For this post, I will restrict my argument to a minimal god hypothesis that was proposed to me by somebody on the Butterflies and Wheels website.
This god is defined as follows:
2. Omnipresent in physical space, with the universe being part of God, rather than as a separate creation.
3. Neither omnipotent nor omniscient in that the future is undetermined, and human actions are free.
Now, at this point, I think that we need to answer a very pertinent question. Does this god have any observable effect upon the material universe? That is, does the existence of this god make our universe different in any predictable and observable way from how it would have been if this god didn’t exist?
Of course, the trite answer to this is yes, as without god the universe wouldn’t exist at all. However, that merely begs the question, and so gets us nowhere. So, are there any other predictions that we can test by observing the universe? If yes, then we are at liberty to test these predictions, and compare with reality. Most theists do in fact attribute all sorts of characteristics to their god. We can then make predictions about how such a god would be expected to manifest itself, order the universe, and to act. However, if you wish to declare that your god is transcendental and immaterial, is undetectable by any scientific means, and that we can make no predictions about the type of universe that we would expect to see if it exists, then I think that you have a problem. For, if the existence of your god entails exactly the same observations already entailed by naturalism, then there is no reasonable argument to be made for believing it - as I shall seek to demonstrate.
Although I can never hope to prove that such a transcendent and immaterial god doesn’t exist, the principle of Occam's razor dictates that we should reject such a hypothesis. For, if we have perfectly good explanations for how the universe behaves that are based upon what we can observe, and what we can infer from this, then why would we want to introduce into our theories a supposed entity of a type never encountered before in science, and whose existence we can never verify or falsify – even in principle? To be sure, our explanations are not complete yet, but I see no reason to believe it better to introduce such an ad-hoc entity as an explanation, rather than to just say that we are still working on it. Is it more rational to say that we have just a material universe (which is all that we can observe), and which is ordered in such a way that we can attempt to fathom the way that it operates; and to then attempt this fathoming by adductive, deductive, and inductive reasoning based upon what we know? Or is it more rational to say that, in addition to the material universe that we can observe, there exists some universe-creating transcendental, immaterial entity whose existence or effects we can never observe – and hence which we can never verify or falsify? I would say that the former is more rational.
This logic still applies if you are to contend that this god does, in fact, do all sorts of things that we can observe, but that it makes it appear as if these things happen purely by some non-intelligent mechanistic process.
Now, one way around this is to suggest that the god hypothesis is actually a more rational answer in the absence of any other evidence, as it actually explains the existence of the universe in the most parsimonious way. However, I would contest this, as there are already plausible scientific explanations for the existence of our universe. We are able to construct viable working scientific theories to explain how the universe might have come to exist from a prior state of ‘nothing’ (which I would define for this purpose as an absence of space, time, energy, and matter. See this, or this for more information), or might have arisen spontaneously as a quantum fluctuation in the quantum foam as part of an Eternal Inflation model, and then evolved to what we currently see. These theories are based upon our observations, and our scientific knowledge and understanding of the world, and are able to predict exactly the type of universe that we observe. They do this without the necessity of positing some ad-hoc creator, or introducing any other ad-hoc assumptions, and are therefore more plausible, parsimonious, and powerful explanations than the god hypothesis.
For my purposes here, I shall concentrate on the Eternal Inflation theory. Now, you may object that this theory doesn’t explain why there exists a multiverse in the first place, nor why there is some sort of process that allows universes to come into existence from it, so we still don’t have a complete explanation. That is indubitably true. However, your god hypothesis gets you no further, as you need to explain why your god exists at all; never mind why it has the characteristics that it does, and why it would choose to create the particular universe that we see (which is almost entirely lethal to our type of life), rather than one far more suited to us, and far more economical in scale and age. So, if you are proposing that there is no way, even in principle, that we can attempt to verify or falsify your god hypothesis by recourse to observation (as it is immaterial, transcendental, etc…), then I think that the most rational option is to disregard it. Contrary to what one might initially imagine, I would say that such a god hypothesis is not the most parsimonious or plausible one available.
