The Futile Ploys of the Intellectual Christian

Dressing up ancient myths as philosophical arguments

Image by Jamie Street, from Unsplash

There’s a curious kind of evangelistic theist who boasts about the rationality of his or her religious beliefs.

Take, for example, Cameron Bertuzzi, author of the Capturing Christianity website and YouTube channel. The website’s headline is “Exposing the intellectual side of Christian belief.” Likewise, in the description of his “About” video, “Welcome to Capturing Christianity,” he says his channel is “unique” in taking “critical thinking very seriously.”

Sure enough, in his articles and videos, Bertuzzi responds to objections to Christianity, offers philosophical and theological explanations and proofs of God and of the finer points of his creed, hosts debates, and interviews New Testament scholars and philosophers of religion. All very intellectual, right?

Religion and the Social Instinct

But there’s a preliminary problem for religious thinkers like Bertuzzi, which is that religion and spirituality don’t obviously have anything to do with intellectualism. Most religious believers throughout history have had simple, “folk” beliefs about gods, spirits, and the afterlife. They believed because they weren’t intellectual and didn’t care about the philosophical implications of their superstitions and communal practices, since they weren’t educated and were mostly illiterate.

This means, in turn, that their religious convictions were intuitive gut reactions to the world that bonded them as a community, since the stranger the belief, the greater the show of loyalty in those who swear their commitment to the group via their avowal of that religious belief. Moreover, common, anti-intellectual folk balk at the prospect of atheism, because the repudiation of belief in any god or supernatural spirit is counterintuitive — just like most scientific theories and abstract problems that are solved only with critical thinking, which doesn’t come naturally to most people.

Theistic belief is the default for social mammals like us, as explained by the philosopher Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell. Even as infants, we have a social instinct to search for and to bond with people, because unlike some other animal species, human newborns are helpless on their own. We require adult guardians to raise us and to teach us language; otherwise, we won’t grow up to be encultured or civilized people.

As Dennett puts it, we have an innate pattern detector that looks for signs of intentionality, for minds or for beliefs, desires, and volitions, for things we can negotiate with on a social rather than just a brute-force level. We’re good at finding minds, which is how we’ve survived for tens of thousands of years, but that very skill can be overused, as when we look for pictures in clouds or we curse the rock that accidentally lands on our toe as though the rock were alive and meant to harm us.

As attested by the animistic prehistory of religion, we’re prone to personalizing the whole world because we’re so predisposed to searching for fellow minds for our survival and sanity, that if we look hard enough we can find signs of them everywhere. We posit ghosts and gremlins in response to the noises that old houses make; we presume there are powerful spirits or gods responsible for natural forces and disasters; and we posit a sovereign deity as the leader of all such paranormal spirits, to mirror the rise of human kingdoms and empires.

We’re predisposed to looking for personal qualities even where we know there none, because we flourish only in the part of the world we evolved to prefer, namely society. The more we socialized and cooperated and learned from each other, the less comfortable we may have felt with the impersonal wilderness. That alienation from nature likely prompted the invention of agriculture and the construction of civilization, which enabled us to thrive solipsistically in a wholly artificial bubble world.

So that’s a surefire explanation of the existence of religion: Religion is universal in human history not because religious beliefs are especially logical and intellectually respectable, but because our brain is hardwired to find minds.

Again, so-called religious intellectuals like Bertuzzi need to be asked, in the first place, why anyone should expect religious beliefs to be rational. Why translate mythic poetry and theological commentary into philosophical jargon? Isn’t arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin so much fodder for a Monty Python skit? Why, then, profess that you’re so intellectual about God, if you’re a theist? The answers to such questions will prove instructive.

The Ambiguity of Theistic Evidence in a Fallen Universe

Suppose God does exist. God, then, would have a choice about how to relate to his creatures. According to the Bible, God once walked alongside people, but then we fell from grace because of our disobedience so we were kicked out of Eden, which is another way of saying that God withdrew from at least part of the world he created. Henceforward, the monotheist will say, God would appear only under special circumstances, in the revelatory voices heard by prophets, in miraculous events, or in the person of Jesus, a human incarnation of God.

Would God want to remind us that he exists, even after he expelled us from that common ground where he could show us his magnificence and we could stomach it due to our innocence? According to monotheists, from Zoroastrians to Muslims, God does indeed have a plan to reconcile himself with his favourite, fallen creatures. A day of judgment will arrive when God will reveal himself and reign over us directly once more. Until that day comes, God tests us to determine our worthiness.

