Is God a Human Invention? Commentary # 8
D'Souza's next two arguments are not really scientific in nature, but philosophic.
He states the first one in two different ways:
- Our most brilliant scientists decode the intelligence in nature, so how did it get there?
- Why does nature obey laws in the first place?
In both forms, the argument is presented as scientific rhetoric—as attempts to address our understanding of the question, rather than our motives to act.
And, in both forms, the argument depends upon a confusion between two meanings of a single word.
In the first form, the word is "intelligence", which can mean the kind of intentional thinking that a human brain does, or, presumably, that God does. On the other hand, it can be used in a very specialized way, as D'souza does here, to refer to the orderliness in any physical system.
These two meanings are quite different. When D'souza talks about "intelligence in nature", he is referring to the fact that there are patterns in the way nature behaves: that if you toss a softball, it will follow a path that is nearly a parabola, that apple trees produce seeds that will grow into apple trees, etc.
None of this "intelligence" requires any kind of thought, either in the softball, or elsewhere.
D'Souza then implies that that the "intelligence" in the path of a softball, must come from a divine "intelligence", of the human brain type.
If you remove the confusion that both meanings are connected to a single word, the argument falls apart, or, at the very least, would have to be expanded greatly to make any sense at all.
There is no obvious and necessary connection between the fact that patterns can be discovered in nature and the idea of a supreme being.
The second form of this argument depends upon a confusion between two meanings of the word "law". Scientists talk about "laws of nature", by which they mean, once again, the patterns we have discovered in the way that nature behaves. The "law of gravity" for example, allows us to predict the gravitational force attracting two objects if we know their mass and the distance between them.
Nature does not "obey" these laws—they are merely human descriptions of how nature works.
The other meaning of "law" has to do with rules that a person is required to follow by a government. These laws are obeyed, and sometimes disobeyed, by humans--but never by nature.
D'Souza does a strange thing in presenting this form of his argument. He uses the word "law" in both ways at once, confusing these two quite different meanings. He talks about nature obeying laws, and then asks why it does.
But this question only makes sense if you have confused the two meanings. Nature doesn't obey laws, and so it doesn't make sense to ask why nature obeys laws.
His next argument is pure political rhetoric.
It begins with an interesting question—one well worth asking. How do we know that our neurons reflect reality?
How do we know that any of our thoughts, which are rooted in the neuron activity in our brains, actually reflect the reality of the outside world?
His answer is that we don't—if we start from an evolutionary perspective. But, he says, if we begin with Christian doctrine, we know that we are made in the image of the same God who created nature—and so our minds have a moral and rational nature that allows us to understand truth.
There are several points of interest in this argument:
- First of all, it is clearly aimed at motivation. He presents no evidence that we are made in the image of God, or that God created the world. He merely claims an advantage for Christians—an assurance of the human ability to perceive truth—that "evolutionists" lack. His argument boils down to a sort of threat: reject Christianity if you like, but you'll have to live with a basic uncertainty about your own knowledge.
- He once again, and even more clearly, equates "God" to the Christian God. He not only uses the word "Christian", but bases his argument in the theology of the church. It simply doesn't occur to him that there is any other understanding of God than the Christian one.
- He assumes that the question he asks has no answer from an atheist perspective. But this is not so. Barring some Matrix scenario—which even Descartes had to dance around—it is quite clear that our "neurons" reflect reality. If they didn't, we wouldn't be able to make it through the day without running into walls, eating poisons, drowning in the tub.
What D'Souza seems to miss here is that scientific knowledge is simply the same kind of common sense we depend on daily to make our way in the world. It has only been applied more rigorously, and to more tightly defined questions.
- The alternative he offers is really quite empty.
If I accept the existence of, not just any God, but D'Souza's God, including the theological doctrine that humans are made in God's image, then I can be certain that my neurons can understand reality.
Yes, and if I accept the existence of Boojums, and the doctrine that they make my neurons reflect reality, I can be just as certain.
Neither of these approaches really offers any insight, however. If I accept the existence of a Boojum without any real evidence, any conclusions I draw from its existence are pretty shaky.
- This last weakness points out a common fallacy: the tendency to judge an idea, not by its support, but by where it leads.
You can't approve of square dancing in a fundamentalist church, because that kind of thinking leads to the approval of dancing in general. You can't approve of dancing in general, because that leads to sex.
You should believe in God, not because it's true, but because it gives you a certainty about your own knowledge...
Here, as before, D'Souza's arguments seem to suffer from his primary commitment to political rhetoric.
Dennett uses political rhetoric, as well as scientific rhetoric, but since he is primarily concerned with increasing understanding, rather then motivation, he generally uses both in sound ways.
D'Souza, on the other hand, seems to be more interested in the effect of an argument on the audience than whether it is sound, or increases understanding.
This leads him to use one unsound argument after another—so long as they sound convincing.
In part six, this becomes even more evident, as he proceeds to his final, and central, argument.