The ongoing metaphysical debate on the existence of God has at least two thousand years of tradition and history of arguments from all sides. McCloskey’s 1968 article “On Being an Atheist” is a fine example of reasoning and views that appear to be usual among western atheists at that time. This paper responds to central points of his argumentation with regard to the cosmological argument, the argument from intelligent design, and responses to the logical version of the problem of evil.
In the fourth paragraph of “On Being an Atheist”, McCloskey states that the “mere existence of the world constitutes no reason for believing in such a being.” (McCloskey). By this, he means that the nature and condition of the world we know does not unavoidably imply such a thing as a necessarily existing being also commonly referred to as “uncaused cause”. In this passage, he does not provide a sufficient reasoning for this thesis. In fact, he provides no argument at all on this point, limiting it to the mere stating of something he considers obvious and familiar for his “fellow atheists”. In his overall reasoning on the cosmological argument, McCloskey imeddiatelly assumes that even if this is the case that a causal argument is true, all one can possibly infer from this is “the existence of a cause commensurate with the effect to be explained, the universe” (McCloskey) So, the first thing to note about McCloskey’s position on the cosmological argument is an absence of an attentive counter-argumentation.
Before responding to whether the universe constitutes any reason to believe in the original uncaused cause, one may need to remind oneself that it is a well-coined concept with a precise meaning rather than a metaphor. Thus, it sends us to a long tradition of disputes around God’s exisrance and, specifically, to the cosmological argument in one of its late versions. There is a lot to investigate in this term for a response to an atheist to be as full and conclusive as possible.
The version of the argument discussed here goes as follows. There are no self-evident reasons to think that objects that do exist in the world we know actually have to exist or, to put it differently, cannot fail to exist. In most of the everyday life situations, a person can easily identify a number of objects that sometimes might be useful but are fairly unnecessary by simply exploring the surrounding. This experience is so common that it manifests itself in numerous cultural and spiritual practices, for instance, asceticism or famous Japanese formula “Less is more”. What is more, it has also been reported and discussed that persons sometimes experience this feeling of unnecessity towards themselves and universe as a whole. In the terms of discussion on God’s existence, this characteristic of the world is referred to as contingency of being. Hence, things do exist despite the fact that they do not have to.
Why do these things exist then? Obviously, they were caused to existence by something or something that existed before them. However, as far as we are able to observe directly, these causes are also contingent, no less that their effects. Thus, the question what could possibly trigger this chain of contingent causes arose . One possibility is that this chain is infinite and deeply connected with something unknown and unknowable just as the natural numbers do. If that is the case, humankind cannot hope for the final and ultimate answer to the questions of the universe it has been trying to find all the time of its existence. Responding to an atheist one might underline that this perspective is rather gloomy from the point of view of both science and religion. For this reason both sides are epistemically interested in a closer look at other possibilities that are by no means less plausible whatsoever. Otherwise, one implicitly takes the agnostic position; all that is left to say here is “Well, we will never know”. By the way, contemporary atheists are often hostile to this position treating it as “intellectual cowardliness”; thus, for them, it is unsatisfactory as well.
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If the chain is not infinite, the initial reason cannot be contingent for that it would make no sense. Beside, science recognizes that even phenomena that seem random have causes in laws of nature and conditions of a surrounding. Under this assumption, McCloskey’s claim that the “mere existence of the world constitutes no reason for believing in such a being” is not correct. However, his next objection is much stronger than that.
After he accepts the causal logic of the argument, he basically agrees that even if an initial cause exists or has existed at some point, the cosmological argument “does not entitle us to postulate an all-powerful, all-perfect, uncaused cause.” (McCloskey) That may sound pretty convincing to reasonable agnostic trying to choose a side with respect to valid and sound arguments.
However, the limitations of the cosmological argument has been obvious and well-known for quite a long period in the history of philosophy of religion. As Evans and Manis put this, “even if successful, the cosmological argument hardly constitutes more than an entering wedge into the knowledge of God” (Evans, Stephen and Zachary Manis). Thus, what it proves is the existence of the initial necessary cause. On the contrary, what it does not prove is that it is God as Christians see Him. It is also worth noting that it would be naïve of someone to assume that a single argument could possibly prove something as complex as the origin of the universe. It would also be intellectually weak to stop asking at this point regardless of one’s position on the existence of God.
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When one is reaching the limits of the cosmological argument, that is when the arguments from the intelligent design enter the stage. However, a long parade of philosophers and scientists considered the world we know as such that evidently displays the features of a product of a designing endeavor conducted by an enormously massive and truly fascinating intelligence. The universe where we live is complex on each level of its existence and, still, working. It is genuinely hard to concentrate somebody’s attention on the idea that it all just happened randomly, and this is just a brute and fact that is absurd and meaningless.
Some of the earliest versions of the argument from the intelligent design appealed to “wonders of nature” like a human eye as evidences of intelligent creation. Today this is easy to argue with by using the theory of evolution: a human eye is quite good but there are eyes both worse (for instance, eyes of fish) and better (hawk’s eyes) than ours. That is applicable for most of the instances that McCloskey considers as failing to be “genuine indisputable examples of design and purpose”.
