23
Feb

Are Believers “Begging the Question?”

imagesMy last post offered an answer to the question “Who Created God?” More precisely, it attempted to show that the very question is simply a reflection of a category error. God is the “uncaused cause,” the “first cause” that set all other things into being and motion. It is, therefore, nonsensical to insist that God too must have a creator.  But challengers of this view insist that it “begs the question” or that it “explains nothing.” As one skeptic put it, “I don’t see how positing a God explains anything: it simply makes the questions bigger and ignores them.”

But is this really the case? Are apologists merely replacing one question with a bigger question, or “begging the question.” No, in fact they’re not. Let’s see why.

“Begging the question” is a label applied to a particular type of fallacious reasoning.  When a person begs the question, he restates the conclusion he wants to reach using different terms that mean the same thing. The conclusion provides no real explanation or additional information; it simply restates as the reason the conclusion that was preordained.

For example, let’s take the assertion that women should not be allowed to join men’s’ clubs. How can I go about justifying the argument?  I could say that such clubs are for men only; therefore, women should not be allowed to join. This sounds like a reason is being offered, but in fact it’s not. Though framed as if it were a reason, it simply restates the conclusion as a premise. The question – here, should women be allowed to join? – is not really being addressed. The “answer” begs the question.

The challenger sees the argument “God is the uncreated being” as question-begging. He sees the conclusion as a definitional trick, as if the believer is simply saying “uncreated beings are not created.” Such as statement would, of course, add nothing to the discussion, amounting to a tautology. But this is not what the believer is doing. He is not saying, “God always existed because he was never created, and we know he was never created because beings that always existed do not have creators. “ Such a statement is circular, and begs the question “how could there be an uncreated Creator?”

So, what then is the believer saying, if it is not question-begging? It begins with understanding what is being asked. The believer is not in search of a definition. Instead, he seeks to make sense of the universe. He seeks an answer to questions such as: Why is there something rather than nothing? How did the universe “pop” into existence from nothing? Why does the universe exhibit extreme and exquisite fine-tuning and order? What is “life” and how did it come into existence? What is intelligence and how is it that humans possess it while other animals do not? How is it that life is based on a genetic code that is information-rich, such that DNA functions as a sophisticated set of blueprints? What is the source of this information? Why do human beings recognize the existence of morality? The list of questions is endless.

Two possibilities offer themselves as explanations: one, “nothing” explains all of this or two, “something” explains all of this. Option one is essentially irrational. To hold to option one, the skeptic must disregard everything he knows about the way things actually work. Seeing alphabet cereal spread out on the table in Shakespearean quotes, the skeptic insists that randomness explains what he sees. Nothing is behind the order and intelligence we see demonstrated in the universe. But if that is the case, the intelligence I am using to form this conclusion is itself the product of randomness and therefore not worthy of belief. Rationality itself  is on the ropes.  The alternative is that “something” set the universe in motion and gave it the distinctive characteristics that we see. This conclusion conforms to reason. It is rational to conclude that things demonstrating order and possessing information were created by an intelligent source. It does not all alone, of course, prove the God of the Bible. It simply recognizes the obvious: a being of immense intelligence and power is the only cause adequate to a universe such as ours.

So, why can’t he too have been created? Because temporal regression requires a beginning point. Otherwise, the past would be infinite in duration and today would never have arrived. But today is here. Moreover, science tells us that there was a beginning point to both space and time, some 14 billion years ago. The past is not infinite; time began at a particular point, along with matter and energy. Logically, the being capable of “creating” time cannot himself be contained by time. The being adequate to explain this universe must be timeless. And if that means anything, it means that his existence cannot be contingent. He must have always existed, so that he was in a position to create this universe, since he could logically have created himself.  If reason supports the conclusion that “something” created the universe, then that “something” must possess certain characteristics if we are to be governed by reason; those characteristics must include existence that is timeless, necessary and not contingent. He must be an eternal being. This does not flow from a preconceived definition; that would beg the question. It flows from an appreciation of what type of being is necessary to provide an adequate explanation. 