From this theistic perspective, then, we can presently expect only ambiguous evidence in support of religious claims. There can be overwhelming proof of God only in Eden or in Heaven where God shows himself. (Heaven used to be considered outer space, but because God wasn’t found there, God’s home became a supernatural realm.) The natural universe is the fallen place in which God is largely absent.

Again, according to the monotheistic religions themselves, nature is explicitly run, rather, by demonic powers. The faithful await the messiah, the Second Coming, or the Day of Doom when God will finally defeat Satan and the other rebellious angels and end their corruptions of us. Until then, we’re stuck between the diabolical illusion of God’s nonexistence, meaning God’s evident absence and the naturalness of all perceivable affairs, and the hope or dream of paradise in which we can live forever as in a fairytale.

For example, Dennett’s sociological explanation of religion makes the justification of theistic beliefs ambiguous at best. If God does exist, would he predispose us to finding him by installing in us the social instinct for personalizing everything in sight? That seems doubtful, since once we become aware of how that instinct can be overused we have to compare the instinct to the boy who cried wolf, so that we end up doubting the validity of at least some of those projections of personhood. Indeed, we can begin to doubt the reality of personal qualities even in ourselves, as in the case of Buddhism or materialist philosophy.

At the very least, we have this nontheistic explanation of what’s going on with religion: the social instinct evolved to compensate for the fact that newborn human infants are helpless and need to find and bond quickly with fully-personal adults, to have any hope of surviving and thriving.

Once we understand that, is it supposed to be easy to believe we have that social instinct also because God put it there, because he wants us to trust one particular dubious mental projection? Are we supposed to doubt the seeing of faces in clouds and the hearing of spooky monsters in the woods at night, but not the finding of personhood in the source of the whole universe? That hardly seems overwhelmingly rational, as the religious intellectual would have it. On the contrary, this requires the fallacy of special pleading. But perhaps that’s as it should be, if God wanted to test our faith in the interim.

The spiritual nature of our social instinct is ambiguous. For every elevated interpretation of why we socialize with each other, there’s a deflationary, sociobiological explanation that assumes God’s nonexistence.

The Neutral Instrument of Reason

What about the faculty of reason itself? Did God enable us to reason by way of giving us another path to rediscovering the truth of religion, to tide us over until he makes obvious his present sovereignty over the universe? Human intelligence does seem anomalous in the animal world. In evolutionary terms, science and philosophy aren’t adaptations but byproducts or exaptations of our cognitive traits.

Animals implicitly think with some logic, if only to get by in the world in their physical bodies, remembering the danger they previously encountered in one corner of the jungle, for example, and implicitly recognizing the law of logic that something is identical to itself and thus that it can persist over time. Predatory hunters need to plan and think efficiently to successfully capture prey, and they need to be objective and remorseless in killing it to feed themselves and their pack.

Moreover, some instrumental rationality or Machiavellian maneuvering would be helpful in social species such as ours, especially in our civilized, hierarchical settings, since we need to plan to make alliances and to negotiate the relationships in our group, judging, for example, whether someone would make a fine friend or whether they’re dangerous and unreliable.

But again, there’s no strictly biological explanation of the relatively bizarre scientific ability to understand the nature of the whole universe. Human reason evolved culturally to be that powerful or presumptuous.

So did God steer cultures to make us sufficiently rational to be able to appreciate the various supernatural facts posited by religions? At least, did God foresee the historical emergence of full-blown human reason, so that he ensured religions wouldn’t be left out of intellectual consideration but would have sterling defenses in the forms of systematic theology, philosophical proof, and empirical evidence?

The situation is obviously ambiguous at best, as it is in the case of our social instinct for religious anthropomorphism. Both reason and that instinct can be overused. Reason has been employed systematically in defense of slavery, racism, sexism, war, imperialism, pseudoscience, Nazism, Soviet gulags, and the capitalist destruction of the biosphere. For example, economists resort to intellectual-sounding mathematical abstractions to “prove” that markets should be deregulated and allowed to run their plutocratic course.

Moreover, scientists have used reason in paradigmatic fashion to expand our understanding of the universe, by assuming not monotheism but methodological naturalism.

Therefore, if anything, monotheists have a basis for not trusting reason. The religious merits of reason are mixed at best. Reason is like technology in that it can be used for opposite purposes and can be made to work with similar degrees of efficiency, especially if we’re applying reason to subjective questions that have only unfalsifiable answers. Reason, then, will spin its wheels, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant explained. As far as Christians should be concerned, reason is a tool of the devil, not of God. Science and philosophy support atheism at least as much as they do religion.

