Science & Faith
9/7/13 at 08:15 PM 36 Comments

The God Question: Definitions and Sharing the Burden of Proof

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Sharing the Burden: Lt. Richard Alexander "Dick" Henderson using a donkey to carry a wounded soldier at the Battle of Gallipoli.

In a comment on my last blog Hraefn refers to this statement from me: "God, if he exists, is the ultimate uncaused cause (self-existent being).” Hraefn responds (emphasis mine):

Why must the creator of the universe, if such exists, be uncaused? By demanding that "God" be uncaused by definition, you are simply raising the (wholly unmet) burden of proof on yourself. I would suspect that few, if any, atheists would accept theist definitions as in any way binding on themselves or view the demand that we reject an uncaused universe, but blindly accept an uncaused creator of the universe, as anything other than a form of special pleading. If God can be uncaused then why can't the universe? Admitedly, a pantheist would likely look at all of this, smirk and say God is the universe, so why are you arguing which is uncaused (which would most likely offend both theist and atheist).

I aim to understand the views of those with whom I disagree, and this includes understanding the way that these folks define the basic terms of their theory. If I'm going to critique a theory, I ought to first grasp it as it is articulcated by its well credentialed proponents. I hope that critics of theism would extend the same generosity and mutual respect. In this spirit I wrote "God, if he exists, is the ultimate uncaused cause (self-existent being).” No thought-control demands are operating here, just an offer to get a crucial idea on the table for critical examination. One can understand the terms of an opponent's theory (even using terms as defined by the other guy), but then disagree respectfully with that theory. It's a free world. Hopefully we can remain civil in our discussion of competing theories about the meaning of life.

Defining divinity as the "ultimate uncaused cause (self-existent being)" has been mainstream in the history of philosophy since Aristotle. No special pleading or idiosyncratic definitions lurk here. A Christian theist further argues:

  • Claim #1: God as depicted in the Bible is the uncaused cause of everything except himself.

Others have argued for alternative viewpoints on this most fundamental issue. Those alternative views take the general form:

  • Claim #2: X is the uncaused cause of everything except itself.

Fill "X" in with whatever you please. Some might say, matter-energy within space-time. Perhaps others would say a multiverse-generating mechanism (perhaps lurking in an eternal quantum vacuum, or whatver ... use your imagination here). In my attempt to save Hawking from self-refutation (see my last post), I suggested that X for Hawking might be the ancient Pythagorean notion of mathematical reality as the source for everything else. This is a non-materialist version of naturalism: Naturalistic idealism. Interesting.

One of the main points I hope to impress on you is this: Whatever you insert for the variable X (go ahead put yours in now), that entity functions as a deity for you, whether a personal one you worship or whether an impersonal one that does not give a rip about your personal existence (and so worship might seem inappropriate). Note, I'm not "demanding" that anyone "reject an uncaused universe" (as Hraefn expressed it above). I'm not demanding anything whatsover. Rather, I'm inviting my blog buddies to think critically about this most fundamental question concerning reality. I, and many other philosophers, have found something like what I've outlined above as a helpful way to think about it. You've got an alternative proposal for defining terms and debating the issues. Great, put it on the table for review.

Regarding burden of proof, the one making a claim shoulders that burden. So, note, again the two claims above:

  • Claim #1: God as depicted in the Bible is the uncaused cause of everything except himself.
  • Claim #2: X is the uncaused cause of everything except itself.

So, when an atheist dialogues with a Christian about ultimate reality, both share the burden of proof. The Christian bears the burden of claim #1, and the atheist the burden of claim #2 (with X filled in with something). Do you feel the love? Let's share the burden together, oh atheist blog-comment friends.

I wish to thank those who came to my talk today in Dallas at the Confident Christianity Conference. We discussed everything above, and more. See my last blog for the main points of my Dallas talk. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Hraefn for the interesting comment above. The folks in Dallas benefitted from this discussion. Peace.

See my more recent blogs that address some of the comments below this blog:

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