If you have a friend who was on the east coast this morning and on the west coast this afternoon, I am not begging the question by saying that his mode of transport must have been by air. Only air travel can account for such distances in such times; therefore he must have flown. This may sound like circular reasoning, but it is not. It is positing an explanation adequate to the effect. But I have not explained how a plane flies or how your friend got on the plane. I have not shown how the jet engine operates or where the fuel comes from. These questions remain unanswered. But I am not simply replacing one question with more, since I am not seeking to answer the how questions. I can do that eventually, but first I must form conclusions based on reason as to what set of options are within the realm of possible, adequate explanations.  

Similarly, while there is much that we do not know about God, positing his existence does not simply beg the question. It provides a concrete answer to the question – what caused the universe?  But, the skeptic persists, what is the point of this mental exercise? It doesn’t “explain anything,” does it?

Actually, it does, if one is careful about what one means by “explain.” Positing a Creator “explains things” in the same way that positing DNA “explains” why some cells turn into heart cells while others turn into eye cells. It describes the existence of an adequate cause, though it does not describe the actual process. It is, therefore, the beginning of the inquiry, not the end. DNA is an adequate cause for particular cell lines, though without knowing more about DNA, it isn’t a full explanation of the process by which it works. Recognizing DNA, though it is invisible to the human eye and not ordinarily accessible to us, is a better alternative than saying “nothing” explains cell lines. Recognizing God explains why there is life, order, intelligence, morality, fine-tuning, etcetera, in the universe, even if it does not explain the process by which God did all these things. The alternative – that nothing is behind all this – explains nothing. Once God is posited as an adequate explanation, the next step is to look for him, to seek him out, to learn about him, just as the next step with DNA is to study it.

Recognizing God, then, has great importance. It is the beginning of the journey that will lead to relationship with him. The skeptic will never take the next step of learning about God because he is convinced there is no reason to. It is as if, looking at DNA, he nonetheless says, “This explains nothing, as the DNA is more complex than the cells you are trying to explain. You have substituted one mystery with a greater one.”

Positing God doesn’t “explain” how things work; science does that. Positing God gives us the reason to pursue science, and discovery, in the first place.

Posted by Al Serrato

Facebook Twitter Plusone Pinterest Email

Tags: , , , , , ,

You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

10 Comments

  1. zilch says:

    Another huge post! Nice work, al, but again, I’m afraid I can’t answer everything in detail. I’ll try to hit a few high spots. You say:

    “The believer is not in search of a definition. Instead, he seeks to make sense of the universe. He seeks an answer to questions such as: Why is there something rather than nothing?”

    As I’ve pointed out, you can’t answer this question any more that I can, unless you can explain why God (plus everything else) exists. God is something after all too, unless He’s nothing.

    “How did the universe “pop” into existence from nothing? Why does the universe exhibit extreme and exquisite fine-tuning and order?”

    As I’ve said, I don’t know. There are quantum mechanical hypotheses that nothingness is inherently unstable and will eventually generate matter. But that’s speculation.

    “What is “life” and how did it come into existence?”

    Now we’re getting to questions with some (not all) answers. Life is a particularly highly ordered state of matter that exhibits metabolism, growth, and reproduction. The edges of this definition are of course fuzzy.

    “What is intelligence and how is it that humans possess it while other animals do not?”

    Again this denigrating of non-human animals. Is this your “ability to understand differential equations” definition of “intelligence” again? As to how it is that humans possess a great deal more knowledge than other animals, that’s pretty obvious. We evolved the capacity to use generative language and started downloading knowledge like crazy, onto other people’s brains, onto stone and paper and computers, etc.

    “How is it that life is based on a genetic code that is information-rich, such that DNA functions as a sophisticated set of blueprints?”

    Because it evolved that way. Exactly how, we don’t know.

    “What is the source of this information?”

