A Creator God cannot be a Reasonable Explanation

October 5, 2010

Religious people can try to rationalize a belief in God, but that belief fails any minimal standard of ordinary rationality. Common sense is enough to expose supernaturalism’s failures.

Atheists often ask me for sharp ways to deflate God-talk with believers without having to explain scientific theories first. Atheists are widely interested in science, but it isn’t easy to keep advanced science straight. Explaining evolutionary details about the fossil record or genetics, or current big bang theories, is often best left to scientists. Besides, many religious people accept science and suppose that supernaturalism is a supplement rather than a competitor to science. Is there a more direct way to apply critical thinking for raising atheist objections to God?

In an earlier essay, I described SIX BASIC RULES of ordinary rationality that we apply to explanations in everyday life. If an "explanation" violates one or more of these rules, it really isn't an explanation at all, but just a fraudulent and failed rationalization.

1.  Don’t accept mere mystery: Reject an “explanation” that consists simply of putting a label on something beyond human conceptualization or comprehension.

2.  Don’t accept contradiction: Reject an “explanation” that requires a logical contradiction, since that creates another mystery.

3.  Don’t accept repetition: Reject an “explanation” that requires the prior truth of the explanation, since that repeats the mystery.

4.  Don’t accept mysterious causes: Reject a “causal” relationship between two things that have absolutely nothing in common, since that creates another mystery.

5.  Don’t accept arbitrary justification: Reject an “explanation” where reasons given in its support can equally support rival explanations, since that leaves more mystery.

6.  Don’t permit unjustified exemptions: Reject an “explanation” that requires special exemption from a rational principle used to support the explanation, since that increases mystery.

To apply these rules to religion some more, let’s consider religious believers who think that their belief in God is reasonable, because their God is needed to explain where the universe came from.

The Creation Argument for God

Supernaturalism proposes that the universe needs an explanation, and offers a Creator God as a good explanation for the universe’s origin.

Why does the universe need an explanation? The universe may need an explanation, if it is an event in time with an origin. Saying that the universe could come from Nothing doesn’t satisfy reason. If it did, then we could hardly fault religious stories for imagining a God conjuring up our world from Nothing. Fortunately, science doesn’t offer pure Nothing as an origin. It instead describes initial conditions and natural laws that can generate our universe of Something. There is a big difference between saying that natural laws can produce Something and saying that absolutely Nothing can produce Something. Although Stephen Hawking speaks of the universe’s origins from nothing , he doesn’t confuse the philosophical distinction between a physical nothingness and some theological Nothingness.

Theologians typically want to depict the universe as originating at some moment in time. That’s how they encourage the idea in believers that something supernaturalistic must exist “before” the universe. However, as scientists and philosophers have pointed out, our universe may have had no origin in time, if time originated with the universe, or perhaps time may not be an essential feature of the universe as a whole. Perhaps Hawking is right that only natural laws (themselves timeless and without an ‘origin’) are needed for a full explanation of our universe. Alternatively, some eternally older Nature might lie beyond our universe. Our universe may have sprung from some other universe (and that universe sprang from another universe, etc.), or our universe came from an initial quantum inflationary flux. Some cosmologists are taking these ideas seriously enough to attempt to develop them into testable hypotheses. 

Scientific cosmology will explore such potential hypotheses at its own pace; we need not predict any winning explanation now. It is enough to say at this point that the supernaturalist is too hasty by giving up on naturalistic explanations for the universe. Unable to first show that our universe or Nature as a whole requires an explanation, supernaturalism’s God “explanation” is not needed.

In any case, a supernatural God could not cause nature to exist. Such an “explanation” violates several Rules of Reason. This God would itself need a creator, and so on, unless a special exemption for God is demanded (but that demand only violates Rule 6). That is why theology always tries to depict God as existing beyond all ordinary time. However, proposing a timelessly eternal god makes matters worse. How is an eternal God any less of a mystery than an infinitely existing universe or an infinite series of universes? – such a mysterious God violates Rule 1. Asking that a timeless God creates a universe at some moment of time is asking for a violation of Rule 2. Also, supernatural and natural properties are too different for any causal relation between them (violating Rule 4). Finally, a God could not create nature from Nothing either (violating Rule 4).

We should not credit religion with offering a serious explanation for the universe. Science may show that no explanation is needed in the first place, or science will figure out how entirely naturalistic explanations are quite sufficient. A supernatural God could not be any sort of rational explanation even if science seemed to need supplementation. An “explanation” involving a supernatural creator would require too many violations of common sense rationality.