Catholic Cultural Appropriation

Indeed, that was the reigning view in early Christianity. Paul said in 1 Cor.2:13–14 that the Christian speaks “not in words taught us by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The natural man does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God. For they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

Evidently, Paul wasn’t confident in the Christian’s ability to compete with pagan philosophers who dismissed folk religion as ignorant superstition (as Celsus and Porphyry did). Pauline Christians likewise embraced the Gnostic view that natural reason is spiritually unreliable because it’s part of nature in general, which is run by “the rulers,” “authorities,” and “powers of this dark world” (Eph.6:12).

But eventually the leaders of the Church decided to reconcile not just one Christian sect with another, by distinguishing between the orthodox and the heretical, but the Church as a whole with the non-Christian intellectual discourses that were being rediscovered. For example, Augustine did with this Neoplatonism, while Aquinas did so with Aristotelianism.

Thus was born the tradition of Christian apologetics, of attempting to establish the supreme rationality of Christian doctrine compared to that of any other body of doctrines. Here, then, is one explanation of the pretense of Christian intellectualism: the Church leaders were stunned and challenged by the independence and humanism of ancient Greek and Latin philosophical and literary works, and deployed the same tactic the Church had used against pagan culture in general, which was to co-opt the lot of it.

Take the well-known example of the date of Christmas, which was likely chosen to undermine the authority of the pagan worship of the “invincible sun,” by associating Jesus’s birth with the Roman festival celebrating the winter solstice. Of course, the familiar symbols of Christmas and of Easter are replete with appropriations of folk traditions. The root meaning of “Catholicism,” after all, is universality. Catholics wanted to convert the world to their viewpoint, not by killing all non-Christians but by subtler, rhetorical and even underhanded techniques of persuasion. Just as the Church annexed pagan symbols, holidays, and holy places, it absorbed the neutral instrument of reason itself, with the casuistic art of apologetics.

Modernity and the Debasement of Secularized Religion

Cultural appropriation was the Catholic modus operandi for centuries, but there are two other reasons why Christians today generally would be loath to concede that non-Christians have any intellectual advantage over them. One is that the rationalist challenge to the Church came to a boiling point with the advent of Western modernity, that is, with the rise of Protestant individualism, scientific inquiry, Enlightenment philosophy, capitalist industry, and political liberty.

For example, Martin Luther rebuked the Catholic Church that had grown corrupt, by elevating the authority of individual faith and conscience. The near-solipsistic Protestant focus on the individual at the expense of the religious institution led historically to the Western value of intellectual integrity. Instead of deferring to dogmas, the modern thing to do was to investigate matters for yourself: you personally could read the Bible, since by that point it had helpfully been translated into vulgar languages, or you could look through the telescope instead of trusting scriptures in the first place.

In short, modernity represented a full-scale alternative way of life that threatened not just to refute Christian doctrines but to render Christianity obsolete. The Christian’s response was plainly to redouble her efforts to establish the rationality of her creed so that Christianity would seem a modern contender for people’s attention. In part, this was just the Christian appropriation, too, of modernity. But the difference was that in appropriating pagan culture, the Church had proceeded from a position of strength, once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, whereas after Protestantism had shattered the Church and the Western zeitgeist had been defined by the freedom of thought, Christianity struggled from a position of institutional and cultural weakness.

Unlike Islam, Judaism and Christianity survived by modernizing or secularizing themselves. Judaism had been pragmatic for most of its history, because Jews were rarely triumphant in sociopolitical terms and had to accommodate themselves to the foreign ways of thinking of their conquerors and overseers. Logically speaking, the Hebrew Bible ends with the skepticism and jadedness of Ecclesiastes and Job, as Jack Miles points out in God: A Biography.

It’s paradoxical to speak of the “secularization” of religion, since “secular” means the carving out of a nonreligious public space. But Christianity also survived the broadening of that neutral territory, by hollowing out the meaning of its doctrines and maximizing the allowable forms of Christian hypocrisy. A religion becomes tolerable to secularists when its radical challenges and authenticity are only nominal, when its surface features accord with tradition whereas its spiritual core has compromised sufficiently with atheism, materialism, imperialism, capitalism, consumerism, and so on. The religion becomes a propagandistic rationale for an anti-spiritual (or an existentially inauthentic) lifestyle.

As Luther would point out, the Catholic Church had begun “secularizing” or debasing itself long before Copernicus and the Italian Renaissance. Indeed, the case could easily be made from a Jesus-centered standpoint that the corruption began with Constantine’s co-optation of Christianity in the fourth century. In effect, Constantine showed the Church how to appropriate pagan culture: all the Church had to do is reverse what Constantine had done. After paganism’s embrace of Levantine and Eastern spirituality, via the Roman Empire’s adoption of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Church would learn to defuse pagan traditions by appropriating them.

