(Previous in the series: The Best and Worst in Human History and Science vs. Miracles.)

In his op-ed, “Taking aim at God, and missing,” Dinesh D’souza continues his counters to “New Atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens. This time we find him saying that “Thanks to the astounding discoveries of modern science, I think the God hypothesis has a lot more going for it today than it did in the eighteenth century.” What he considers convincing on this front is telling, so I’ll quote him at length:

Modern science has discovered that the universe, far from existing eternally, had a beginning. Not only matter but space and time itself came into existence around 15 billion years ago in the fiery burst that scientists term the Big Bang. The laws of physics themselves originated at that point, and those laws were inoperative “before” the founding moment. So what is the secular explanation for how the universe and its laws came into existence? Is there a natural explanation for nature’s own origin? If so, what is the evidence for it? Hitchens supplies no such theory and no supporting evidence. His rejection of the God hypothesis seems nothing more than an assertion of atheist dogma.

In recent decades, scientists have found innumerable ways in which our universe—not just our planet but the entire universe—is narrowly tailored to permit life. Change the variables of nature by an infinitesimal amount and this would be a very different universe without observers to perceive and study it. As physicist Freeman Dyson puts it, with an intended mystical touch, the universe behaves as though it knew we were coming! So why are the laws constructed in such a way that we are here to discover them? It’s possible that there is a convincing natural explanation, but Hitchens certainly does not produce one. Once again the God hypothesis seems unavoidable.

Now consider man, undoubtedly a product of natural selection, but also possessing qualities such as the ability to tell right from wrong that are unexplained by Darwin and his followers. … There is within us all a moral law that speaks to us gently but firmly, urging though not compelling us to do what is right… If natural selection cannot account for this moral law, where does it come from? I am not saying that science will never explain this, I am saying that science cannot explain it now. It seems much more reasonable, based on existing evidence, to believe that moral laws derive from a divine legislator than to embrace Hitchens’ promissory atheism: one day we’ll figure out a natural way to account for all this.

If only his opponents had the philosophical foundation to resist all those temptations for distraction in debate. In response to this sort of thing, they should be asking a simple question to expose a pervasive methodological problem in religious thought: Since when did not knowing the answer to a puzzle entitle us to go and make one up?

In fact, these sorts of arbitrarily asserted “explanations” pulled out of thin air should be simply dismissed out of hand—a principle long recognized in logic and law. When someone brings a baseless charge before a court, it is to be dismissed as beneath consideration (and could even earn penalties for wasting the court’s time). Likewise, when someone brings a baseless idea before a rational mind, it should be simply dismissed as beneath consideration. And D’Souza consistently relies on the logical fallacy of the “argument from ignorance,” taking peoples’ lack of knowledge around this and that as evidence in support of “the God hypothesis.” That is exactly the error that dishonest magicians rely on to convince gullible people that they are psychics and mediums and instruments of God. Not knowing how the guy did it is not itself evidence that he is actually a psychic or some sort of divine instrument—just as our ignorance of why the laws of nature seem so exquisitely fine-tuned is not evidence that “God did it.” In all such cases, our ignorance only constitutes evidence that we don’t yet understand something.

Sadly, D’Souza has a lot of company in these errors: history is littered with examples of something “supernatural” being arbitrarily asserted as the explanation, only to be retracted later as our knowledge expanded. Every gust of wind and bolt of lightning was a direct act of God. But then came Ben Franklin, and we no longer think about meteorology that way. The same thing happened with tornadoes and earthquakes: the Acts of God that insurance policies exclude used to be divine punishment, but with our current understanding the term is really a euphemism for natural disasters. And today, most people don’t consider themselves impious or afflicted with demons just because they catch the flu or get a nasty infection—they know it’s because of germs. The history of mankind has been one long account of religious explanation being crowded out by scientific discoveries and rational understanding. This pattern of poor thinking is so common that it even has its own name: the “God of the Gaps,” where a supernatural agent is cited as the reason behind something we do not understand. Here’s the clincher: just notice how it always goes one way—natural, rational explanations are never displaced by supernatural “explanations.”

What’s a bit humorous about D’Souza’s point is that we can even predict that advances in science will make this sort of sophistry all the more enticing and common. After all, you can’t wonder about the design of the inner workings of the cell until you find out there are cells and that they contain marvelous machinery, and you can’t explore the delicate interplay of cosmological constants until you have discovered those constants in the first place. So sure, if you let your thinking be corrupted by arbitrary God of the Gaps arguments from ignorance, then you’ll believe “the God hypothesis has more going for it today” in our impressive explosion of scientific progress.

D’Souza is a bright and scholarly fellow who certainly understands the basic principles of logic. And he is obviously well-read in the history of Western thought, which has seen the fundamental errors in these religious arguments exposed countless times through the ages. Yet he presents them again with a straight face. His opponents and fans alike should be asking another question as well: Why would the truth need the support of false arguments?

(Upcoming in the series: Morality and Life.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.p.cogan Chris P. Cogan

    The quoted “arguments” are not only arguments from ignorance, but they also invert the burden of proof. It is up to HIM to prove that no naturalistic account of some fact is possible. It is not the atheist’s job to prove that we already know a naturalistic explanation for every phenomenon. D’Souza not only fails to prove his conclusions, but he doesn’t even show (and cannot show) that it is even possible for something supernatural to exist at all. Further, the Principle of Naturalistic Sufficiency implies that we can ALWAYS produce a naturalistic explanation that is better than any supernatural explanation offered. All we have to do is remove the “super” from any reference to anything supernatural. Such an alternative is better than the supernatural one because it doesn’t require a whole new level of metaphysical existence as an explanatory base. For example, if someone claims that there is some supernatural entity that can create a universe like ours by supernatural means, we can simply offer the alternative of a NATURAL entity that can create universes like ours, by naturalistic means (such as advanced technology). Of course, this doesn’t prove the existence of such a thing; but it undermines such arguments as D’Souza’s because it is identical to his EXCEPT that it doesn’t have the same conclusion. And, it points up the fact that the introduction of any form of supernaturalism to explain things is an utterly gratuitous move. A made-up supernaturalistic cause for something provides ABSOLUTELY nothing that we can’t get by simply taking the SAME made-up cause and replacing it with a claim of an otherwise identical naturalistic cause.

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