The God Non-Hypothesis
by David Ottlinger
“The problem of evil, in the sense in which I am using this phrase, is essentially a logical problem: it sets the theist the task of clarifying and if possible reconciling the several beliefs which he holds. It is not a scientific problem that might be solved by further discoveries…” 
-JL Mackie, The Miracle of Theism p 150
There is a great deal of insight packed in to this little passage. In two sentences Mackie makes the case that the problem of evil, the problem of reconciling the existence of evil to belief in God, is a problem radically unlike a scientific problem. I am inclined to believe that the same is true for every argument for and against the existence of God, for the reasons Mackie provides. If I am right, then accepting this little argument means accepting something quite important and general about the God debate. Further, if I am right, the conclusion of this argument would cast a pall of suspicion over the scientific language and trappings of many atheists and some Christian apologists. We hear often of the “God hypothesis” and “scientific evidence” of God’s existence and that modern science “disproves” God. There are even calls for a “science” of religion. Such language, of course, does not entail that the existence or inexistence of God is a scientific question but suggests that debate over the existence of God can and should be modeled on scientific debate. Most of this, I believe, is profoundly misguided and these few lines can show us why. Accordingly I want to blow up what I take to be Mackie’s argument, as one would a photograph, to make its logic more perspicuous. In enlarging the argument, undoubtedly, I will fill in some details of my own, of which Mackie will be innocent, but I believe the basic shape of the argument will remain the same. Mackie argues the nature of the question of God, by examining how the question is answered. On this basis he calls the problem “logical”, a term I find misleading as he deploys no formal logic. I would prefer to say that the problem of evil and the existence of God are philosophical problems. I shall try to say what this means and why it must be so.
In saying this, I anticipate two objections. First, some accuse philosophers of “defending their turf,” in the sense that they are trying to discourage others from commenting on subjects traditionally considered their own. Secondly they accuse philosophers of making recondite, hair-splitting distinctions, in order to make questions appear a matter for their own expertise. To the first charge, it should be noted that there is nothing unique in a discipline feeling it has a privilege of place, in relation to certain questions. No one would doubt that some matters fall within biology, others history. There is no reason to think philosophy should not have its own domain, or, in principle, that arguments concerning the existence of God should be within it. I will be making the case that the question of the existence of God falls naturally within that domain. Furthermore those who decry philosophers defending their “turf” do so just when they would have all the territory for themselves, as many view science as having the answers to everything from astronomy to ethics, biology to mathematics, all of which seems at least as suspect. (It should also be said that it is the most uncharitable kind of argument that completely by-passes the logic of what a person is saying and explains their disagreement by attributing to them bad motives.)
To the second charge, I have more sympathy. Philosophy does indeed frequently deal with fine, conceptual distinctions. And it is not infrequently the case that in addressing one philosophical question, one can find oneself suddenly addressing something that seemed far afield and almost irrelevant, as many of Socrates’ consternated conversation partners discovered (and as many undergraduates are still discovering in introductory courses some little while later). Philosophical arguments are protracted and as Nietzsche once wrote, things that are protracted are difficult to see. Yet, I will be defending these careful distinctions, as fine as they may seem, as deeply important. A complex argument can turn on a careful distinction, in the same way that the huge mass of a bank vault’s door can turn on a hinge.
As one last piece of ground-clearing, I want to make clear what I am not saying. By suggesting that the existence of God is not a scientific question or even very much like a scientific question, I am not thereby rendering science irrelevant. Science may furnish premises and undermine or disprove claims about the material world that a theist may want to make. As such science may play an important role in debating the question, but even though the arguments may be concerned with science and scientific facts, this does not make them scientific arguments. I realize that this may sound like a cavil or triviality. But in the end it makes all the difference, because it will determine how we attempt to answer the question of God’s existence, and whether the paths we pursue are promising ones.
Wittgenstein famously suggested that instead of asking what the meaning of a word was, we should ask how we would explain the meaning of that word. As he put it, “The way this question helps us is analogous to the way the question ‘how do we measure a length’ helps us to understand the problem ‘what is length?’”  I want to suggest a similar strategy for understanding the question of God’s existence. What kind of evidence matters in weighing such a question? What sort of answers would we find convincing? How would we dispute answers? The meaning of a question is revealed in the answers to these and similar statements. With these questions in mind I want to briefly rehearse to of the most famous arguments in the God debate, one for the existence of God and the other against. These arguments, however summarily treated, will, I believe, give us a sense of how the question of the existence of God is disputed and ultimately yield insight into the nature of the question itself.
