument from incredulity? Check
    Argument from ignorance? Check
    False dichotomy? Check
    Misuse of the term “chance”? check
    Misunderstanding of probability? Check

    There was honestly nothing new here.

    I would like to ask why theists continually feel they have to explain their magic with science, but I know the answer, and it is depressing.

  8. I believe that life is the inevitable consequence of the properties of our universe,the mechanism of which we may,or may not some day discover.If the rabbi finds that notion insufficient, then have him explain what the origins of his god are.After all, if something so complex as life MUST have a creator,then why wouldn’t the creator of such complexity also have to have been created ? Black box indeed!

  9. @DataJack:

    I would like to ask why theists continually feel they have to explain their magic with science, but I know the answer, and it is depressing.

    Is it because they don’t really believe in magic? I sense the force is weak with this one.

  10. Article summary: “A wizard did it.”

    It doesn’t matter that evolution is a process, and that this process is the most complete way to explain the origin of people or monkeys or rabbits or the Moon-people and their delicious moon-cheese (I want to believe).

    Or that this process will seem to look different at its beginning then it will half-way to now and will seem to look also totally wrong at where we are now, but you are forgetting this isn’t about you. Life, the universe, and everything isn’t about you. Or people at all.

    To say, “It is all about humans” has the same weight to say, “It all about peaches”: it means nothing. We aren’t at the center, because we have looked at maps and used models, and that doesn’t fit. There is plenty of evidence to show that life and living can exist without a need for people or purpose; that is, a purpose other than their species’ and habitat’s survival. We know that proteins and DNA and RNA couldn’t come into existence and look and operate as do they are now on their day 01, without a variety of symbiosis, genetic trading, and other early cellular versions of “doin’ it”.

    But. It doesn’t matter. Facts, based in testing observation and research, do not matter.

    Because a wizard did it.

  11. As a theist and a Jew, I found the article incredibly disappointing and logically flawed. It’s defensive and sends the wrong message. The fact that science doesn’t have all the answers doesn’t offer a reasonable argument for divinity. If anything he is arguing for agnosticism. Its like saying I don’t have all the answers and either do you, so clearly its reasonable to believe that I am right. Well, no. It’s intellectually dishonest and follows the same logical flaws as creationism. It is also outside my experiences with Judaism which, in my experience, teaches science as a way to understand the world and through it god.

  12. Sam, my friend – you don’t even have the half of it. Those quotes in this article? Some of the most egregious cherry-picking I’ve ever seen. This is bearing false witness at its finest, folks.

    Take this quote, for instance:

    “An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle.”

    Here is the full quote:

    “An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going. But this should not be taken to imply that there are good reasons to believe that it could not have started on the earth by a perfectly reasonable sequence of fairly ordinary chemical reactions. The plain fact is that the time available was too long, the many microenvironments on the earth’s surface too diverse, the various chemical possibilities too numerous and our own knowledge and imagination too feeble to allow us to be able to unravel exactly how it might or might not have happened such a long time ago, especially as we have no experimental evidence from that era to check our ideas against.”

    Here’s another:

    “Suppose you took scrabble sets, or any word game sets, blocks with letters containing every language on Earth and you heap them together, and then you took a scoop and you scooped into that heap, and you flung it out on the lawn there and the letters fell into a line which contained the words, ‘to be or not to be that is the question,’ that is roughly the odds of an RNA molecule appearing on the Earth.” (Dr. Robert Shapiro, Professor Emeritus and Senior Research Scientist in the Department of Chemistry at New York University)

    This is from an article on Edge.org in which Dr. Shapiro goes on to explain exactly how it could have happened, finishing with:

    “The idea is that this is inherent in the laws of chemistry and physics. One doesn’t need a freak set of perhaps a hundred consecutive reactions that will be needed to make an RNA, and life becomes a probable thing that can be generated through the action of the laws of chemistry and physics, provided certain conditions are met. You must have the energy. It’s good to have some container or compartment, because if your products just diffuse away from each other and get lost and cease to react with one another you’ll eventually extinguish the cycle. You need a compartment, you need a source of energy, you need to couple the energy to the chemistry involved, and you need a sufficiently rich chemistry to allow for this network of pathways to establish itself. Having been given this, you can then start to get evolution.”

    As I told my friend when she posted this asking for feedback – the quickest way to tell if a Creationist is lying to you is to observe if his lips are moving. The second quickest way is to listen for them to start quoting people.

  13. ^Yeah, I saw that after the fact, so my apologies for assuming you didn’t catch it. Once I did, it dawned on me that amongst this crowd you can just say “out of context” and everyone pretty much goes “Oh, right. That.” and everything is pretty much understood.

    “I’ll split my Skepchick paycheck with you.”

    Oh, boy! Maybe I’ll go to the movies. By myself. ;)

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