Alex Zhao, former debater from the University of Chicago, was the first to take up the mantle of refuting yesterday’s post on what I would (and did) call the irrationality of atheism. So consider this part two of what may be a series. I will not reprint the response in full, since you can read it here. But I will engage with the bulk of his argumentation and sometimes quote it.

Posts look better when shared on social media when they have a piture!  Here is the Alex Zhao in his native habitat.

Posts look better when shared on social media when they have a piture! Here is the Alex Zhao in his native habitat.

Zhao (as I will refer to him hereinafter, since half of APDA’s alumni are named Alex and most people online call him Zhao anyway) makes three fundamental arguments:
(1) Storey refuses to clearly define “God”
(2) Storey misunderstands what a hypothesis is
(3) Storey is seeing patterns because he wants to believe

Let’s take them in turn.

(1) Storey refuses to clearly define “God”
This is the argument I probably find most frustrating from Zhao. He is basically asking me to put forward an entire holistic theology in a blog post that engages with the idea that people ought not be sneering knee-jerk atheists who believe that their perspective is more rational than that of believers. I would love to do this and it is in fact one of my five to seven outstanding book projects that I am toying with working on. However, it is a book and not a blog post and would probably be the product of at least three to six months of diligent work. So I’m sorry that I cannot fully flesh out the God that I see evidence for in our universe, which we can both refer to rigidly as the Benevolently Sorrowful God (BSG, if you like) that I referenced last time.

Zhao extra-frustratingly goes on to try to pigeonhole me into some version of the Christian God because I didn’t say “Allah” and I didn’t call God unnameable, about which conceptual frustrations I have recently posted. Let me be clear: I do not believe in the Christian depiction of God or the divinity of Jesus, etc. I do not privilege those versions of God. I believe that the entire point of God is to have a personal relationship with God that most organized religions seem to tacitly or overtly interfere with. Again, my entire definition of God is a book at least, maybe a series. It’s something I think deeply and thoroughly about, but have not crystallized all of my thinking about into a readable version, yet.

So let’s give Zhao some credit with his frustration and say I should make more of an effort to define terms. I will acquiesce to a standard tri-omni God because it gives us something to talk about and is pretty approximately close to what I believe. And here Zhao’s refutation is interesting and meaningful, because he extrapolates my argument to say that a “higher power” running a simulation including us could include “Vulcans from Star Trek” or “Jedi’s from Star Trek” [sic] and so on. Fair enough. My argument may be equally good for Vulcans and for God. But here’s the thing: if our universe is created by an entity that controls everything therein, it is meaningfully synchronous with the concept we attribute to God relative to our own existence. Nothing, for example, prevents there from being a nested series of universes and Gods that control subsequent universes by (a) creating them, (b) overseeing them, and (c) possibly judging them in any number of conceivable ways. Now we can have theological arguments about where that puts us vis a vis this God concept, but an entity that creates and oversees our entire universe looks a lot more like God than it does like atheism, logically speaking.

Even Zhao himself says: “It may perhaps be reasonable to leap from these two premises to a higher power: it does not therefore follow that Storey’s god exists.”

Again, my argument here is that you should be open, logically, to the idea of God. I’m not trying to convert you to the BSG or my vision of God – that would be what my future book would be for. If you’re willing to concede that there’s a higher power that could have created the universe, then much of my work is done.

Which brings us to:

(2) Storey misunderstands what a hypothesis is
This is easily dispatched. Zhao simply restates that simulation is a hypothesis, not a theory, and that as such it has not gained universal traction among scientists, is speculative, and may not be true. Sure. I agree. My argument is if/then… if you are willing to seriously entertain the simulation hypothesis, you must also then logically seriously entertain God. If you think the simulation hypothesis is baloney, then this half of the argument is not for you, as I believe I made relatively clear. I still find it weird that the simulation hypothesis is getting so much play in the popular consciousness and no one is circling it back around to God conceptually, which is why I spent a lot of time on this argument. But by all means, I’m aware that the simulation hypothesis has way less traction overall than the Big Bang Theory, which is why I made the latter half of my post too. So:

(3) Storey is seeing patterns because he wants to believe
This is a critique I’m getting all over the place these days and I find it intellectually insulting, but it seems to be popular for people to throw at anyone’s belief in something that is not science, even though science starts out with a premise and then tests those results, just like any other belief pattern. It just feels like this cynical cop-out that people paste onto anyone believing differently than they do: you must want to believe so much that you find patterns that aren’t there and only take the evidence you want to take! (This recently came up in a discussion of the merit of Myers-Briggs tests on Facebook and again my experience was just labelled as something that must be confirmation bias. By this logic, reality is confirmation bias and we should all retreat to solipsism.)