One of the key arguments for the existence of God concerns elements of the natural world that evince design or purpose.  It is inferred from the existence of such phenomena that a supernatural mind must have had some part in their creation. As the classic version of the argument runs, suppose we find a watch alone in a field. The watch has certain complex features that work together, in intricate and interdependent ways, to serve a common purpose, namely, displaying the time. Finding such an object, we would immediately infer that it had been created by an intelligence. But of course, natural phenomena have in common with the watch and other artifacts many of the same remarkable features. The human eye or hand have many complex features that work in confluence to serve their natural functions. The parts of the eye—retina, cornea, iris, optical nerve, rods, cones and much else—all interact in a functional complexity that would put a Breitling to shame. The argument then concludes that we ought to do in the case of the eye what we do in the case of the watch and infer that it was designed by some intelligence for some purpose. Since the functional features of the eye pervade the natural world, it is usually thought that the creative designer must be some supernatural intelligence, beyond and outside of nature. With some further expenditure of energy which need not detain us here it is concluded that the designing intelligence must be a great deal like the God of traditional theism, and so is taken as evidence for his existence.
Interestingly there is no doubt, among theists or atheists, what the greatest argument against God’s existence is. The argument from evil argues against God’s existence by assuming, according to traditional theism, that God is both omnipotent and all good. It is argued then that God’s existence is inconsistent with the many evils that are all too obvious in a world full of pain, injustice, sickness, pestilence, and death. For a human being at least, permitting such evils to go unrectified, especially if they are easily correctible, would impute a great deal of moral blame. Someone who watched someone be robbed or attacked when they could easily prevent it, would not be a good person. If God seems to allow these blights in the world, that is not consistent with his goodness. If he is unable to rectify them, this is inconsistent with his omnipotence. It is then neatly concluded that no being like God could exist.
What kind of arguments are these? How are they to be decided? Well, Mackie has some very helpful notes. Referring to the problem of evil, he writes that “it sets the theist the task of clarifying and if possible reconciling the several beliefs which he holds.” This seems to me essentially right and equally true of the design argument as it is of the argument from evil. In the first case we are asked how it is possible to believe in God and simultaneously believe in the existence of evil. In the second we are asked how we are able to make a ready inference in one case and not in a strongly parallel case. Both then deal with the consequences of beliefs and how they cohere with other beliefs. Accordingly, these are essentially conceptual arguments. They are driven by what is internal to the concepts and what follows from them. The argument from evil turns on the fact that the concept of God contains the content of ‘omnipotent’ and ‘wholly good’. The design argument turns on the content of concept ‘design’, including ‘function’ and ‘interdependence’. It forces us to ask how we can describe some things (the watch) as designed, and impute a designer, but not other strongly parallel things (the eye). Again it is argued that making the inference in the former case without making it in the latter case would be incoherent. Both deal with prima facie contradictions which, as Mackie notes, have to be “reconciled” as much as possible.
Second, Mackie notes that “It is not a scientific problem that might be solved by further discoveries…” Again this seems to be true of both arguments. It is perfectly true that both arguments turn on facts about the world. The argument from evil turns on the fact that there are seemingly unjustifiable instances of suffering and deprivation in the world. The design argument turns on the fact that things in the natural evince remarkable functional complexity. Now these are indeed empirical beliefs, but they are not the kind that are going to leave anyone gobsmacked. They are about as obvious and familiar as anything can be. In fact, evidence of natural evil and natural design are so ubiquitous that no new, undiscovered example is likely to seriously impact the problem. The greatest natural disasters and human atrocities down to every stubbed toe adds to the sum of human evil. Likewise every eye, hand, fin and scale has functional complexity of the requisite type to become fodder for the design argument.
A full discussion of either argument would involve taking on board and examining some more fine-grained facts. This is usually where science plays a role. For instance, the design argument suggests a parallel between natural function and the function of artifacts. Examining how well this parallel holds often involves taking on board some serious biology. Unfortunately, it can also be the case that to counter certain objections to the problem of evil, one has to consider the grisly details of what evil there is and what it is like. But for all that, I think it is clear that these arguments are relatively free from the facts; what really drives them is the concepts. In discussing the problem of evil, for instance, we do not necessarily have to discuss any real life evil. Indeed some imagined but plausible evil, one which we can reasonably infer happened or would be similar to one which did happen, will do as well as anything else.
So far I have said that arguments for and against the existence of God, insofar as they are represented in the design argument and the argument from evil, are largely concerned with the coherence of prior beliefs, are largely driven by the content of concepts, and are largely indifferent to new empirical discoveries. And while they may be concerned with genuine facts, they are largely a priori and can be discussed with a great deal of supposition. Given these considerations, Mackie was moved to call them “logical” arguments, and there is a certain appeal to this, insofar as logic certainly meets all the criteria just mentioned. But ‘logic’ is a term with its own history which I will, contra Mackie, reserve for arguments which deploy the formal symbolisms we call logic. What I want to stress now is how atypical these features would be for scientific arguments. Now describing in general what scientific arguments are like, supposing such a thing was possible, would involve spilling a good deal more virtual ink than I can afford at the moment. But I think that each one of the above characteristics would be considered atypical of scientific arguments. Scientific arguments generally deal not with how beliefs cohere with one another, but how they agree with the empirical evidence. They are driven by the nature of the evidence, not the content of the concepts. They are highly responsive to new empirical evidence. Supposition and a priori reasoning is meant to be used sparingly if at all. It seems, then, that arguments for and against the existence of God typically evince features that are quite uncommon among scientific arguments. This is a strong basis on which we could say that arguments for and against the existence of God are radically unlike scientific arguments and should not be modeled on them.