Of course, the standard of indisputability is quite disputable itself. What it basically means, is that at this current moment of humankind’s knowledge some things are explained and some are not; basically, this is true for each and every moment of our history. The more we know about the universe, the more things we will get to explain. However, the more questions will arise, the more wonders will be revealed as well. Thus, the standard of indisputability is not a standard at all: it depends on epistemes and, in fact, on the subjects of dispute.
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What seems reasonable to hold as an example of the design that provides a strong evidence of the existence of creator at the current point is the fine tuning of physical constants. There are many of them, and they are what one may call a very sensitive system. If one of these constants would be a tiny bit different, the life could not possibly begin and evolve, the stars would not be able to form, and so on. Considering the fine tuning, it is quite challenging to think that the universe occurred accidentally, with no intelligent interference.
Putting that aside, the question of evolution that McCloskey refers to as a proper displacement for a designer is worth tracking as well. It is widely adopted by atheists that the theory of evolution explains the life on Earth (and, possibly, on other planets) consistently and evidently. Over the course of decades after Darwin, the theory of evolution has been tested experimentally. Moreover, it is well-documented, and the factual base behind it is massive and genuinely convincing to every reasonable and informed person. However, it has some limitations as well in terms of both metaphysics and natural sciences. Firstly, the fact of evolution does not prove that God does not exist; though, it is plausible that by discovering it we only took a brief view on God’s means of maintaining His creation. What is more, it says nothing about the fine tuning. The question of how it could possibly happen that life evolved in a space that is so perfectly tuned for it remains open.
At this point, we are now in a better position to introduce both exposition and criticism of what is called “the problem of evil”. The logical variant of this argument states that belief in God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent is inconsistent with the self-evident fact of the presence of all kinds of evils in this world. As McCloskey explaines it, one is entitled to conclude that “the cause is powerful enough and imperfect enough to have created the sort of world we know” (McCloskey). The argument goes as either God cannot fix the world, therefore, He cannot be omnipotent, or He does not know about all the evils (not omniscient), or He is not willing to make the world a better place (He is not omnibenevolent).
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This line reasoning, however, is vulnerable to multiple objections. Furthermore, a consistent believer should remain modest enough not to consider him or herself to be a person who understands everything that God does. Thus, theodicies of various formulations seem appropriate just for the sake of search of truth because God needs no defense from us.
There might be various reasons for God to allow the evil’s existing. It is plausible that various kinds of evils are allowed for various reasons; that makes theodicies mutually unexclusive. From this point of view, arguments from free will, soul-making, and greater good can all be true in different situations. Responding to McCloskey’s charges, it is important to admit further objections. Firstly, the good eliminates the evil as far as it can. Being creatures with free will like God himself, humans are in a position to choose to practice high moral qualities and actions; that is a part of what it means to be a human being. In itself, it seems to be self-evident that if God wanted to create something more than empty puppets, His creations had to be placed under circumstances where they need to learn not to be those, and where they are able to prove that they actually are more than that by choosing freely. Secondly, high moral qualities and actions are impossible and meaningless in a world that is nothing more than a safe incubator: generosity is useless without a need, and courage is mere foolhardiness without true threat. On the other hand, one can argue that generosity and courage are not valuable enough to allow evil. Response to it is that no one wants to live in a gray world without the entire high morality as a phenomenon, no matter how perfect it looks, because it is what makes us feel and be so much more than biomass.
Another objection to the problem of evil that is worth discussing is an argument from the impossibility of the best possible world. Basically, no matter how good the world is, God is always open to arrogant criticism like “Why did not He made it a little better?” Similarly to the problem of evil, the problem of good can be introduced as a reason to praise God, because He could make the world a worse place, but He did not.
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The final McCloskey’s claim is based on an opinion that atheism is better than theism because it is more comforting. Nonwithstanding the obvious lack of relation to the dispute whether God exists at all and by no means less obvious fact that if there is no God than it is just a matter of taste, that is, a highly subjective choice, the thesis remains weak for a chain of reasons. At first, atheism is a view deprived of ultimate purpose, meaning, and guidance in questions of what is moral or ethical. Following the Christian tradition to referring to God as Father, William Craig explains it as “Modern man thought that when he had gotten rid of God, he had freed himself from all that repressed and stifled him. Instead, he discovered that in killing God, he had only succeeded in orphaning himself” (Graig, William Lane). Without God, all that a man faces is a short flash of absurd life in the middle of the eternity of meaningless nothing. Every man, everything he loves or accomplishes, our entire species, and the universe itself are all occupied only with waiting for the inevitable end. In other words, without God and hope for the afterlife, one’s life is indeed terrifying and rather unbearable than comforting.
To conclude, the debate on God’s existence is ongoing, however, atheism fails to introduce an irrefutable objection to the thesis supported by the cosmological and teleological arguments combined with the responses to the problem of evil. Even if we postpone the very debate, this position reveals itself to be neither productive in terms of ethics, nor comforting. Moreover, it also fails to respond to a human being’s inherent need of purpose and meaning of life.