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Reflections on the Theism-Atheism Debate

by Peter M.K. Chan

Theism, or the belief in the existence of a creator God, is usually held on two main grounds. These are known respectively as the causal argument and the argument from design. Briefly stated, what the causal argument rides on is a principle of reason that commonsense has come to take for granted. It is not possible for something to come from nothing. From this, it further follows that since the universe is a kind of thing (albeit a very big one and perhaps bigger than we will ever know), ‘something’ other than the universe itself must have already existed to bring it about. And this ‘something’ is to be understood as a supernatural being called God. As to the argument from design or design argument as it is also called, the reasoning is that if it were not to be assumed that the universe is an designer and engineer in and unto itself, it should follow that all the clock-like operations of nature at large, and the wondrous workings of material nature (living and conscious ones in particular), must have been the work of some supernatural designer cum engineer. And this supernatural being is again to be referred to as God.

(1) Controversy over the causal argument

Well, says the atheist, if theism must ground itself on the presupposition that something must come from something, or that it is not possibly for anything to have come from nothing, from what did God come from? What created the creator and what created the creator of the creator and so on? If you feel that this is already quite a mouthful, you should also begin to appreciate the pain. It is that when pushed, all causal explanation would tend toward an indefinite regress, which, in the eyes of many philosophers, really gathers no moss.

The standard way out of this predicament, invented early by Aristotle, is to say that this kind of causal indefinite regress could in principle be pre-empted if one were to embrace the notion of a First Cause. Since then, it has also been a fashion of sorts for many theists to argue that since God is this First Cause, it should be seen that God must also be the Ultimate cause beyond which there is no other. As to why God as First Cause could possibly be without a cause, it was further surmised that it is because God is eternal, i.e., existing without beginning and without end. This is also why the question as to what created God could not really arise. In other words, if all were to agree that God is not only the First and Ultimate cause, but also existing without beginning and without end, it should also be seen that what has never begun is not something that need to be created or brought into being by any other.

Unfortunately, persuasive as this traditional move might have seemed, it is in fact not very satisfactory. It should be observed that if this kind of reasoning were allowed, it is also open to the atheist to say that since the universe is eternal (has always been here and is not known to have ever begun), the need for a creator would also have to be seen as not having to arise. Observe the following exchange:

Theist: How can the universe be eternal?

Atheist: Well, if your God can, why can’t my universe?

Theist: How can you say that the universe is eternal in front of Big Bang?

Atheist: Big Bang is only a theory. It does not in and of itself preclude the possibility of a Big Crunch either. For your information, my universe is a cosmic balloon that oscillates continuously between cycles of expansion and contraction without beginning and without end.

Theist: How do you know that this fantastic cosmic oscillation scenario of yours is true?

Atheist: I don’t. But you do not know that it is false either. And as long as you cannot show that it is false, I do not see how you could force me to accept your God conclusion. Besides, I bet you do not know that your God is really eternal either, if It, He or She as the case may be, indeed exists.

What this short exchange has shown is that even though it may sound more natural to say that God rather than the universe is eternal, the fact remains that the causal argument for the existence of God has not really deliver to the theist the decisive outcome that he requires. For if the atheist were also adamant about the eternity of his universe (a position long held and taken for granted by all ancient naturalists, Greek as well as Chinese), there is no reason why the existence of any supernatural being (or beings, as in the case of polytheism) has got to be entertained. Historically speaking, it was also for this reason that theism had to try and shift its weight onto the design argument.

(2) Controversy over the design argument

But how could the universe really stumble into so many good and beautiful designs? In the history of this philosophical debate, it has been the style of modern theists to pitch their position pivotally upon the eye. What an intricate and wonderful organ it is, they were most eager to point out. What they meant to assert is that it is just not conceivable that such a wonderful and perceptive organ could have actually come into being without any supernatural designer cum engineer at all. Suppose, said the theists, you were to come upon a timepiece or watch on the beach of a deserted island, would you not think that it must be the handiwork of some designer with engineering know-how? Or would you instantly jump to the conclusion that it is just another accidental concoctions of stuffs merely material?