However the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Some brash advocates on both sides might be willing to say farewell to the old traditional arguments and embrace a new, more scientific era of the God debate. Well, how do they fare? To my eye the person who cleaves most closely to these ideals is the physicist Victor Stenger, so his work naturally suggests itself as a test case.  His book is tellingly titled God: The Failed Hypothesis, and written just below the title “How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist.” There is no messing around here. In fact, the arrangement of the book apes that of a scientific paper. It begins, in the first chapter, by laying out methodology much as a paper in experimental science would. In this portion, Stenger lays out what he considers to be adequate conditions to accept extraordinary claims and other considerations. Each chapter then constitutes an “experiment” — or at least, a survey — of the evidence to see which competing hypothesis, theism or atheism, fairs better. Every chapter ends in the same tedious way: “Indeed, Earth and life look just as they can be expected to look if there is no designer God.” (71) “The observed universe and the laws and parameters pf physics look just as they can be expected to look if there is no God. From this we can conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that such a God does not exist.” (164) “The information and insights contained in the scriptures and other revelations look just as they can be expected to look if there is no God who revealed truths to humanity that were recorded in sacred texts.” (189). And much more.
There are many reasons to be dissatisfied with this kind of treatment. Stenger treats theism and atheism as alternative hypotheses and derives what he takes to be straight-forward consequences, which can then be tested against the facts. Such ready inferences may be possible with empirical, scientific hypotheses (without being naïve about the complexities of modern science), but it is not so easy with ideas concerning God and other grand philosophical ideas. How exactly would an all good, all powerful, all knowing being create a world? How could we know? These are not easy questions to answer but Stenger is reliably cavalier. This was pointed out to Stenger by our old friend Massimo Pigliucci in the pages of Science, Religion and Culture.  In an original challenge in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Pigliucci noted that “that there is no coherent or sensible way in which the idea of God can possibly be considered a “hypothesis,” in any sense remotely resembling the scientific sense of the term. The problem is that the supernatural…is simply too swishy to be pinpointed precisely enough.” (148) In the course of his reply, Stenger provided several examples of obviously (to him) testable implications of theism. Here is one of my favorites:
If God is responsible for the complex structure of the world, especially living things, we should see evidence for it in nature. We do not. Complex systems are observed to evolve from simpler ones and show none of the expected signs of design. Indeed, the universe looks as it should look in the absence of design. What is more, well established cosmological knowledge indicates that the universe began with maximum entropy, that is, total chaos with the absence of structure. Thus the universe bears no imprint of a creator.
Obviously Stenger has no truck with the idea that God could be seen to work through evolution, by designing or guiding the process, an article of faith common to most mainstream Christian sects. He is also extremely confident that the idea began in a state of maximum entropy and later developed order is at odds with theism. I see no obvious reason why this should be the case. In fact it seems to agree quite nicely with Genesis 1:1-4: “When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth then being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.”
But really the problem is with Stenger’s entire approach. He attempts to derive consequences from theistic views and then runs along to try to verify or falsify them. In doing so he gives too little notice to the space of possible implications. What is need is something much more like Mackie’s approach. It starts from the idea that common sense beliefs are in tension with theistic beliefs. Tension is a matter of degree and there can be many strategies for “reconcilement” between prima facie contradictory beliefs. But in the end if the reconcilement fails, and the tension is strong enough, some beliefs will have to be given up. In short, what is needed is the evaluative approach of philosophy that can deal with open-endedness and ambiguities of theistic doctrine in a way that rigid scientifically inspired methods cannot. Pursuing a line suggested by Wittgenstein, I suggested that in order to understand the question of God’s existence we ought to ask what kind of arguments and answers are best suited to settling such a question. I have found that philosophical approaches are very helpful and that approaches modeled on science of really of very little help. On this basis I am happy to conclude that the existence of God is a philosophical and not a scientific question. If that is defending my turf, here I stand, I can do no other.
 Mackie, J. L. (1982). _The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and Against the Existence of God_. Oxford University Press.
 Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Major Works. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008. Print.
 For more information see here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/teleological-arguments/
 Again see here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evil/
 God: the failed hypothesis Victor J.Stenger – Prometheus Books – 2008
 Pigliucci’s opening salvo http://philpapers.org/archive/PIGNAA.pdf