False premises of theists and atheists

Both theists and atheists seek to establish something about God from the things seen in the world, which is fine, but in recent times, each has been drawn to certain false premises. Theists often argue that God must be the cause of certain events, because the chances of the things forming randomly are exceedingly rare (think: “the odds of all the parts of the eye just coming together are… and then there is some number in scientific notation that is immensely huge, and no one ever quite knows where it came from). The argument is false on its face, and even seems to prove the opposite of what the theist would have it prove: because when things do actually come to be by chance, they tend to be rare anyway. If the formation of the eye is as improbable as winning the lottery, we should, on this theist’s premises, assume that the eye is formed in the same way one wins the lottery: accidentally. Beyond this, as many scientists have pointed out, one can never conclude from the probability of something to when it will occur in a sequence of events.

Atheists are often drawn to the premise that if something is formed by chance, it is not the product of mind (think the pop atheist darwinian arguments). This consequence is also false on its face, for most living individuals are formed by a random sperm cell and a random egg (No father chooses the seed that will conceive his child, no mother the egg) and this is no impediment to these events being planned and designed. The opinion also assumes that if there is no natural cause, there is no cause at all, which, since it is precisely the issue being disputed, is to beg the question. The assumption is strange anyway, since it is similar to saying that since no rose ever planned to plant itself, therefore no rose was ever planted by design. This argument is not limited to merely human agency: no tree ever planned to hold nests or make beaver dams, and no flower ever planned to be honey.

But both the theists and the atheists who argue this way have a more fundamental problem, in that their philosophical account of the world has not ascended to an understanding of being as such. Although, as a rule, these theists and atheists are incredibly bright, their philosophical understanding is still what St. Thomas would call of a grosser kind. Once we see things in the light of being as such, it is false to conclude that chance events, even as chance events, lack a cause, because chance events and the beings formed by them are still beings.

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9 Comments

  1. anna said,

    January 28, 2007 at 8:21 am

    nice. in a metaphysics class i’m auditing the professor made the point that those who would point simply to the elemental big bang as THE cause of the universe irrationally avoid dealing with all other causes save the material, while seeing no contradiction in such a singular cause being one of effects which themselves exhibit more complex causal capabilites and relations than the unadulterated material alone.
    — and happy feast day!

  2. Chris said,

    January 31, 2007 at 5:32 am

    It may be the “pop” Darwinian atheist argument that a random sperm and random egg end up together, purely by chance, but of course, that’s not what actually happens, and the more knowledgeable Darwinian atheists surely recognize this. In fact, sperm undergo rigorous, nonrandom selection. Granted, in the end, selection only gives you probabilities, but all you need is a little math to know that “chance” isn’t the main factor. I don’t know if something analogous happens with ova (I’m no biologist), but I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case.

    Honestly, though, I’ve never heard your version of the pop Darwinian atheist argument. Most of the arguments I hear go more like this: we can explain X (say, which sperm are more likely to end up with which eggs) with reference only to natural causes, therefore, there’s no need for a designer. The idea is that there’s no gap in which to place God, not that random = unintelligent (’cause let’s face it, it ain’t random, and anyone who can truly call him or herself a Darwinian atheist knows that). Now, there are some fairly obvious problematic assumptions in that argument, but the one you list here ain’t one of them.

  3. Richard said,

    January 31, 2007 at 5:35 am

    What “pop atheist darwinian arguments” do you have in mind? The only one I’m aware of is that evolution undermines the argument from design.

    No-one ever suggests that evolution couldn’t possibly have a designer behind it. (That would indeed be daft.) The point is simply that evolution doesn’t require a designer, so we have no reason to posit one here. Cue Ockham’s Razor…

  4. Chris said,

    January 31, 2007 at 6:52 am

    Richard, right, that’s the argument I generally hear, too. It has nothing to do with randomness. That’s why the post confuses me.

  5. Richard said,

    January 31, 2007 at 7:17 am

    Sorry Chris, I didn’t see your comment — mine was a response to the original post too (just repeating you, as it turns out!)

  6. a thomist said,

    January 31, 2007 at 4:35 pm

    Richard and Chris,

    Nice to have you both stop by. I started reading both of your blogs a long time ago and it’s good to hear from you both.

    Insofar as you are giving the an argument given by the best and most thoughtful of atheists, I agree with what you are saying. That is in fact what they say. I’m not particularly interested in getting into a textual-citation argument about whether one can consider the opinion “if by chance, then without mind (modus ponens)” to be a pop argument or not. To some extent I had to rely on my own experiences with various arguers to make the claim, so I wouldn’t go to the mat for it.

  7. John Farrell said,

    January 31, 2007 at 6:24 pm

    Beautiful post.

    Although, as a rule, these theists and atheists are incredibly bright, their philosophical understanding is still what St. Thomas would call of a grosser kind. Once we see things in the light of being as such, it is false to conclude that chance events, even as chance events, lack a cause, because chance events and the beings formed by them are still beings.

    I guess the question is, how do you get atheists past the inevitable dismissal of being as such by falling back on Kant’s assertion about existence not being a predicate, etc.

  8. Brandon said,

    February 2, 2007 at 3:12 pm

    It seems to me that ‘chance’ and ‘randomness’ aren’t synonymous, since the latter suggests what’s sometimes called ‘mere chance'; sets of alternatives are random only if their chances are equal. But, of course, you can have cases of chance that aren’t random in this sense — most aren’t, in fact. So I think we need to keep that in mind.

    I have come across atheistic arguments of this sort; but they tend to be found in much older works (mid twentieth century). I think Dawkins and Gould, in different ways, have done a lot to move people away from it.

  9. a thomist said,

    February 2, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    Brandon,

    That’s fair to say. In the post, I was working off an idea of both random and chance things as anything outside the intention or natural determination of the agents in question (by “outside” I mean accidental to), and in this sense, even though we can agree on probabilities, no one would argue that, say, the reproductive system of chimps is by nature ordered to making humans- even though we did in fact come forth from them historically.

    I do tend to read the mid century authors (Julian Huxley, Turing, Ber. Russ.) and so it’s probably the case that my understanding of what is popular is a bit out of date- but I wouldn’t say that the argument has totally disappeared, although, as I said above, I may have just had a quirky experience.

    Again, I agree with Chris and Richard that there are no “gaps” between the random mutation and the arising of the species. I did not mean to imply that there was some gap that needed to be explained, but only to point to times when a event that was random (in my sense) might still be being caused by something in another higher order. In fact, according to my understanding of random, a cause in a higher order than nature is necessary to account for the arising of the various species by evolution, because a cause per accidens presupposes some kind of cause per se. In a word, I think that since it’s true to say that because species arise randomly, they must be being caused by something per se, determined, and reducible to mind.


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