Religion & Liberty Online

God vs. Absurdity

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There have been many attempts to prove the existence of God and disprove a sui generis universe in which sentient life is a mere accident of the Big Bang. A new book offers some fresh insights into why theism is a better explanation than naturalism for understanding reality, including the ability to do science.

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“In fact, the fundamental claim of this book is that if one believes the world actually is intelligible—that things make sense, and ultimate explanation can be had—then God exists.” This is the provocative thesis of philosopher and writer Pat Flynn, whose new book, The Best Argument for God, insists that the real philosophical dilemma we face is not between theism and atheism but between theism and absurdity, or a reality that is utterly unintelligible.

To make his case, Flynn first offers some preliminary remarks about philosophy and science. Many people today believe that science is our most reliable method for arriving at certain knowledge, and that if something cannot be proved scientifically, its truth claim is questionable at best. There are problems, however, with this attitude. For one thing, the belief that science is our most certain source of verifiable knowledge cannot itself be proved by science since no scientific experiment could ever demonstrate it. It is therefore a philosophical posture posing as a scientific one. Furthermore, science itself rests on philosophical foundations (contra the objections of some pop scientists).

Consider, for example, that science can investigate the occurrence of change, such as ice melting, leaves falling, or animals digesting, to discover the physical processes that cause these material changes, but it cannot tell us what the nature of change is. In other words, science presupposes the reality of change to get off the ground—for without change there would be neither physical processes nor causes for scientific inquiry to examine—but it cannot tell us what logical categories are needed to make sense of what change is or how it is possible. Philosophy, however, can.

In fact, making sense of change was a major dilemma in early Western philosophy, when Parmenides argued that change was simply an illusion (which would, of course, destroy science), and Heraclitus instead contended that there was no stability, that everything existed in a state of constant flux. It was Aristotle who solved the puzzle by distinguishing between “potential being” and “actual being,” and by recognizing that “form” and “matter” are two irreducible categories of the natural world (known as hylomorphism).

That, however, is a story for a different day. The point for now is simply that philosophy considers the most general features of reality, features that science must take for granted before it can even get started. As Flynn puts it, “Philosophers latch onto and subsequently analyze experiential features of the world that are so broad that they cannot be coherently called into question and must therefore be considered pre-scientific. Philosophers work with experiences the denial of which would make science itself impossible.”

For instance, the denial of change not only makes scientific investigation impossible but also is self-refuting. After all, to deny change first requires formulating the relevant thought and then expressing that thought, which involves the mind and the body moving through a sequence of changes. So if change is undeniable, how do we make sense of it? Seeking an answer has led a great many philosophers down the ages to theism. This is because, as the thesis of Flynn’s book maintains, commitment to a complete explanation, or to an answer that is fully intelligible, must itself transcend the category of change altogether. In other words, whatever explains change must itself be unchanging, which makes it unlike anything we experience and therefore radically unique.

Furthermore, when we consider other fundamental features of reality, such as “contingency” (the fact that things in the world depend on other things for their existence) and the nature of existence itself, every ultimate explanation necessarily terminates in an unchanging and necessary being who, upon analysis, must be one, simple, eternal, immaterial, incorporeal, perfect or fully good, omniscient, and omnipotent. While space constraints prevent drawing this out here, readers will find a robust defense of it in the book, through both traditional lines of analysis concerning God’s existence (or what is sometimes called “cosmological” reasoning) and the more modern “worldview comparison” approach, which compares theism to “naturalism” (i.e., atheism) to show why theism better explains reality.

Of course, as Flynn points out, anyone can dig in their heels and refuse to commit to pushing ultimate explanations as far as possible, which will of course prevent a theistic conclusion. Doing so, however, comes at a heavy cost. To see this, consider the most fundamental question he explores in the book: the nature of existence, or why there is something rather than nothing. As he catalogs, there are essentially three answers to that question. The first is that there is something unique that explains why anything, including the universe and everything in it, exists. This he labels the “further story” account. The second answer is that there is nothing unique that explains why we exist. Things have simply always existed and that is all. This he calls the “same story” account. Finally, there is the denial that there can ever be an answer to the question in the first place. This he calls the “no story” account. According to this explanation, the universe just “is” and that’s all we can say.

Flynn, of course, defends the “further story” account throughout the book, which builds on the metaphysical tradition of philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas, while also incorporating insights of other thinkers, including genuine insights of his own. But one way he defends his thesis is by exposing the price one must pay for accepting either the “same story” or the “no story” account for the existence of the universe. For instance, if the universe just exists and that is all we can say, it is what philosophers call a “brute fact.” The problem with brute facts, however, is that “if anything can exist without some explanation as to why, then how do we discern which things have explanations and which do not? Surely, some things do have explanations as to why they exist. Where do we draw the lines of criteria as to which?”

In other words, if the universe is a changing and contingent entity like the things within the universe, and if it requires no explanation for its existence, then it is hard to see why things within the universe should require explanation for their existence either. For all we know, things simply exist for no reason at all, or pop into existence uncaused. But if that’s the case, not only do we lose the possibility of science (science seeks explanations for things, after all)—we also lose all rational modes of inquiry, including reason itself. Thoughts could just pop into our heads for no reason, meaning that our beliefs may be completely untethered from external reality and thus deprived of rational grounding. This includes the very belief that the universe and all the things in it have no explanation for their existence. At that point, we’re trapped in a radical skepticism that allows for no beliefs about anything at all. As Flynn explains, by “denying the principle that things really do, unexceptionally, have explanations, we throw ourselves into a catastrophic, self-defeating skepticism, where nothing can be counted as knowledge, or any belief rationally justified, including—and this is important—the belief that things lack explanation.”

In short, brute facts end up being a universal acid that eats through the intelligibility of reality, including rationality itself, which is why Flynn spends so much ink analyzing many of the best naturalistic arguments and objections, and showing the reader why they ultimately lead either to self-defeat or to global skepticism. Along the way, he not only offers thorough defenses of many key principles of rational inquiry, including the Principle of Sufficient Reason (or “PSR”), but he carefully treats the most serious stumbling blocks to theism for many naturalists, including suffering and the problem of evil (“theodicy”).

Flynn acknowledges the gravity of the theodicy dilemma but nevertheless maintains that both suffering and evil end up pointing toward rather than away from the existence of God. Why? Consider what it means for something to be “good” or “bad.” A good apple, to use Flynn’s example, is one that has all the features an apple should have given its nature as an apple. (A good apple has features like crispness, juiciness, tastiness, etc.) A bad apple, however, is one that lacks at least one of the features it should have (say, tastiness), given its nature as an apple. Now, and this is the key insight, note that we recognize a bad apple only because of its prior goodness—that is, by the fact that it has apple-like features such as “crispness” and “juiciness,” and only then do we grasp its badness for lacking the “tastiness” it should have provided, as apples by nature are tasty. What all this means is that, at bottom, evil is, as Augustine pointed out in the fourth century, parasitic on the good. As Flynn writes, “there must always be some level of goodness or success before we can judge any level of badness or failure.” Goodness, in other words, is more fundamental to reality than badness. This all makes perfect sense, of course, to the theist, given that the nature of ultimate reality, or God, is pure goodness itself. That is why properly understanding the nature of good and evil provides evidence for theism rather than naturalism.

But of course, a proper understanding of this issue, and of theism itself, requires much more than can be said here. For that, pick up a copy of this accessible updating of some perennial arguments for the existence of God. You won’t be disappointed.

David Weinberger

David Weinberger is a freelance writer and book reviewer on topics related to philosophy, culture, history, and economics. Follow him on Twitter @DWeinberger03. Email him at [email protected].