The Christian’s search for intellectual justifications of her faith is part of her religion’s broader spiritual suicide that was compelled by the rise of Western modernity. Just as American conservative Christianity debased itself by entering politics and backing Ronald Reagan for president, Christian pseudo-intellectuals sacrifice their spirituality and cheapen the substance of their myths, by dressing up their religion in scientific and philosophical disguises.

The Limited Range of Demonic Influence

The third reason for this peculiar phenomenon of the purportedly-spiritual monotheist’s shooting of herself in the foot with the weapon of reason is more explicitly theological. Focusing again on Christianity, although this applies also to Muslim intellectuals, here it’s just a question of how the Christian can feel better about the backwardness, crudeness, and intolerance of her religion’s premodern message. It’s one thing to be confident in condemning the non-Christian to everlasting death by hellfire, when the stubborn unbeliever is made to look foolish and defeated by a Christian theocracy, when this person is dragged before the Inquisition and publicly tortured and burned to death.

But what happens when the Church loses its theocratic privileges and is itself dragged before the court of modernity? What could the Church do when it was no longer the odd recalcitrant heretic or unsophisticated native heathen that Christianity had to contend with, but the palpable might of free-thinking democratic, capitalist or socialist empires, which came to operate explicitly on nontheistic and humanistic principles such as those codified in the American, French, and communist revolutions?

How could the Christian maintain that non-Christians deserve to suffer forever in Hell, when Christianity was no longer the only game in town? In particular, how could unbelief, the rejection of Christian doctrines be considered itself a sin worthy of divine condemnation, when that unbelief became backed by the same instruments that were building the modern world, by healthy skepticism, independent inquiry, scientific investigation, and liberal humanist industry?

The answer is clear: reason mustn’t favour the modern rejection of Christianity after all. Appearances notwithstanding, Christianity alone must have the rational justification, not atheism, philosophical naturalism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or any other belief system. Reason mustn’t support any non-Christian worldview at Christianity’s expense, once reason became no longer just a neutral tool but an ideal supported by the modern, scientistic ideology.

Any appearance to the contrary must be illusory — and the conservative Christian apologist can even spell out the nature of that illusion, by citing the demonic influence over nature. Notice, though, that the Christian prefers to avoid an extreme like Gnosticism rather than concede that demons control nature to the point of rendering the use of reason altogether a sin. This would be an alternative response to the ascent of modern science and philosophy: instead of pretending that Christianity is at least as rational as scientific theories of nature, the Christian could admit that her religion is based on faith, intuition, and fear, not on logic or critical thinking, and that a spiritual person has no business indulging in any intellectual, “humanistic” or arrogant investigation, since that’s the devil’s work.

But to stand opposed to reason and thus to the heart of modernity would preclude any Christian endorsement of the tangible benefits of modern institutions. Christianity would be in Islam’s position of not being able to enjoy the wealth, power, and pleasures of secular life. Therefore, demonic rule must extend only so far: far enough to pervert the cognitive faculties of non-Christian intellectuals, but not so far as to taint science or philosophy itself. For the compromised “Christian,” the illusion isn’t that reason is progressive, but that Christianity can play no part in that earthly progress. Christians can partake of secular advances, implies the apologist, because Christianity is intellectually responsible even in light of the paradigms set by the likes of Newton, Darwin, and Einstein or Spinoza, Kant, and Voltaire.

The upshot is that the defensive Christian can stoop to demonizing her opponents, not just because that’s what her scriptures do (just as that’s what the Quran does), but to avoid the appearance of standing still in light of the rationalist standards set by the ascendant secular monoculture. Christianity must be highly rational if the intellectual rejection of Christianity is itself a sin deserving of divine punishment, as the Bible claims and implies. Otherwise, Christianity and monotheism generally would be revealed as savage and crypto-tyrannical, compared to the post-feudal, free and humanistic societies.

Bertuzzi’s Contingency Argument for God’s Existence

Of course, these critical analyses and explanations would be mooted if Bertuzzi’s religion were in fact overwhelmingly rational. Let’s check that possibility by assessing the merits of an argument Bertuzzi thinks highly of, his updated contingency argument, which is supposed to prove that God exists.

In his YouTube video response to Joe Rogan’s dismissal of organized religion, Bertuzzi lauds that argument as “rationally unassailable,” and links to the article in the video’s description.

Alas, his response to Rogan doesn’t inspire confidence, since he misses Rogan’s point even as he shows Rogan making it. Rogan wasn’t mistaking his dismissal of religion as nonsense, for an argument against religion. Instead, he was comparing cults to organized religions. Specifically, he was pointing out that cults like Scientology are mostly dismissed for having crazy teachings, whereas organized religions are given a pass even though the contents of their creeds are comparable to those of cults in terms of their manifest craziness.