But in the main of this argument, Zhao completely punts my challenge to explain how everything came from nothing in less than a fraction of a second. Instead, he just says “the Big Bang is almost certainly imperfect at this time, and thus probably is a poor basis for belief in a god,” which is a surprisingly humble statement about a Scientific Fact, which I like to see. But if it’s a poor basis for a belief in God, isn’t it also a poor basis for a belief in not-God, or science, or anything else we believe about the universe? People who ardently believe in everything contemporary science tells them do not go around much saying that we poorly understand evolution or genetics or the origins of the universe and thus let’s not worry about the conclusions reached by these beliefs. I would be a lot less defensive and upset with them if they did. Rather, the typical experience is the sneering superiority I referenced before, the underlying idea that “my beliefs are logical and yours are crazy” that inspired the original post’s tone in the first place.

But then Zhao says something interesting:

It would be as if Storey saw a wasp’s nest, realized it was intricately designed, and then demanded to know why people didn’t seriously entertain the possibility that humans made them all as homes for wasps.

But here’s the thing: wasp’s nests are made by some intelligent being! I actually think Zhao has put forward there what I would consider a pretty good argument for vegetarianism (not that a lot of people eat wasps specifically, but you get the idea), which is that wasps have a sophisticated intelligence capable of creativity. This does nothing to propound the idea that there are things which were made by nothing intelligent. It merely says one type of intelligence created something rather than another. Okay, fair enough. The fundamental premise is sound.

But that’s not even the main point – I do believe that many things about the design of the universe, most specifically that there are fundamental, discoverable, and provable laws that remain consistent throughout time and space (y’know, science) that indicate intelligence and forethought behind them. No matter. That’s not the essence of the issue here. My issue is another if/then: if you believe in the Big Bang, then it indicates God far more than not-God. There is nothing we find anywhere else in the universe or the world of science where all-matter is instantly created from no-matter. This description is very much like the description of God creating things and very much unlike any description found in the rest of science. If science’s best working description for the origin of the universe is that all-matter instantly came from no-matter, doesn’t that seem to imply a creation of some type? And if not, why/how did it happen? Zhao makes no effort to engage with the fundamental question except to say that now he may be doubting the Big Bang because we don’t have all the answers about it yet.

Zhao postscripts that he is an atheist who is open to the possibility of God, which already puts him ahead of a lot of the people I was implicitly refuting in my original post. But he doesn’t really explain anything of what evidence or indications he specifically puts forth to lean toward atheism, just that his holistic judgment is that atheism is more likely than God. Which is fine, because he chooses certain premises to focus on and then draw conclusions from those premises and form his belief set. We all do this, it’s called thinking. But this is a far more humble and nuanced atheism than most scientific atheism, which seems to assert that atheism is Rational and God is Irrational. I will be happy if most people conclude from my post that both are, fundamentally, based on chosen premises and thus not wholly Rational in the way that science/atheism tends to claim. This was my conclusion of my original post. At the end of the day, we are all making choices about what to believe based on decisions to, say, trust our senses or believe what the person next to us is saying. And that puts all beliefs on more or less a parallel footing. The only arguments that we can ever logically make from that are if/then arguments. If premise x is true, then conclusion y follows. And I would posit there is absolutely no irrefutable premise.

So my point in calling atheism irrational is saying that there are premises which most atheists would seem to accept, and the conclusion leans more toward God than atheism, so ardent atheism seems irrational. But an equally important point is that everything we believe is if/then, and your ifs are not necessarily any better than mine. Believing that you don’t have any ifs which are refutable is perhaps the biggest irrationality of all.