Boston Review, January/February 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
The four horsemen of atheism, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris,
and Christopher Hitchens, have all published books sharply critical of
belief in God. They all agree that belief in God is a kind of superstition.
Arguments for the existence of God are usually divided into those whose
premises may be known from the armchair, and those whose premises are the
result of experiment and observation. The best-known armchair argument is
called (following Kant) the ontological argument, while the design argument
(also called the teleological argument) is the main representative of
The ontological argument was first developed by
the eleventh-century monk St. Anselm, who argued that the very act of
denying that God exists shows that God does exist. Anselm says God is a
perfect being. An entity that exists only in the mind, he thinks, is not as
perfect as one that exists in reality. The very existence of atheists,
Anselm concludes, shows that "something than which greater cannot be
conceived undoubtedly exists both in the mind and in reality."
argument proves too much. Something must be wrong. Anselm's talk of
"existing in reality" and "existing in the mind" is misleading. If something
exists anywhere at all, it exists in reality, because to exist in reality is
simply to exist, period. The observation that dragons exist in the mind but
not in reality is better stated as follows: people think of dragons, but
dragons do not exist.
Both Dawkins and Hitchens suggest that Kant
uncovered Anselm's mistake. Kant claims that existence is not a property or
a feature of a thing. To say that dragons exist is to say that there are
dragons. A perfect being has all the perfections but not the property of
existing, because there is no such property. But according to many
philosophers, Kant is wrong: existence is indeed a property, albeit a very
undiscriminating one, because everything has it.
A better objection
to Anselm's argument is that he has conflated two readings of the claim to
be thinking of a perfect being. On one reading, the claim asserts that there
is a perfect being, and the thinker is thinking about it. Anselm has given
us no reason to suppose that this reading is true, because he has not shown
us that there is a perfect being. On the other reading, the claim simply
characterizes the thinker's thought, which is consistent with a Godless
universe. Anselm is thus caught in dilemma.
The design argument
received one of its most careful and elaborate formulations from William
Paley, an eighteenth-century English clergyman and philosopher. Paley
contrasts two objects: a stone and a watch. The stone requires no
explanation in terms of a designer. The watch is another matter, for on
examination we perceive "that its several parts are framed and put together
for a purpose." Paley thinks the watch must have had a maker, even if "we
had never known an artist capable of making one." Paley then considers
terrestrial flora and fauna and their intricate parts. How could such a
complicated mechanism as the eye have arisen, he asks, if not by the action
of a designer?
Unlike the ontological argument, the design argument
is not supposed to prove God's existence. Rather, it is an inference to the
best explanation. The inference can be overturned by more evidence. We now
know that the best explanation of the apparent design of the eye is not "the
hand of an artificer" but Darwinian evolution.
This reply hinges on
the assumption that modern biology can explain all instances of apparent
design. Here the biochemist Michael Behe argues that evolution by natural
selection cannot explain what he calls irreducible complexity. According to
Behe, a process of small step-by-step alterations of the sort found in
natural selection is wildly unlikely to produce irreducibly complex systems.
But the design argument fails even if Behe is right.
presented the key objections. The argument does not indicate anything about
what the designer is like. Terrestrial biology might be the product of long
trial and error. The designer could have died long ago. And we can hardly
presume that there was exactly one designer. At best, the design argument
shows that some designer or designers, whose motives, talents, and present
whereabouts are all unknown, existed at some time.
for dismissing no-design alternatives wholesale is to object to the specific
evolutionary theories of his day. But Paley offers no argument for choosing
the general hypothesis of an unknown designer or designers operating by
unknown means over the general hypothesis of an unknown blind process
operating by unknown means. Paley had no reason, other than the failure of
his imagination, to dismiss the hypothesis of "causes without design."
Behe exactly recapitulates Paley's mistake. Behe asks whether an
as-yet-undiscovered natural process would explain biochemical complexity and
claims that "if there is such a process, no one has a clue how it would
work." But intelligent design is in the same boat: if there is such a
process, no one has a clue how it would work either.
argument has received attention recently as the fine-tuning argument. The
universe is fine-tuned for life, and this fact needs an explanation. One
explanation is that our universe is only one of many universes. If universes
exist in boundless variety, each with a distinct set of basic physical laws,
then the fact that the laws of our universe are apparently made for life
would seem to be nothing to get excited about. This "multiverse hypothesis"
is a "no-design" explanation of the data. Dawkins argues that the multiverse
hypothesis should be preferred over the "God hypothesis" because the former
is simpler. This is debatable.
Hume's objections apply equally well
to the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God. The fine-tuning
argument is silent on the number and attributes of any designers. And there
is no reason to favor the design hypothesis over any other hypothesis. Hume
compares the structure of the universe to structures found in mathematics:
perhaps "the whole economy of the universe is conducted by a like necessity,
though no human algebra can furnish a key."
Philosophy has come up