However, you may choose to go another route. You might say that the apparent fine-tuning of the universe is evidence for the existence of your god. Such a statement does indeed constitute an explanation for the observations. However, if we are able to formulate a scientific hypothesis that also explains these observations, but does not require the introduction of this ad-hoc universe-creator, then it will be both more parsimonious and plausible than the god hypothesis. In fact, we do have such a hypothesis. The Eternal Inflation multiverse theory follows naturally from the combination of the Big Bang and Inflation theories – both of which are sound scientific theories. If we are to accept these two as our starting point, then the existence of a multiverse is the de facto conclusion. In fact, to deny the existence of a multiverse, we would need to propose additional ad-hoc laws that force the Big Bang (followed by Inflation) to have happened only once.
I should stress here that the Eternal Inflation theory (and other multiverse concepts) was not just pulled out of a hat in order to explain away the apparent fine-tuning found in the universe. Rather, it followed naturally from previously accepted theories. However, it does nevertheless explain the apparent fine-tuning as, in an infinite set of ‘pocket universes’, there is bound to be one with our particular characteristics. In such a universe, we are able to exist to have these thoughts, and to make the observations.
As a further observation on this, the proponent of the fine-tuning argument is also required to explain why a universe designed to ultimately produce us would be a huge and almost entirely radiation-filled vacuum, and why it would take billions of years before we would evolve. The scientist can explain this, as any apparent teleology is purely the result of natural processes. As a matter of interest, from a scientific point of view, teleology has been almost entirely expunged from our theories. Apparent teleology in the evolution of life (which, incidentally, is a fact. The explanation for this evolution is the theoretical part) has been explained by Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. In addition, from a scientific point of view, any apparent teleology in the ordering of the cosmos is now explained as the result of mindless natural laws.
Of course, there are some interesting loose ends here. An obvious one here is consciousness. I believe that consciousness is ultimately reducible to configurations of matter/energy within space/time. It is possible that we may never have a full explanation of consciousness, but I think that giving up on this venture now would be rather premature. Even if we are never able to explain it fully, we are not justified in inferring that consciousness requires some other ‘something’ that is not part of the material universe. I also tend to think that the problem of qualia is a bit of a red herring, as I suspect that it is not dependent upon consciousness at all – but merely upon perception. Ultimately, I feel that any inability to explain these things by natural means would be as a result of our lack of imagination, ingenuity, language, or knowledge, and is not because they are dependent some non-material stuff for their existence.
Another interesting case is that of mathematics. I tend to think that mathematics is in some sense a fundamental property of the structure of our universe, and is not a purely human construct (although, obviously, some aspects of it are a human construct). So, I do not subscribe to the Conventionalist position, but am inclined rather more towards the Realist stance. However, I think that whilst mathematics is in some sense 'out there', this is a result of the fundamental structure of space/time, and it is not in some way transcendent. Of course, we are still left having to explain why we find that mathematics is a part of our universe, but that is just one part of the overall problem of the existence of the universe - and for which the god hypothesis is not the best answer. Interestingly, Max Tegmark's Ulimate Ensemble does allow for worlds in which mathematics is radically different from ours (for example, in which 2 + 2 = 5).
Perhaps at this point I should attempt a summary of my points.
· We only know that the material universe exists (in as much as we can ever really ‘know’ anything).
· A theory that explains the existence of our universe by recourse to what we already know to exist, using and building upon existing theories that are logically sound and evidentially well supported, and making reasoned inferences from these theories, has to be more plausible than one that does not.
· In addition, a theory that requires the introduction of entirely ad-hoc elements has to be less parsimonious than one that does not.
· A theory that predicts the specific universe that we observe, rather than just some universe, has to be more powerful than one that does not.
· A theory that can be tested (and possibly falsified) has to be preferred over one that has no such options available.
· The god hypothesis as proposed by you requires the positing of some ad-hoc ineffable and immaterial universe-creating entity. The existence and characteristics of this entity cannot be explained in terms of the things we know to exist in the material universe, and by known physical laws. In addition, it cannot be observed as some distinct entity within the material universe. Further, its existence alone makes no predictions about the structure of the universe that we would expect to observe. However, by means of the introduction of a further set of completely ad-hoc assumptions, it can be made to fit with the evidence that we see around us. By such means, the existence of this entity becomes entirely untestable and unfalsifiable.
