Atheists have bad arguments, too.
Consider the perennial favorite “if God created everything, then who created God”? The supposedly fatal infinite regress (IR) has appeared in the writing of atheist icons Dawkins and Hitchens, not to mention in the comments threads of an uncountable number of internet debates. I’m not guiltless either, as I frequently brandished this conversation stopper when I was but a brand new and self-righteous convert to atheism.
We have the reasoning clearly laid out for us in this passage from Michael Shermer:
WHY IS THERE SOMETHING RATHER THAN NOTHING? This is one of those profound questions that is easy to ask but difficult to answer. For millennia humans simply said, “God did it”: a creator existed before the universe and brought it into existence out of nothing. But this just begs the question of what created God—and if God does not need a creator, logic dictates that neither does the universe.
Thankfully I encountered a thorough demolition of it in the highly-recommended blog (now archive) Common Sense Atheism, written by Luke Meuhlhauser. He pointed out that the IR is a problem for science as well as theism. In our attempts to make the world more explicable it’s not uncommon to postulate the existence of some particle, mathematical constant, or mental faculty. These components of our models and theories may spend years making sense of data before an explanation is found for them. While there might be plenty of problems with using God as an explanation, his lack of an explanation isn’t one of them.
In addition to the fact that science often relies on explanatory entities that are themselves unexplained, the IR is usually written in a way that indicates a complete unawareness of a standard theistic reply, the Kalam Cosmological argument (KCA). It seems unsportsmanlike to issue a challenge to one of the longest lasting and most deeply held beliefs of humans as a species and then not even browse the thousands of pages that have been written in response. It’s fine to think the argument fails (I do), but atheists shouldn’t be pretending that it doesn’t exist.
The KCA has a long history and is a fiercely debated topic in philosophy of religion. If you don’t know, it basically runs like this:
1) Everything that began to exist had a cause
2) The universe began to exist
3) Therefore, the universe had a cause.
After these premises, apologists like William Lane Craig might add a 4th and 5th step trying to demonstrate that the cause of the universe had to be personal, omnipotent, etc. This paves the way for evidence of the resurrection of Christ to establish the validity of the Christian worldview. Or that seems to be the plan, for Christian apologists anyway.
Premise one seems relatively uncontroversial from my point of view, and premise two is supported by enormous amounts of physical evidence. The theist can try to escape the infinite regress by saying that only things within space and time begin to exist. God, being outside of the universe, didn’t need to begin existing, so he is uncaused and eternal in a way that nothing physical ever could be. Being atemporal, it could be argued that God *couldn’t* have begun to exist. One wonders whether an omnipotent God could force himself to have a beginning.
So then why am I an atheist?
Since I know about the KCA and I’m not a theist or even a deist, I don’t think the argument succeeds. As the motivation for this post was to point out one example of bad reasoning amongst my fellow atheists and not to offer an articulation of my atheist philosophy, I’ll only briefly sketch why I think God didn’t create the universe.
First, God fails as an explanation for…well…pretty much anything. Over time it has been discovered that in general good explanations are as simple as possible, agree with the other things we think are true about the world, offer testable predictions, and explain a wide range of phenomena (note: this list is far from exhaustive). “God did it” does explain pretty much everything, I guess. But it isn’t nearly as simple as it appears at first, it disagrees with substantial portions of science, and it is consistent with any conceivable observation. I hope to return to some of these issues in philosophy of science.
Further, God is, as far as I can tell, almost always considered a supernatural agent. Given the amazing success of naturalism in explaining the world, it seems reasonable to be wary of supernatural explanations, which have a poor track record. Note carefully that I’m not ruling out supernatural explanations a priori. But one of these ways of explaining the world has proven more useful, so far, than the other, and I’m not going to pretend this isn’t the case.
So at the end of the day, I don’t know what caused the Big Bang, why the constants are fine-tuned, or why there is something rather than nothing. But given God’s explanatory poverty and supernaturalism’s abysmal performance compared to naturalism, I feel justified in not looking to theology for an answer.
I’d like to close by saying that there might be a version of the IR which has some teeth. I’d welcome having my mind changed on the topic.