Tag Archives: apologetics

Opinion

Common Arguments, Refuted: the Cosmological Argument

Hello all,

This is the second in a series of posts deconstructing and refuting some common arguments in favor of theism, religion, faith, etc. This article will feature the so-called “cosmological argument.” The cosmological argument, also called the First Cause argument, goes way back. It was employed by both Plato (in Laws, book 10, his longest dialogue) & Aristotle, and by Thomas Aquinas. A version of this argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, is favored by theologian William Lane Craig.

The argument goes something like this:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The Universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the Universe had a cause.

Put another way,

  1. Every finite and contingent being has a cause.
  2. A causal loop cannot exist.
  3. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
  4. Therefore, a First Cause (or something that is not an effect) must exist.

The current understanding of science holds that spacetime began to exist when the universe began to exist. It is meaningless to ask what came “before” the Big Bang, in the same sense that it is meaningless to ask what’s “south” of the South Pole. The concept of “before” didn’t logically exist “before” the existence of time itself, so we needn’t concern ourselves with what came “before” our universe. As Stephen Hawking famously said, “Anything that happened before the Big Bang could not affect what happened after.”

There are several reasons the cosmological argument doesn’t hold water. I think the easiest comes from the particle physicist Victor Stenger, who wrote the wonderful books God: The Failed Hypothesis and The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed For Us. The error in reasoning can be summarized in five words 5 words: The first premise is false. According to Stenger, quantum physics tells us that something CAN come from nothing, so the entire idea that everything that begins to exist must have a cause is just plain wrong.

This premise is an example of a bare assertion, a statement unsupported by evidence. This is something for which, as skeptics, we need to watch out in general. If someone presents an assertion to you, especially as a basis for a set of premises, we need to take a moment to ask, “How do you know that?”

As with most of these arguments, this is really an argument for deism, or at best theism, not Christianity or any god or gods in particular. If you find yourself in a debate about Christianity or any particular religion or god, make sure to drive home this point: This is a (piss-poor) argument for deism—belief in a creator entity, whether still extant or not—not an argument for theism or any particular god. If someone tries to tell you that something can’t come from nothing, therefore Jesus, remind them that this is a non sequitur. It is no better than arguing “something can’t come from nothing, therefore Brahman,” or any other creator entity.

I’m reminded of the wonderful Sidney Harris cartoon, which I will not reproduce here for copyright reasons but which you can google if you’d like (try “Sidney Harris miracle math cartoon”): Two mathematicians are standing at a chalkboard with some complicated figures, and in the second of three deductive steps, it simply says, “Then a miracle occurs.” The one mathematician says to the other, “I think you should be more explicit here in Step Two.”

If someone cannot tell you how they know something, there’s a good bet that they’re bullshitting you. Sometimes the right answer is, “I don’t know, but very smart people are working on that.” For me, that sums up anything we could ever want to know about the “god question,” and it’s why I’m an agnostic atheist.

Until next time,

Dave

Ethics Opinion

“If there’s no God, what would stop me from raping & killing you?”

Hello all,

Dave here. Roughly every week while the weather is nice, SASHA does an Ask an Atheist table on the University of Missouri campus. We get asked a lot of questions, sometimes serious, sometimes not. This isn’t a terribly common one, but it comes up enough that it’s worth mentioning, and it’s terrifying enough that I feel compelled to discuss it.

SASHA members Seth & James answer Mizzou students' questions

The question generally goes something like this: “If there are no consequences, what’s stopping you from killing people?”

When I hear this question, it scares the shit out of me. The purpose of this post today is to convince you that it should scare the shit out of you, too.

When someone asks this question, it tells me something about the way their mind works. Specifically, it tells me that I am very likely talking to a sociopath. A sociopath, somewhat synonymously known as someone with antisocial personality disorder, is someone who, among other things, lacks a conscience or a sense of empathy. Sociopaths are often said to “use” people, in that they care about others only insofar as they can get something out of it, often in a calculating and “cold” manner. They can be friendly, charismatic even, and have mastered the ability to appear normal. There is a classic work in this field with a title that fits perfectly: The Mask of Sanity by Harvey Cleckley. If you’ve seen the movie “American Psycho” with Christian Bale, you are somewhat familiar with some of the classic signs. The lead character plays a Wall Street suit who lacks empathy.

Sociopaths do not feel guilt. That doesn’t mean they commit any act they desire, though. They are not mentally separated from reality. Rather, they are acutely aware of social consequences and legal consequences and game theoretical consequences; they are just not motivated to act morally by any other internal drive that the rest of us have. They understand that if they kill someone and are caught, they will go to jail. They understand that if they cheat on their taxes, or their partners, or their term papers—and they are caught—there are consequences. They just have no problem doing such things when they feel very confident that they will not be caught.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that 0.6% of people have antisocial personality disorder. Assuming my campus at the University of Missouri—Columbia contains a representative sample (it almost certainly doesn’t—a lot of sociopaths end up in jail), out of 36,000 students, that means about 215 people simply lack empathy. It’s not impossible that I’ve spoken to a few of them during my 2 years of doing Ask-an-Atheist tabling.

When I’m asked this question, I could try to explain something about the fact that there ARE consequences for our actions—that if you raped and killed me, you would almost certainly be caught, and go to prison. Your career would be ruined, your family crushed, your friendships over and your relationships gone. But that’s not the kind of thing you say to someone who has just said something like the title of this article to you.

In my experience, there is really only one good way to answer this question. I say to them the following:

“If your belief that you might be punished after you die is the only thing keeping you from raping and killing me or anyone else, then I have no interest in trying to convince you that your god is imaginary. Someone who only forgoes needless evil on the basis of possible consequences is called a sociopath, and I have no interest in dying today. Keep your beliefs, please just keep them away from me.”

I also want to point out that this really doesn’t have anything to do with whether God exists or not, but rather whether hell exists or not. There is an important distinction. A lot of Christians seem to have trouble separating their belief in God from their belief in an afterlife. You can believe in one and not the other, and an argument in favor of God is not an argument in favor of an afterlife necessarily, and vice versa.

Until next time!

– Dave