    Evolution by means of natural selection. Observable in the field and in the lab.

    “Why do human beings recognize the existence of morality?”

    Because we’re a) social animals, b) members of cultures with morals, and c) reasoning beings.

    “Seeing alphabet cereal spread out on the table in Shakespearean quotes, the skeptic insists that randomness explains what he sees. Nothing is behind the order and intelligence we see demonstrated in the universe. But if that is the case, the intelligence I am using to form this conclusion is itself the product of randomness and therefore not worthy of belief.”

    This has got to be one of the most common arguments from theists, but it is based on a simple misunderstanding. Randomness doesn’t explain Shakespeare. But evolution is not random. Part of evolution is random: mutations are accidents, and so are big asteroids striking the Earth. But natural selection is anything but random.

    And why this claim that something that evolves, such as our intelligence, is not worthy of belief? That’s like saying that the cheetah can’t “really” run fast if it “merely” evolved. This is part of the very general “top down” attitude of believers: that nothing can be real, or worthy of belief or respect or love, if it wasn’t ordained from on high, but “merely” built up over slow ages from below. But why should that be? I personally find the story of evolution very inspiring: it’s our parents, and their parents, going back through unimaginable time, with unimaginable amounts of love and strife and work and play, to some unknown beginning.

    cheers from snowy Vienna, zilch

  2. zilch says:

    One more comment. You say:

    ” Positing a Creator “explains things” in the same way that positing DNA “explains” why some cells turn into heart cells while others turn into eye cells. It describes the existence of an adequate cause, though it does not describe the actual process.”

    Not so. DNA is not simply a concept of some unknown organizing agent behind life: it is a molecule which can be seen, manipulated, and predicted nowadays, at least to some extent. God is none of these things.

    Now, Darwin had no idea, of course, about DNA; the speculations he had about the mechanism of heredity were way off base. He knew there must be some explanation for the passing on of characteristics, but that was it. Therefore, his “explanation” of heredity was similar to calling God an “explanation” for the Universe, except that it didn’t involve the supernatural: there was no information in the “explanation” that would enable us to make predictions.

    Times have changed. Starting with Mendel, our knowledge of the mechanisms of heredity has grown by leaps and bounds. We can knock out single genes in mice and alter their behavior, for instance. Thus, we’ve progressed from an “explanation” for heredity that was simply a placeholder with no real explanatory power, to a huge body of knowledge far too great for one person to understand, that enables us to make firm tomatoes and fight disease, among other things. God is still at the placeholder level of “explanation”.

    You say:

    “The skeptic will never take the next step of learning about God because he is convinced there is no reason to. It is as if, looking at DNA, he nonetheless says, “This explains nothing, as the DNA is more complex than the cells you are trying to explain. You have substituted one mystery with a greater one.””

    Again, not so. DNA is not more complex than the cells it helps explain. The mysteries become smaller as you go back in time on naturalism, not greater. And again: people have been making up gods for a long time now, have they not? As I’ve said, and you’ve yet to respond to, there are lots of plausible reasons for people to invent gods, just like there are plausible reasons for all kinds of other beliefs that do not reflect the real world.

    cheers from icy Vienna, zilch

  3. Al says:

    Zilch,
    I’ve enjoyed the dialogue. Your “placeholder” comment betrays your presupposition: you start off with the assumption nature is all there is and when naturalistic explanations are inadequate to the task, you use a placeholder until science finally figures it out. That may work for natural things like DNA; it won’t work for things like intelligence, beauty and morality. There is much more at play than you are allowing for.

  4. zilch says:

    Al- I never claimed science could explain everything. But it can explain at least parts of intelligence, beauty, and morality. Of course, it depends on where you draw the boundaries of what’s considered “science”: is politics science? Advertising? Hard to say.

    My quick takes: intelligence, while still very poorly understood, doesn’t seem a mystery to me, since the evolutionary benefits of intelligence are obvious. Lots we don’t know still.