Well, I think more are inclined toward the first scenario. That’s right, said the theists, anyone that fancies the second option is equivalent to saying that it is possible for a monkey to become a Shakespeare if it were to be given the chance and eons of time to poke blindly at the key board of a typewriter. If that sounds silly, said the theists, so is atheism. That is also to say, unless there is some supernatural agent or agents pulling or programming behind the scene, it is difficult to see how material nature itself could have given us such a wonderful show. Thus, according to the theists, unless atheism is able to explain how the physical processes of the universe could have been so fortunate, their theistic conclusion would have to be seen as inescapable. How could the processes of Nature, blind and random as they come, ever get to eventuate in the working out of so many wonderful living and conscious things? If you find this question to be as legitimate as it is enticing, you should also understand why despite having to hop more or less on just this one argument, many are still finding theism to be attractive.

What gave credence to the design argument, attention must now also be called, is a mistaken assumption implicit to traditional commonsense. It is that no useful function or design could have ever come by way of processes that are blind and random. From what science is now able to tell, this presupposition is no longer to be taken for granted. For instance, the coming together of oxygen and hydrogen to become H2O may be blind and random, their resultant molecular structure has yet turned out to be functionally very useful, not to say beautiful as well -- when the intricate patterns of snowflakes in particular are taken into cognizance. Thus, it should be seen that unlike a game of lottery of ping-pong balls (with which the games of Bingo and Mark Six are played), the blind and random processes of the universe are actually dictated by the basic properties of its fundamental constituents concerned. It is by way of their physical cum chemical properties that wonderful and working designs, inorganic as well as organic, have come into being. What this means is that it is no longer necessary to assume that what looks beautiful and/or functional must necessarily be a kind of designer product, i.e., that there has got to be a rigger to every rigging.

But how could there be any rigging without a rigger? Some theists, I am sure, are still eager to try and exercise their causal argument here. As you can see therefore, these two arguments for theism are indeed well joined at the hip where the guts are. To this, I am sure that some atheists are bound to interject—as if coming to my aid. Given the eternity of our universe (a theme we should by now be familiar), what do you theists think might be doing the rigging? And don’t tell us that it was some First Cause or eternal Deity that had existed before and outside of our eternal and infinite universe.

(3) From the agnostic’s point of view

It should thus be seen that the above two arguments of theism are in fact rather lame in ruling atheism out of court. To that extent, it is already quite obvious that the case for theism is actually short for what it is about. Note should also be taken that with respect to this theism-atheism issue, it is theism that must shoulder the burden of proof. As everyone knows that there is really no evidence for the non-existence of anything, it would be dialectically improper to require atheism to do likewise. That being the case, it should also be observed that the only way to settle the issue is for the theist to confront the atheist with some additional proof to shore up his side of the argument. But for all I know, all the theist has managed to offer are not anything that the atheist in particular is able to accept.

In this connection, let me also say that the above debate has in fact not really gotten anybody anywhere. How is one to know if the universe, or God for that matter, is really eternal and infinite? On what factual ground are we to decide whether one or the other is really so, existing without beginning and without end in both temporal and spatial respects? I would rather think that since all we have are concepts such as ‘eternity’ and ‘infinity’ rather than something to which these concepts could actually be applied, there is really no justifiable ground to side with the theists on the one hand, or the atheists on the other. Both positions are made to burn, if I may say so, on speculative conceptualization rather than fact. In this connection, I would even be tempted to say that there are two kinds of ‘fools’ (observe that the term is purposely quarantined so as not to ignite any unnecessary passion). Those who assert that there is no God (according to the Psalmist), and those who claim to know the eternal and infinite nature of anything (in my humble opinion).

Under this light, it seems to me that for anyone who regards evidence to be crucial, the only rational position to take, with respect to the God-question, is agnosticism. Yes, this is just a high sounding word for the humble plead of ignorance. What it points to is the fact that given the limit of human cognition as imposed by the kind of neural-sensory apparatus that we possess (scientific extensions not withstanding), no one is really in the position to know what could or could not be outside of human cognition, let alone the universe as a whole and beyond. It also seems to me that for what is in principle inaccessible (given the speed limit of light) and thus unknowable, the only realistic and justifiable position to take is agnosticism, not polytheism, deism, theism, or atheism. There is simply no rational basis to affirm or deny what one is not really in any position to arbitrate. (Pantheism, for all I know, is but a more mysterious kind of naturalism that sees everything as a part of God.)