Whether the contents of their doctrines are comparable is an empirical question, but it seems far from obvious that an outsider who had never heard of religions or cults would deem the teachings of the former to be inherently much more plausible than those of the latter. A cultist’s worldview seems strange and arbitrary to an outsider, but so would that of a Christian, Muslim, or Hindu. The difference is that organized religions have been normalized, meaning we’re more familiar with their beliefs and practices because of the longevity and reach of their institutions, so it’s harder to take an outsider’s perspective in evaluating them than it is in evaluating Scientology or the Heaven’s Gate cult.

But put that aside. Here are the premises of Bertuzzi’s contingency argument, in his words:

(1) Necessarily, every set of contingent concrete objects possibly has an explanation for why it, rather than some other set of objects, exists.

Let L be the set of all contingent objects in the actual world…

(2) L possibly has an explanation for why it, rather than some other set of objects, exists.

(3) No contingent object in the actual world could explain L.

(4) If no contingent object in the actual world could explain L and (2) is true, L is possibly explained by a necessary being or group of necessary beings (N).

(5) If L is possibly explained by N, N exists.

(6) If N exists, God exists.

Don’t be scared off by the formalisms of that argument, since this is just a version of the cosmological argument that goes back to Aristotle and to Aquinas and that Bertuzzi says he’s modified to avoid certain objections. The argument is roughly that everything in the universe is contingent, including the universe itself, since the universe is just a large group of contingent things. These things don’t explain themselves but have to be explained by appealing to something else, such as a cause or some underlying condition. Thus, the universe must be explained by something not contingent or dependent, namely by a necessary being which Bertuzzi goes on to argue is the monotheist’s God.

Before I consider the argument’s logical validity, we should ask under what circumstances a technical-sounding argument counts as rational. If the argument can be translated into ordinary language, without loss of plausibility or soundness, we could be confident the argument is rational and honourable rather than obscure and manipulative. After all, it’s possible to hide behind unfamiliar terms to exploit a listener’s naivety.

But notice that the formulas of quantum mechanics and exotic mathematics aren’t easily translated into natural language. Does this mean theoretical physics and math are only pseudo-rational? No, because of a second criterion, which is that, in so far as they’re rational, abstract concepts and inferences should have tangible results that can be shown rather than just discussed. Science and math can be applied in real-world situations, not just to make us feel better — when adhering to a fiction or to a self-reinforcing delusion would increase our confidence just as much — but to systematically change the world with technology.

There’s no such objective application of theism. To be sure, religious myths have been instrumental in the theocratic control of large populations, but that doesn’t indicate the myths are factual, since the audience in question has been, as I said, largely uneducated and ignorant, which means they’d have been entranced just as easily by compelling fictions. Besides, the state religions (as opposed to the folktales) were imposed by coercion, since to deny those myths was equated with criticizing the king, which typically meant death for the critic.

What else, then, can be done with an abstract theistic argument, apart from mesmerizing the gullible and soothing the wounded pride of theists after the loss of their theocracies in the modern period? If there are no technological applications that can be tested and shown to the public, the theological technicalities had better be translatable into ordinary language, without loss of meaning or rational merit; otherwise, we’d appear to be dealing only with evasive, pompous, or misleading rhetoric. Indeed, in that respect the theistic “proofs” would be akin to much so-called continental philosophy.

Assailing the “Unassailable” Argument

So is Bertuzzi’s argument “rationally unassailable,” as he says? You can be the judge, since any competent philosopher’s onslaught can begin with the first word of the argument’s first premise.

To say that contingent things “necessarily” have a possible explanation of why they are as they are is to presuppose the principle of sufficient reason. Luckily for curious creatures like us, everything turns out to have a reason and nothing is necessarily inexplicable or incomprehensible. But this assumption is anthropocentric and conflicts with the cosmicist principle that we ought to check our pride and concede that the astronomical, inhuman universe needn’t have been made for us or for any other intelligent creatures that crave understanding. Thus, in nature there are black holes, chaos, quantum indeterminacy, and gravitational singularities.

To say that reason necessarily encompasses all of these strange phenomena and everything else that could possibly come into being is to presuppose some kind of metaphysical idealism which is question-begging in the context of Bertuzzi’s argument. Why else would there be a guarantee of possibly explaining everything unless the universe were designed according to an intelligent plan which includes the reasons for everything that’s been created? By precluding cosmicist pessimism and humility, the argument’s first premise presupposes that God exists, which makes the argument circular.

