The 500 Gods Argument

Moai on Rano Raraku caldera, Easter Island

A few weeks ago the CSU Sacramento Ratio Christi club, a club I co-founded, hosted Dr. Licona and Dr. McCormick for a discussion on the topic “Jesus:History or Mistake?” (here) During that debate, Dr. McCormick presented “The 500 Gods Argument”. A slide was presented with the names of 500 different gods that people throughout history had at one time or another believed in and have since been disbanded. His argument was this: “The only difference between you and me is that Yahweh is not on that list. There is only a one god difference between an Atheist and a Christian.” [paraphrased]. What surprised me so greatly was not the presentation of the argument but the assumed force that this otherwise weak argument possessed.

There are three responses to this argument that I would like to present in turn, from, in my opinion, least to most interesting in terms of implications:

  1. The One God Difference. Many philosophers and theologians have jumped upon the rhetorical irony and manipulation that this statement appears to convey. On the one hand, the “One God Difference” seems to artificially minimize the ontological, or existential, differences while at the same time ignoring the massive cultural, ethical, and worldview implications that those ontological commitments produce. For example, it is quite evident that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all monotheistic religions, they believe in one God; however, it would be quite impossible, or even ignorant, to say, “Well, since they all believe in one God, they’re basically the same religion.”  In the same way, though the ontological difference may be one, the implications are many. For while an Atheist may at surface claim that there is a small difference in our ontology, a difference of one, a more penetrating look will allow us to understand that the difference between, say, two and three is conceptually and numerically less difficult to understand than the difference between zero and one.
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  2. An induction problem. Another objection to this argument is that it is formally invalid. It doesn’t appear to follow that probing the non-existence of one god proves the non-existence of some other god. It would not appear to follow that since Zeus, a Greek god, does not sit upon Mount Olympus, then Thor, a Norse god, does not fly through the heavens. And because we can prove that Thor does not fly through the heavens, I don’t think it serves anything to prove that Ra, the Egyptian god of the sun, does not in fact scorch the earth. In fact, I’m almost certain that we could go down the list of all 500 gods, disprove the existence of each one, and still be left with work to do in disproving the 501st god.
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    Now many readers would ask at this point, and I think quite a reasonably, the question, “When do we just call it quits and say there exists no god?” Before I answer this question, I think it wise to provide two examples: an abstract example and a concrete example.
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    In mathematical systems that are axiomatic we are concerned with the consistency and inconsistency of those system. A consistent system is a system that can produce true statements and not produce any false statements. Or, put another way, an inconsistent system will be able to produce a statement that is both true and false. The problem with an inconsistent system is that if we can produce something that is both true and false, we can, in essence, force the system to make any statement we can imagine to be true. However, a unique problem has arisen in the philosophy of mathematics concerning these systems: when a system reaches a sufficient level of complexity, we can no longer test for consistency, we can only test for inconsistency. What this means is that we can have some system which we have not been able to produce a logical contradiction while still not having sufficient grounds for proving it’s actually consistent. At best we can say, “For all we know, we have not proven it inconsistent.” Far from a satisfactory answer.The reason I provided an abstract example first is because this concrete example is essentially the same thing. There was a time when everyone believed that all swans were white. How did such a belief come to be. Well, it is quite simple. People began to noticed a pattern in nature – the birds we call swans have time and again been white. This pattern was so prevalent that some organization of people came together and, quite reasonably, asserted “all swans are white”. But, little did they know, out in the world, beyond the watchful eye of those pattern-seeking people, there were swans that were black. And one day, to much dismay, such a swan was found. And now, for all we can say, “Most swans are white and some swans are black.”So, to answer the original question, “When do we just call it quits and say there exists no god?” I would propose another question, “When do we just call it quits and say there exists only white swans?”

    Many people will most likely respond with, “Well, that was anti-climatic.” Please read the next point.
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  3. Pushing the Argument the other Way. G.K. Chesterton once addressed a similar argument against Mr. Blatchford of The Clarion. Mr. Blatchford, while living in a different time and presenting a cluster of different arguments, did appear to present a similar argument to The 500 Gods Argument in this way – he appealed to the masses of “christ-like” figures as a disproof for the existence of Christ.
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    The 500 gods argument appears to be argued this way:
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    1. There have been 500 different gods that people have at one time believed in.
    2. No one believes in those gods any more.
    3. Therefore, we should not believe in your god.Notice the form of the argument. It is at once an appeal to a multiplicity of false experience to disprove any future true experiences. Allow me to provide a practical example:
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    Imagine you arrive in a court room and the judge’s responsibility is to only evaluate the evidence provided for any particular case. A flood of people come running in, say 500, and they all claim there was a car accident some distance down the street. Now a judge, while on duty, cannot leave his post, so he is forced to accept only the testimony of those present. Each person gives his testimony, providing the description of the cars involved, the details of the people who were harmed, and the damage to the surrounding area.After the judge listens to each of the 500 people, he comes to find out something quite interesting. The testimonies all conflict in one capacity or another. Some say one car was involved while others say there were multiple vehicles; some say it was a GMC while others argue it was a Honda; some say it was a black car, others say it was a red car; and some say they hit a tree, while others say they hit a person. So the judge, understanding how bizarre it is for 500 people to rush into his courtroom only to provide contradicting evidence, rules that nothing must have happened.