(4) The Musings of Great Grandma

Now, to calm the nerve of all concerned in what now looks like a triangular debate, I should like to tell a story about the musings of Great Grandma, real or fictitious. If you like the story, it is for you. Otherwise, just pass it on to anyone whom you think might have a lighter ear (a Chinese way of denoting an easy believer of hearsay).

As it was in that familiar old song, says our great grandma, there are three coins in the fountain. The question is: which one will be the fountain bless? The three coins I am referring to are theism, atheism, and agnosticism. Theism is an affirmative theory. Atheism is a disaffirming theory. Agnosticism, it seems to me, is a kind of ‘I don’t know’ or ‘don’t ask me’ non-theory of sorts. Which one would you choose? Our great grandma is asking her great grandchild.

Consider, says great grandma, theism offers a much bigger and more interesting package than all the rest. It has many goodies in it, consisting not only of God, but also winged angels, devils with tooth and claw, if not also lesser spiritual beings such as fairies and ghosts (this last is actually not too nice a label for departed soul, I must say). Now, for his child-like impression that more is always better than less, our great grandchild is of course naturally more impressed by the big theistic package. But he is also a bit worried about what those other not-so-nice characters might do. Don’t worry about them, says great grandma. Just be a good boy, and everything will be fine.

In contrast, continues our great grandma, atheism does not really have anything to offer. It just says that there is no God. As such, it has also found this ‘empty’ niche to be quite comfortable. Since there is neither proof nor evidence for the non-existence of anything, this disaffirming ploy is already good enough to ward off those who might ask him to justify his position. Thus, the only way for the theist to out-smart the atheist is to try and invite God to confront him. But so far, the theist has not really done anything of the sort. All he did was to point to some subjective indications that he deemed to be pointing toward the possibility of such a supernatural existent. But possibility as such, as we all know, is a far cry to the real thing. The atheist is thus not only unimpressed, but tells the theist straight in the face to peddle his possible goods elsewhere.

By this time, our great grandchild is beginning to loose interest. This kind of dialectical analysis is just too deep for his naïve little brain. But our great grandma is also by this time already too absorbed with the intricacy of dialectics to notice that her great grandchild is already loosing her. So she just rambles on in her great and grandmotherly sort of way.

You see my child, she said, with respect to any subjective indication, the agnostic has always been more sympathetic. He is that kind of a guy that is willing to entertain the possibility of almost anything as he entertains the possibility of mermaids, winged horse, and flying carpets. Thus, even though he is also not too impressed with what the theist has claimed to ‘see’, he is yet very hesitant about ruling anything out of court, that is, to assert that it is impossible for God or gods to exist. He says that one should not judge and make commitment about matters with which one is not really in the position to know and understand.

With this uncommitted posture, continues our great grandma, the atheist is of course not very happy. For he still remembers very clearly that once upon a time, it was this very entertainment business (wondering about the possibilities of this and of that) that was to lead to that eventual leap of faith toward the direction of God and lesser deities. But the agnostic appears to know his facts rather clearly as well. For his reply is that the atheist should not be ungrateful. Had there been no one to do the entertaining and perform the leaping, atheism would still be looking for a job. Besides, he does not understand why the atheist would not just wash his hands (since he is already so dead sure that theism is mistaken) and call it the day. Do you know what I am saying and see which coin to choose, child?

Why don’t we go for a walk great grandma? Before we do that my boy, says great grandma, let me tell you what great grandpa used to say. It is better, he often said, to believe in the existence of anything that may have the slightest possibility of making a difference to our lives. His reason was that if it does not exist, nothing would be lost. On the other hand, if it turned out to be alive and kicking, so much would have been gained. Do you see the point my boy. It is always smarter not to risk losing anything at all.

About the Author:

Peter M.K. Chan was schooled in philosophy and religion. He is the author of two books: The Mystery of Mind (published 2003), and Soul, God, and Morality (published 2004). Recently, he has completed another work titled The Six Patriarchs of Chinese Humanism (not yet in print). For the moment, he has decided to go green by way of e-books. For more information, please visit http://philosophyofreligionbypmkchan.googlepages.com/home