The early-eighteenth century philosopher and clergyman Samuel Clarke expressed the principle of sufficient reason in telling fashion when he wrote, “Nothing can be more absurd, than to suppose that anything (or any circumstance of any thing) is; and yet that there be absolutely no reason why it is, rather than not.”

The question for theistic optimists like Clarke and Bertuzzi is why the universe has to be devoid of any absurdity. Indeed, as many existential philosophers stressed, life is largely absurd on atheistic grounds, so to argue in a way that presupposes the opposite is to beg the question against atheism. Interestingly, holding out the possibility that some things are necessarily inexplicable doesn’t beg the question against theism, since God could do whatever he likes, including creating things out of nothing and for no reason at all.

Moreover, with respect to that first premise, there are many standards of explanation, so which is relevant to the argument? There are scientific explanations, which are subject to the above two criteria (translatability into ordinary language and practical applications), and there are pseudoscientific ones. Suppose we encounter a strange event in outer space that stumps scientists, but astrologers or mystics “explain” it with obscure poetry or self-contradictory gibberish. We’ll see in the last section that Bertuzzi will have to accept the latter, relaxed standard of explanation, since saying that God created the universe doesn’t explain anything in any rigorous sense.

Notice how the fourth premise, too, depends on the principle of sufficient reason. The idea there is that if nothing in the contingent universe can explain the universe as a whole, something that isn’t dependent on anything at least possibly explains how the universe came into existence. Alas, there’s always the unsettling alternative that there’s necessarily no such explanation, because the principle of sufficient reason is arbitrary and self-indulgent. Indeed, if the appeal to a necessary being has no explanatory value, that’s consistent with the pessimistic repudiation of the principle of sufficient reason, since an empty explanation counts only as a non-explanation.

Reducing the Universe to a Contingent Thing

The second premise treats the universe as a whole, namely the set of all contingent things, as if it too were a contingent thing in need of an explanation of its characteristics. That move commits the fallacy of composition, of treating a whole as having some property (in this case, contingency) just because its parts have that property.

Bertrand Russell’s paradox of the set of sets shows why we shouldn’t presume all levels of an analysis can be handled with the same terms; there are such things as emergent properties, which call for a higher-level explanation and a separate set of concepts. In set theory, the set of all sets isn’t really a set at all, because you can posit the set of all sets that are not members of themselves, and that superset becomes self-contradictory: it both is and isn’t a member of itself, because if it’s not a member of itself, it must be after all, according to its definition; but if it does include itself, that contradicts its definition since it’s supposed to be the set of all sets that don’t include themselves.

The universe as a whole isn’t a thing in the same way that a tree or a planet is a thing. Likewise, an infinite series of causes and effects needn’t be — as a whole — an effect requiring a higher-level cause. The problem is that we’re quick to overuse reason and reach for categories or names to reify higher and higher levels of abstraction.

True, it seems to make sense that if a galaxy is a set of solar systems, and a galaxy cluster is a set of galaxies, the set of all galaxy clusters should roughly comprise the universe, so if a galaxy and a galaxy cluster are contingent things, the universe should be a contingent thing too, as far as we can intuit. But there’s the fallacy: it’s parochial and once again anthropocentric to assume the universe is confined just to the stars and galaxies we can currently see with our telescopes.

In particular, the very early and late periods of the universe were and will be nothing like the universe as it is now. The initial gravitational singularity which was the edge of nature was certainly not like anything that’s currently in the universe, apart from the other singularities lying at the bottom of black holes. So it’s presumptuous to think we can responsibly add up singularities, the inflation of spacetime, the stars and galaxies, and the black holes and states of universal thermodynamic equilibrium and call the sum a “thing,” privileging our mammalian experience of contingent, limited things like rocks and shoelaces.

Indeed, that anthropocentricity virtually presupposes theism, once again making the argument circular. The only justification for privileging that sense of “contingent thing” when speaking of the cosmic totality — and the only way to avoid the fallacy of composition — would be to say that the totality relates to some supernatural being just as finite things like trees and rocks relate to us. In short, there would have to be a comparably-anthropocentric entity that stands over the universe and views it as a “thing,” just as we stand over trees and rocks, because that supernatural entity would share our personal features such as our capacities for abstraction, understanding, and mental projection. But if that’s the only way to make sense of the second premise, the contingency argument presupposes its conclusion and is logically invalid.

