The other night while I was still babysitting my nieces, I was reading through a small book called Does Science Make Belief In God Obsolete?, which was put out by the Templeton Foundation and which I had picked up with some other material of theirs at the American Academy of Religion conference in Chicago. It's actually free and available online on their website, and made for better middle-of-the-night-bathroom-break reading than Templeton Prize winner John Polkinghorne's book Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship, which would have required me to wake up a bit more.
The book contains a series of responses by a variety of people: scientists, philosophers, theologians, writers. I was reading through the response of Christopher Hitchens, one of the "New Atheists" who I have noted in this space before. His response was characteristic of why the New Atheists have come under such criticism, even from other atheists: it is more insult than insight, trading on stereotypes and old generalizations rather than serious history or research, mostly "preaching to the choir," or persuasive to the lightly-educated in this field. When his reasons for thinking science should make theism obsolete were extracted, they boiled down to two ideas: that nature (via science) essentially explains itself without need for a God, and that if a good, all-powerful God existed there was no way such evil would exist in the world. These arguments, the two most substantial arguments ever made against belief in God, while thought very modern by some, are as ancient as theism itself. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas deals with them as classics in his Summa Theologiae as the principle objections in his brief article on the existence of God.
So here's the thing: as I was reading through Hitchen's restatement of these thoughts, I thought I noticed a problem, one that I'm not sure whether I've ever heard addressed before. It seems to me that the two objections, while notable in themselves, are incompatible. These are the notes I jotted down the next morning. I would be really interested in knowing whether this line of reasoning has been pursued before, or if anyone sees a flaw in my own midnight logic.
Presumption #1: It is better to have an ordered cosmos, uniformly following those "natural laws" observed by our scientific disciplines. This is superior to the notion of a capricious God or gods, who have to "work" the universe in response to our prayers and desires.Thoughts? Again, does this hold, or have I missed something? I haven't kept a steady reading diet in Philosophy of Religion in some years, and it seems too classic a set of issues not to have been already developed, but I haven't been able to find anything yet on it.
Presumption #2: The history of the cosmos, with its capacity for destruction, its indifference to human life, and its potential for allowing or bringing our species to the brink of extinction, cannot be reconciled with the existence of a loving God who actively intervenes in history on our behalf.
Mike: One of the presumptions could be true, but not both. Presumption #1 argues that a God intervening in history of the cosmos is a capricious and unworthy God – an object of human superstition. Presumption #2 argues that a God who does not intervene in such a history as ours is capricious and cruel.
These two arguments together therefore attempt to argue both sides of an idea as against the possibility for God's existence. But you cannot at the same time argue that a God who interferes in history is inadequate, and that a God who does not interfere in history is inadequate, and that these together make an argument against the existence of God. For Hitchens's purposes, this is a "Heads I win, Tails you lose" argument.
You must either argue one of two possibilities. The first is that God makes a consistent and logical universe that he allows the dignity of its own existence and integrity (a universe that follows "scientific laws"), and that therefore includes pain and suffering as nature follows its rules (gravity leads to car crashes, environmental poison to cancer). Or you must argue that a "scientific" universe with its own laws of nature and their painful consequences is itself an act of cruelty unworthy of a Creator God, and that God should interfere in every aspect of the world that could cause pain and suffering, even if this means the destruction or denial of any scientific law and of human freedom.
In other words, the two arguments that Thomas Aquinas identified as the primary arguments against the existence of God – that nature alone accounts for all phenomena without requiring the existence of God, or that the presence of evil in the world in itself proves the lack of an all-good, all-powerful God – are incompatible. You can hold to one or the other of these arguments against God, but not both, for they depend upon contradictory and opposing presumptions about the relationship of God to the universe: that God must and ought to intervene in its affairs (as in the "problem of evil" objection) or that God must and ought not to intervene in its affairs (as in the "problem of nature" objection).