    Beauty is at least partly genetic: people find beautiful, for instance, the kind of landscapes we spent most of time evolving in, the savanna. Scattered trees to hide in, open vistas of new country to explore, water to drink. It’s not surprising that polls show this to be the favorite landscape of most people, especially children. And we find symmetry beautiful, probably because symmetrical things are often potential mates, food, or enemies, so they catch our attention. But of course there’s a lot more to it than that- a lot is cultural and hard to predict or map.

    Morality is, as I’ve said before, basically a mixture of three things: our genetic heritage as social animals, our cultural heritage as people, and our genetic/cultural ability to reason. That we share big parts of our morality with the other apes is not surprising or controversial. We’ve built upon that basis with religions, laws, mores, social contracts, and the like. Morality is a tough nut because the interactions of humans and their various desires are so complex. But again, morality is not a mystery. Its utility is obvious, both in the genes and in the memes.

    cheers from thawing Vienna, zilch

  5. Al says:

    Zilch,
    You need to move further back in time. You begin your evolutionary explanation with human beings fully formed and functioning. This must first be explained. Yes, intelligence develops over time. The question is how intelligence first appears. The moment on earth when the first human develops the very first thought, imagination, calculation, whatever. And what does he do with this solitary thought, all alone as he is? This, of course, can only occur after milennia during which gray matter continues its miraculous self-assembly. You’re glossing over the hard part….

    • zilch says:

      Al- to see the beginnings of intelligence, we must go much further back in time, to the beginnings of life. Before there was life, there was no intelligence, no modeling of the universe, unless you call the rebound of one particle from another a “model”. When life started, then intelligence also started, small of course.

      A bacterium following a nutrient gradient upstream is behaving intelligently. And by small steps. we’ve come to solving differential equations. Do you think evolution means that humans evolved big brains “for nothing” and then suddenly had thoughts?

      • Al says:

        Zilch,
        I don’t think that follows. Abstract thought is fundamentally different than an unthinking response to stimuli. Even assuming that primitive just happened to evolve, which itself is hugely problematic given the complexity of even the most simple form, evolution has no model for the emergence of abstract thought. There is nothing just short of abstract thought that can eventually become thought given selection working on a population over a period of time..

        • zilch says:

          Al- how do you know all these things are true? I don’t see any reason to believe that abstract though is not just a further development along the continuum from unthinking response to stimuli, through thinking response to stimuli, through planning ahead. The further you go back, the smaller the brains our ancestors had. It makes sense that they had simpler minds too. I don’t see any problem evolution would have with this smooth progression.

  6. Al says:

    Zilch,
    I guess my answer would be: for the same reason that I have conversations with people and not with single celled organisms. I think its self-evident that abstract thought is fundamentally different than response to stimuli. I have no reason, therefore, to believe that abstract thought “evolved” from non-thought, because iit is fundamentally different.

  7. zilch says:

    But al, you’re leaving out a few steps between single-celled organisms and modern humans. If you go back in time and have conversations with your parents, and their parents, then even supposing understanding of different languages, these conversations are going to slowly start involving less and less abstract thought, the further you go back in time. Opinions differ on when we started using language capable of expressing abstract thought, but probably any ancestors from more than, say, a million years ago, are going to have trouble following, say, this conversation.

    Again: do you have any evidence that there is a “fundamental difference” between abstract thought, non-abstract thought, and simple nervous response to stimuli? Sure doesn’t look that way to me. Of course, the line that led to humans splitting from our common ancestor with chimps is extinct, so all the language and thought stages in between are no longer extant. That makes for a rather large gap, to be sure. Opinions also differ on whether or not chimps can reason abstractly. I would say that they’re at the beginning of it, when they, say, react with anger when a fellow chimp gets a reward they don’t.

    Thus, I would say that the ball is in your court, to show that there is really a “fundamental difference” between abstract and non-abstract thought.

    cheers from snow-free Vienna, zilch

Leave a Reply