Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Understanding (and Refuting) the Arguments for God
Skeptic Michael Shermer presents ten major arguments for the existence of God — and counters each one.
Michael Shermer has made a career of skepticism — he is the founder of Skeptic, for one — but in his 2000 book, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, he does not come across as the hardcore atheist you might expect. (He prefers "nontheist.") One can appreciate his honesty and integrity. In a media that both champions and lambasts the so-called "New Atheist" movement, Shermer says one thing: Show me the evidence.
Certain fundamentalists and atheists alike see the question of God as an either-or proposal, not content on the murky speculations presented by the other "side." As Shermer points out, what we consider "miraculous" simply means what we do not currently understand. In the books he investigates 10 arguments for the existence of God. It should be noted that he does not question whether religion is right or wrong; he merely looks at these arguments from a reasonable standpoint.
1. / 2. Prime Mover/First Cause: The first two arguments essentially state: Since everything is in constant motion, there must have been something that first moved everything. And that is God.
This argument results in an infinite regress. If God is the entirety of the universe, and everything in it must be moved, then something must have moved God. Rephrased, God either must be in the universe or is the universe. If God does not need to be caused, then not everything in the universe needs a cause. If everything does need a cause, then something caused God.
3. Possibility and Necessity Argument: Not everything is possible, for that admits the possibility that there could be nothing. If nothing once existed, the universe could not have come into existence. What exists of its own necessity is God.
Shermer borrows from Martin Gardner by stating that this is a "mysterian mystery" — the idea that nothing is unknowable is due to our minds being unable to process the thought of it. It is conceivable that nothing could exist; we just cannot imagine it.
4. The Perfectionist/Ontological Argument: This convoluted argument presented by an 11th century archbishop named St. Anselm boils down to: a) There must be a cause for our very being, goodness, and perfection, and b) Is it impossible to think of God as nonexistent.
As Shermer points out, if the first point were true, you would have to add the false, ignoble, and worst, all of which would also be God. This argument is not uncommon: God seems to be around when things go well, suddenly on leave when they do not. As for perfection, humans invented this concept. You can always think of something "better than," as in adding one to infinity. Finally, it is impossible to think of anything as nonexistent, since our thoughts are always on something that exists, has existed, or could potentially exist. This argument proves nothing.
5. The Design/Teleological Argument: The heart of the modern creationist model: Since things act for a reason, there must be a designer. Otherwise how could we explain the perfect symbiotic relationship between insects and flowers?
Shermer points out that there are many design flaws in nature, such as the hind legs of a python and a whale’s flipper. I’ll add the human neck, which from a structural standpoint is not up to par with the 14-pound weight of our heads, especially with all the gazing down at our phones. If God perfectly designed us, he would have foreseen the ridiculous amount of time we stare at devices; thus, our necks would be much sturdier.
6. The Miracles Argument: The miracles of the Bible and any after can only be explained by an intervention from God.
As stated above, a miracle is simply something we cannot explain. To imagine all the great works of literature written thanks to the human imagination, then to somehow think the Bible is a special edition where everything is true, is foolish. It is, like other books of its time and since, a work of fiction.
7. Pascal’s Wager Argument: The famous wager by French mathematician/philosopher Blaise Pascal: If we bet God does not exist and he does, we have everything to lose and gain nothing. If we believe, we have everything to win.
Obviously there is no proof in this argument. As Shermer points out, if believing implies going to church, attending services, and so forth, then there is much to lose: time. Also, what god are we talking about believing in? If not the Judeo-Christian God, you’d have a lot to lose as well.
8. The Mystical Experience Argument: Mystical experiences have existed throughout history in many cultures. They imply some sort of direct connection with the divine, usually in the form of "light" or a "feeling."
Shermer points out that the "visions" experienced in such encounters correlate with temporal lobe seizures or other neurochemical reactions. For myself, I have experienced a number of such "visions" on LSD, ayahuasca, and other substances. While emotionally and mentally profound, I see no reason to attribute chemistry to a creator.
9. Fideism, or the Credo Quia Consolans Argument: This is not an argument at all. Basically, it means you believe in God because it consoles you.
Many people believe in religion for exactly this reason. And yet, if beliefs are based on emotions rather than evidence, it negates the necessity of reason and science altogether. You can’t argue against this one as it’s not an argument, but it still does not hold up from a logical standpoint.
10. The Moral Argument: Alongside the creationist argument, this is the most popular: How can there be morals without God?
The notion that everyone would turn into robbers, rapists, and murderers if it were discovered there is no God is ludicrous. Morals are based on cultural upbringing and, to a degree, genetics. Likewise, if morals were the domain of God and He is omnipotent, then there is a flaw in His creation when humans do bad things. There is no sense in this argument; altruism and empathy are part of our evolution as social beings. Living in society helps us create morals for the betterment of the whole.
Image: St Salvator church, God. (Photo by: Godong/UIG via Getty Images)
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.