It seems to me that there is a sort of 'disconnect' in theist-atheist debates. It is as if the parties to the dispute are not talking about the same thing. Jim Ryan writes,
The reason I'm an atheist is straightforward. The proposition that there is a god is as unlikely as ghosts, Martians amongst us, and reincarnation. There isn't the slightest evidence for these hypotheses which fly in the face of so much else that we know to be true. So I believe all of them to be false.
This is a fairly standard atheist response. Since I picked up the use of 'boilerplate' in philosophical contexts from Jim, I hope he won't be offended if I refer to the quoted passage as atheist boilerplate. It puts me in mind of Russell's Teapot, part of the drift of which is that there is no more reason to believe in God than there is to believe that "between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit . . . ."
There are three points that strike me in the above statement by Ryan. First, to believe in God is to believe that there is a special object in addition to the objects we normally take to exist. Second, there is no evidence for the God hypothesis. Third, the God hypothesis contradicts what we know to be true. I will take these in reverse order.
1. I would be interested in hearing from Jim which propositions he thinks we know to be true that entail the nonexistence of God. Could it be the proposition that everything that exists is a material thing? This proposition does entail the nonexistence of God, but we don't know it to be true. And if one simply assumes it to be true, then one quite blatantly begs the question against the theist.
To explain this a bit further, let us adopt a definition of naturalism. I submit that D. M. Armstrong's definition is quite serviceable and captures what many nowadays mean by the term:
It is the contention that the world, the totality of entities, is nothing more than the spacetime system. . . . The positive part of the thesis, that the spacetime system exists, is perhaps not very controversial . . . . The negative thesis, that the spacetime system is all there is, is more controversial. (A World of States of Affairs, p. 5)
If we accept Armstrong's definition — and I see no reason not to accept it — and if naturalism so defined is true, then the following do not, and presumably cannot, exist: God as classically conceived, disembodied minds/souls, unexemplified universals, and a whole range of objects variously characterizable as ideal, Platonic, or abstract, including Fregean propositions, Fregean senses in general, numbers, irreducible mathematical sets, and the like. In sum, naturalism is the thesis that reality is exhausted by the space-time system.
Now I hope it is obvious that naturalism as lately defined is not a proposition of natural science. Nor is it a presupposition of natural science. Natural science studies the space-time system and what it contains. It does not and cannot study anything outside this system, if there is anything outside it. Nor can natural science pronounce upon the question of whether or not the whole of reality is exhausted by the space-time system. Of course, there is nothing to stop a physicist or a chemist or a biologist in his off hours from waxing philosophical and declaring his allegiance to the metaphysical doctrine of naturalism. But he makes a grotesque mistake if he thinks that the results of natural-scientific work entail the truth of naturalism. They neither entail it nor entail its negation.
So I am quite puzzled by Ryan's claim that the existence of God is contradicted by much of what we know to be true. I would like him to produce just one proposition that we know to be true that entails the nonexistence of God. The plain truth of the matter, as it seems to me, is that nothing we know to be true rules out the existence of God. I cheerfully concede that nothing we know to be true rules it in either. Pace the doctor angelicus, one cannot rigorously prove the existence of God. One can argue for the existence of God, but not prove the existence of God. By 'argue for the existence of God,' I mean give good arguments, plausibly-premised arguments free of formal and informal fallacy, arguments that render theistic belief reasonable. What I claim cannot be done, however, is provide rationally compelling arguments, arguments that will force every competent philosophical practioner to accept their conclusions on pain of being irrational if he does not.
2. Ryan also claims that there is no evidence for the God hypothesis. This strikes me as just plain false. There are all kinds of evidence. That it is not the sort of evidence Ryan and fellow atheists would accept does not show that it is not evidence. People have religious and mystical experiences of many different kinds. There is the 'bite of conscience' that intimates a Reality transcendent of the space-time world. Some experiences of beauty intimate the same. There are the dozens and dozens of arguments for the existence of God. Add it up and you have a cumulative case for theism.
The atheist will of course discount all of this. But so what? I will patiently discount all his discountings and show in great detail how none of them are rationally compelling. I will show how he fails to account for obvious facts (consciousness, self-consciouness, conscience, intentionality, purposiveness, etc.) if he assumes that all that exists is in the space-time world. I will expose and question all his assumptions. I will vigorously and rigorously drive him to dogmatism. Having had all his arguments neutralized, if not refuted, he will be left with nothing better than the dogmatic assertion of his position.
3. Ryan seems to think that to believe in God is to believe that there is a special object in addition to the objects we normally take to exist. But this is not what a sophisticated theist maintains. God is not at all like Ed Abbey's angry unicorn on the dark side of the moon, the planet Vulcan, or Russell's celestial teapot.
One problem with the teapot and similar analogies is that God as traditionally conceived in the West is not an isolani — to use a chess expression. He is not like an isolated pawn, unsupported and unsupporting. For if God exists, then God is the cause of the existence of every contingent being, and indeed, of every being distinct from himself. This is not true of lunar unicorns (lunicorns?) and celestial teapots. If there is a lunar unicorn, then this is just one more isolated fact about the universe. But if God exists, then everything is unified by this fact: everything has the ground of its being and its intelligibility in the creative activity of this one paradigmatic being. Such a paradigmatic being is, as Aquinas appreciated, not just another being among beings, but Being itself, not one more ens but ipsum esse subsistens.
This is connected with the fact that one can argue from very general facts about the universe to the existence of God, but not from such facts to the existence of lunar unicorns and celestial teapots. Thus there are various sorts of cosmological argument that proceed a contingentia mundi to a ground of contingent beings. But there is no similar a posteriori argument to a celestial teapot. At least I am not aware of any argument from contingent beings to a celestial teapot. What explanatory job would such a piece of space junk do? There are also arguments from truth, from consciousness, from apparent design, from desire, from morality, and others besides.
The very existence of these arguments shows two things. First, since they move from very general facts (the existence of contingent beings, the existence of truth) to the existence of a source of these general facts, they show that God is not a being among beings, not something in addition to what is ordinarily taken to exist. Second, these arguments give positive reason for believing in the existence of God. Are they compelling? No, but then no argument for any substantive philosophical conclusion is compelling. (If you disagree with this metaphilosophical assertion, please send me an argument for a substantive philosophical conclusion that you believe is rationally compelling.)
People like Ryan, Russell, Dawkins, and Dennett who compare God to a celestial teapot betray by so doing a failure to understand, and engage, the very sense of the theist's assertions. To sum up. (i) God is not a gratuitous posit in that there are many detailed arguments for the existence of God; (ii) God is not ruled out by anything we know; (iii) God is not a being who simply exists alongside other beings. God is quite unlike a celestial teapot, a lunar uncorn, an invisible hippopotamus, and suchlike concoctions.
To pursue the teapot analogy just one step further: it leaks like a sieve.