A Magic Trick of Modal Logic

The fifth premise exploits a trick of modal logic, which is that there’s a pruning rule that allows you to shorten tortuous iterated modalities, as in shortening “necessarily, possibly, necessarily, possibly true” to just “possibly true.” The rule’s obvious justification is merely that it enables you to remove redundancies, to keep your modal expressions tidy. But the rule has the counterintuitive, nontrivial implication that if something is possibly necessary, it’s just necessary after all. The “possibly” is whisked away.

I’ll quote a passage from an article of mine on the ontological argument for God’s existence, to lay bare the dubiousness of the theist’s performance of this magic trick:

Let’s look for a moment at that inference rule [the pruning rule of S5, which is a system of modal logic]. Is it intuitive to think that if it’s possible that something is necessary, the thing is automatically just necessary (and thus actual)? Of course not.

Suppose someone discovers what she takes to be a law of logic, but she’s not certain her analysis is correct. Still, she concludes there’s a chance the proposition is, after all, a law of logic, in which case it’s just possible the proposition is true in all possible worlds. Does that mean we should disregard her caution and barrel along to the conviction that the proposition is a genuine law of logic — and all for the sake of ensuring the tidiness of statements in a system of modal logic?

After all, as the Stanford Encyclopedia article on modal logic points out (see section 2), S4 and S5 are meant to simplify uselessly longwinded chains of modal operators, as in “necessarily necessary p” or LLp, which in S4 can be read as “necessarily p” (Lp). S5 permits modal operators of both types, both possibility and necessity, to be simplified even when they’re combined in a statement and even though “possible” and “necessary” have many different meanings in English. So “possibly necessary p” (or MLp) becomes “necessarily p” (Lp) in S5. The first modal operator in any pair of them can be just deleted in S5 (since S5 contains S4).

In the above example, “possibility” has a psychological meaning since the question is whether the logician is certain she hasn’t made an error in her analysis. Suppose the logician hasn’t made any analysis but is only guessing about her purported law. Just because she guesses she’s discovered a new law of logic, doesn’t mean she’s succeeded. So just because there’s a possible world in which her guess proves correct doesn’t by itself increase the probability that her guess is in fact correct, such that her proposed law holds true in all possible worlds.

Indeed, using the ontological argument’s bogus logic, we can show just as easily that any mathematical claim which might be true but is as yet unproven is necessarily true, since mathematical claims, too, are defined as necessary. So a mathematical conjecture magically becomes necessarily and thus actually true just because the conjecture is possibly true, which is preposterous. Some conjectures turn out to be false.

In their book, A New Introduction to Modal Logic, Hughes and Cresswell express some reservations about the pruning rule: ‘when we ask, informally, whether Lp → LLp is valid, the issue we are raising is this: is whatever is necessary necessarily necessary?…Now this is both a disputed question and one of some obscurity, for it is not at all clear under what conditions we should say that something is necessarily necessary. It is, however, at least a reputable and plausible view that in certain well-established senses of “necessary” it should be answered in the affirmative.’

I’d call attention to what they imply about the different senses of “necessary” in natural language, the same point holding for “possibility.” Depending on the sense at issue, it may or may not make sense to delete the reference to possibility with respect to a possibly necessary being (MLp), and just infer that the being is necessary (Lp) and therefore actual (p).

So which sense of “possibility” does Bertuzzi’s argument assume? Only a casuistic one, as I showed, since the argument is circular at multiple points, and Bertuzzi concedes that his loosening of the argument by his adding references to mere “possibility” is meant to be ad hoc, to address certain standard objections to cosmological proofs of God. That is, a theist might have realized there’s no point in adding the equivalent of epicycles to a form of argument that’s been debunked many times over the centuries. But apparently Bertuzzi thinks that’s not the intellectual course of action.

In any case, if we assume the principle of sufficient reason, as the first premise does by saying the possibility of explaining anything in the universe is necessary, this talk of “possibility” is only an exercise in coyness. If everything is necessarily explicable, at least under certain circumstances, only because of an intelligent design of the universe that actually explains everything, the possibility at issue can be stated only to recognize the difference in cognitive capacities between God and his creatures. But nothing could escape God’s comprehension, so for metaphysical and theological purposes, there would be no need to talk of mere possible explanations.

Again, Bertuzzi would have no business presupposing God’s perspective, since that would make the argument circular. From our human perspective, we have to recognize that we can be either optimistic or pessimistic about the scope of reasons and explanations. Possibly, certain contingent facts are necessarily beyond anyone’s ability to explain, given a worthwhile standard of explanation, in which case we could apply the same pruning rule and infer that those facts are necessarily inexplicable, thereby turning the modal magic trick against the theist.

