There is no such thing as sophisticated theology


I often roll my eyes when atheists indulge "sophisticated" theological arguments. There's a belief among some atheists that Dawkins and other "new atheists" didn't engage with religious philosophy seriously enough, and that there needs to be a newer, better dressed atheism that indulges in the purportedly more nuanced and complex arguments for theism.
 
The problem is that without exception, every "sophisticated" argument for theism I've ever seen is couched in the same bad assumptions as the less-sophisticated ones. There is no such thing as a sophisticated philosophical argument that is based on (to name a few) Aristotelian metaphysics, substance dualism, unembodied minds, or transcendent causation. All of these concepts are absurd and false.
 
It's not that I don't think we should talk to theists at all; absolutely we should. But we should be very careful about the framing of the questions and be quick to identify spurious assumptions at their root.

A favorite example of mine is William Lane Craig. In his argument for the Kalam Cosmological Argument, he attempts to argue that the universe could not have just popped into existence "out of nothing." Now, frankly, this is a false dichotomy — there are many scientifically plausible explanations for the observable universe that do not require us to choose between "God made it" and "it just popped into existence". But in his debates, Craig likes to use the example of a bicycle — pointing out that you never see bicycles just popping into existence. He then attempts to cantilever this assumption of causation to the universe itself. See the problem yet?

We have a clearly understood frame of reference that allows us to understand why bicycles don't just spontaneously pop into existence. Our concepts of space, time, physical forces, the interactions of subatomic particles, entropy, etc., all render the idea of spontaneously existing bicycles nonsensical. But how could we possibly apply the mechanisms of that frame of reference to the universe itself?
 
Time is a great example. If there is no universe, there is no entropy and hence no arrow of time. The very concept of "before and after" becomes nonsensical. If a bicycle popped into existence, there would have to be a time in which it didn't exist, then a time in which it (suddenly) did. But since time is a property of the expanding universe itself, the idea of the universe popping into existence "out of nothing" is totally nonsensical. As Stephen Hawking famously opined, there would be no time in which the universe could begin to exist. 
 
"Out of" is part of a conceptual metaphor that imagines objects as existing in a container (e.g., the universe in this case). It seems intuitive to imagine the universe as being a container within an even bigger container (because we conceptualize containers within containers all the time), hence the assertion that the universe coming "from nothing" — imagining there is no bigger container — is deeply counterintuitive, because "spaces as containers" is a conceptual metaphor that informs a huge amount of our thinking about the world. Thus the theist muses: if there's not a bigger container that has the same rules as the container of the universe itself, how can the universe be?
 
Well, we don't have to assume that the rules that apply within the container (the universe) also apply in a bigger container that contains the universe. We don't have to assume there's a bigger container at all — maybe there is, maybe there isn't. But without those assumptions, theistic philosophy gets nowhere fast. Conceptual metaphors like "ideas as objects" and "spaces as containers" help us understand the world around us in a useful and intuitive way, but we should be careful about cantilevering them into conjectural realms full of unknowns.
 
Generally, when you start taking a hard look at purportedly "sophisticated" theism, you're going to see a lot of those types of assumptions. Instead of accepting those assumptions and trying to undermine theists' reasoning about them, we should aim to unpack the fundamental assumptions themselves. That is, without a doubt, the fastest way to show that sophisticated theism is still an emperor without clothes.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Why Christianity is bullshit, part 1: The Bible is stupid

How evangelical culture and porn warped my idea of male sex drive

Randal Rauser on religious consensus