· By contrast, the Eternal Inflation multiverse theory explains the existence of our universe in terms of things that we know to exist, and of other well-founded and evidentially supported theories. It requires the introduction of no entirely ad-hoc elements. Further, in many specific ways it does predict the type of universe that we see around us. As yet, it cannot be tested or falsified directly. However, physicists are currently working on indirect methods by which it might be tested. Hence, the Eternal Inflation is a more parsimonious, plausible, and powerful hypothesis than the god hypothesis. It might not be true, but is at least a better explanation of what we observe to be the case than is the god hypothesis. Therefore, it is less rational to opt for the god hypothesis as one’s explanation of the existence of the universe, as better explanations exist.
At this point, the ‘sophisticated’ theist might be tempted to reach for one of the standard arguments for the existence of a god. However, this doesn’t really get them anywhere, as all of these arguments have well-known rebuttals.
For example, three perennial favourites are:
The Kalam Cosmological Argument takes the following form – 1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause. 2) The universe began to exist. 3) Therefore, the universe has a cause. 4) This cause is God. However, this argument fails, as the first and second premises are not demonstrably true. Current cosmological theories propose an eternal multiverse; and physicists have already proposed mechanisms whereby uncaused events can happen. Even apart from this, if we were to accept the conclusion of point 3, this does not imply that the cause is any particular god (or even a god at all: it could be a highly advanced alien civilisation), so the argument fails doubly.
The Cosmological Design Argument states that the precise fine-tuning for life of the fundamental constants appears more epistemically probable given theism than it does given naturalism. However, this fine-tuning for life arises as a natural consequence of cosmological multiverse theories, by means of the weak anthropic principle. That is, a universe in which we have evolved must necessarily have the appearance of fine-tuning for life. Within the infinity of possible ‘pocket universes’, some will allow for life to develop, and some others will not. We necessarily exist in a universe that does. As with the previous argument, this argument does not imply that the universe creator is any particular god, or even a god at all.
The classic Ontological Argument has the following form: 1. God is the most perfect ('the greatest') being conceivable. 2. It is more perfect ('greater') to exist than not to exist. 3. Therefore, God must exist. However, as Kant pointed out, existing is not a property of a thing at all i.e. existence is not a perfection. Therefore, the second premise is false. Even if we were to allow the second premise to stand, we could substitute things other than God in the first premise i.e. X is the most perfect Y conceivable, and thereby prove its existence – which is an absurdity. Even if we were to grant the validity of the argument, we would have to ask whether the entity whose existence we are proving bears any resemblance at all to the god commonly conceived of by the Abrahamic religions? The God depicted in the Bible, for example, is far from perfect by any normal definition of the word. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that such a ‘perfect’ entity is not the god of any known religion.
So, all of these arguments fail, and, even if they didn’t, do not lead to the conclusion that the god in question is one of those commonly conceived of. It might instead be a committee of gods, a supremely evil god, or a highly advanced alien civilisation etc. Actually, this same reasoning applies to almost any argument in favour of the minimal god hypothesis.
Now, back to the previous discussion. There is one fundamental problem with the Eternal Inflation theory. We are left with no fundamental explanation of why there is some universe-creating mechanism at all, and why the proposed mechanism works in the way that it does. We are just forced to accept this as our ‘brute fact’ – our starting point from which to deduce everything else.
It is at this point that one might be tempted to think that the god hypothesis scores its knockdown win by positing god as the ultimate explanation. However, a little more thought shows that this victory is in fact illusory. For, why does god have the characteristics that it does, and why create the particular universe that we see? More to the point, why does this god exist at all? Why not just no god and no universe? In other words, the proponent of the god hypothesis is forced to accept the existence of such a god as their ‘brute fact’. This god does not come from anywhere, or exist for any reason (since this would imply some Meta rule of existence and attributes applicable to gods) - it just exists. So, the proponent of the god hypothesis has the same problem here as the proponent of the Eternal Inflation theory – with the addition that their hypothesis is less parsimonious, plausible, and powerful, so it loses again.
The proponent of the god hypothesis might try to insist that their god is somehow a ‘necessary being’, but no formulation of this argument has ever avoided rebuttal, so this line of reason is not at all persuasive. As Hume pointed out, insofar as this concept coheres at all, we might as well just posit the universe (or multiverse) as that thing which is essential.
So, to conclude, I contend that the minimal god hypothesis that I have been considering is not the argument to the best explanation, and so should be rejected on the grounds of rationality. Whilst the Eternal Inflation theory may not be the correct explanation of reality, or even the best one, it is nevertheless a far more reasonable one than the god hypothesis, and so is to be preferred.