Explanations and Fairytales

That last point brings me to another problem with this argument, which is that a necessary, self-causing entity like God could be used to “explain” why the universe is as it is, only if we assume a flimsy standard of explanation. Consider whether your understanding is increased with respect to why the universe is as it is if someone says that God created the universe by a miracle. Those words “created” and “miracle” would be empty, so the explanation would be vacuous. Thus, if the possibility of explaining things is tied to this bogus standard of rationality, the argument’s sense of possibility, too, would be empty.

Now the theist will say that we know about God’s intentions, that God created the universe to be generous or to demonstrate his power and wisdom, so the theistic explanation would be enlightening after all. Any attribution of psychological characteristics to the necessary being, though, treats that being as if it were contingent, thus raising the question of why that being is as it is. Explanation is supposed to cease by appealing to God, but to prevent theism from being a mere empty, pseudo-explanation, the theist is obliged to naturalize God by personifying him, by applying her handy social instinct to provide at least a modicum of content to theistic statements.

The theist is thus caught in a dilemma. She can take the mystic’s route and deny that we know anything positive or specific about God’s nature, in which case the appeal to “God” as that which explains the universe is empty and nonrational. Alternatively, she can affirm that we’re made in God’s image so we can know God is comparable to us, in which case if we’re contingent beings whose existence requires an explanation, the same should apply to God who would likewise have certain characteristics rather than others, such as benevolence, fairness, and wisdom as opposed to malevolence, capriciousness, and foolishness.

Finally, there’s the standard objection that even if there were a necessary being that accounts for the universe, there’s no need for that being to be the monotheist’s god. In particular, that being could be the Big Bang’s gravitational singularity, what Paul Davis in God and New Physics calls “a state of infinite temperature, infinite density and infinite energy,” which is also “in the simplest state of all — thermodynamic equilibrium.”

As he explains, “Gravity has a tendency to grow structures spontaneously. Thus, a uniform distribution of matter (stars, gas) will tend to grow clumpy with time, forming into clusters and dense accumulations…So we see that it is possible, in the special case of gravity, to satisfy both the requirement of simplicity, and the requirement for low initial entropy (order). This means we can regard the simplest universe (a uniform one) as containing immense potential for generating complexity later.”

Mind you, the universe’s mindless self-creativity proceeds by increasing entropy and disorder, which is why all ordered things end, and far from being of central importance, cosmically speaking, the conditions for life to exist will be surpassed by unimaginable eons in which only black holes exist in our universe, as all contingent beings eventually are undone and a new state of equilibrium is reached.

As to why Bertuzzi thinks he can leap from the necessary being to God, when the possibility of the Big Bang’s singularity stands in the way, he offers some arguments but they’re even weaker than his contingency argument, so I won’t bother going over them in any depth.

Just to give you the flavor of them, I’ll point out that he says we can know the necessary being has the power of volition, because there are only two kinds of explanation, the scientific kind that posits only contingent objects, and the personal kind that posits mental things like willpower. The necessary being isn’t contingent, so it’s not subject to scientific understanding, which leaves only personification.

As we’ve seen, though, that’s not a real dichotomy, since to talk of people is to talk of contingencies, too. Indeed, all genuine explanations, whether they’re objective and scientific or subjective and personal posit only specific causes or conditions, since those “explanations” that don’t are empty. If the supposed reason for something has no definite features, we can have no idea whether or how it’s responsible for anything, or indeed whether we’re dealing with anything at all.

What the theist is doing here is conflating explanations with myths and fairytales. The rational purpose of explanation isn’t to have all explanations come to an end in the positing of some absolute, to give us emotional relief. Only in myth and fiction are there absolutes that enable us to say, “…and they lived happily ever after.” And this is why Bertuzzi’s goal of demonstrating “the intellectual side of Christian belief” is so wrongheaded from the outset.

But it’s hard not to pity a theist like Bertuzzi. The theist wants to play with the new toys that are being passed around the block, the toys of science and philosophy, explanation and intellectualism. If he can’t adapt those toys to the games he prefers to play, he’ll be left out of the fun and have to play all by himself.

Watching an “intellectual” Christian try to convince us that Iron Age myths and superstitions are more rational than naturalistic philosophy is like listening to a clueless child boast that Tic-Tac-Toe is as complex as chess, a game she’s never played. But at least this theist shows some human spirit by refusing to give up even after astronomers revealed the godlessness of the heavens, and critical scholars of the Bible have for a few centuries now laid waste to Christian dogmas about Jesus.

That’s the same pride and ambition that drove modernists to break from the Church and to recapture some of the ancient wisdom the West had lost in the Dark Ages. It’s just a shame the intellectual theist directs humanist virtues to such an unworthy purpose.

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Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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