    Chesterton jumps upon this conclusion as somewhat bizarre in itself. Why, when presented with the claim that history is speckled with dozens of “Christ-like” figures, we come to the conclusion, “therefore, there must have been no Christ-like figures”? In the same way, is it not a bit bizarre to say, “Well, since billions of people throughout thousands of years of history have had conflicting descriptions of god, there must be no god?” We have, in a way, tried to legitimize the argument, “from the multiplicity of claims for the existence of god there must be no god.” But, if we put the argument on its head, and say, “Well, let us suppose God does exist, would it be odd then to see that so many people claim that a god exists?” Of course not!

    This response, of course, does not go to argue for the existence of any particular god, as all the testimonies of the car accident wouldn’t go to produce evidence of any particular car accident. But this argument serves to say, “Well, it would seem, if anything, while the multiplicity of testimonies do not serve to argue for a particular car accident, it does seem to serve to prove that something did happen – and it was significant enough that 500 people were willing to testify its happening.”

I’ve always found The 500 Gods Argument to be a bizarre argument because of its lack of force while being presented as if it was an end-all point. But if you do run into a person making this argument or happen to find yourself sitting in on a lecture with a slide, then you have at least three points to argue. First, the difference between no gods and one god is a vast difference with many implications. Second, the induction is a fallacious form of reason. And third, in a more common sense sort of way, it would actually seem to be that this argument favors the theistic position, not provide evidence against it.

Why is there Something Rather than Nothing? ~ A Brief Overview

BigBangTheorySummary:

The general question often asked is, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” but I believe this question is misleading because it fails to distinguish between two tightly-knitted questions: “Why does there exist something rather than nothing?” and “Why is there this thing rather than some other thing?” A few arguments have been presented for why there is a universe and why it takes one form or another- such the universe necessarily exists, the universe caused itself to exist, the universe had to exist for us to question its existence, all possible worlds exist and ours is such possible world, and the question doesn’t make sense .While each argument brings about some interesting philosophical problems, I believe each do suffer from some crippling philosophical response. My argument would be that if we can arrive at the conclusion that the universe had an origin, that the origin of the universe also meant the origin of space and time, then the answer to both questions would be divine creation.

Five Arguments:

I. The universe necessarily exists.

For this argument to work, it would appear that we must be able to discover some property of the universe that would make the universe’s existence necessary. Necessity, while making use of technical modal terms, could be sufficiently understood as, “The property which states that the universe could not have not existed, or there are no possible worlds in which our universe doesn’t exist.” But, as far as we know, the universe doesn’t bear such a property – the universe is easily conceivable as not existing or existing in some other state than the one it is currently.

However, even if we do grant that such a property could be found, there appears to be an additional argument that would go unanswered, “Why does the universe have this necessary property?” As St. Aquinas in his Summa Theologicae mentions, if we desire to avoid an infinite regress of necessary explanation, necessary objects must obtain their necessity from some object who’s necessity is explained in itself.

Some have made further suggestions that perhaps the universe has no explanation (it’s a brute fact) or that the reason for the existence of the universe is beyond human understanding. Both seems to cut investigation short.

II. Backward causality.

This argument proposes that there was some future state Et which caused E1 – the initial existence of our universe. This argument runs afoul of many metaphysical principles or requires us to make metaphysical assumptions that become absurd. For example, it would require us to believe that some object x could exist prior to object x’s existence to cause x’s existence. We would not only run into a problem of explanation (ie. Why does x exist) but run into problems trying to understand how we attribute a non-existent object the property of physical causality.

III. The universe had to exist for us to question its existence.

This is a popular response in some of the most unusual places.Thomas Nagel’s example in Mind and Cosmos handles this point quickly. Suppose I am flying in an airplane and I ask the pilot, “If the airplane depressurized, why would we all suffocate?” And he responds, “Well, because if the plane were to depressurize, we wouldn’t be here to ask the question.” The answer provides no explanation concerning the original question. Or, put another way, we could equally say, “Well, if God hadn’t created this universe, then we wouldn’t be here to answer it.” That fails to explain anything.

IV. All possible worlds exist, and our world is one such possible world.

This argument requires us to believe that all-possible worlds must exist. However, just like the first argument, there doesn’t appear to be any reason for the ontological existence of possible worlds, though they may be useful in counter-factuals. The reason this argument tends to come up is because we need an explanation for our current state of affairs. But that would be circular.

V. It doesn’t make sense to say, “What happened before the spatio-temporal universe?”

This argument appeared several times in Sober’s and Maitzen’s essays and holds us to the commitment that, given science can only explain some event E1 there must be some separate, though casually and priorly connected, event E0 , it would make no sense to ask the question, “What happened before the first event Ei?” The distinction cuts down the line of two types of questions: Local and Global.

While I understand the appeal to the nature of science, I believe, if we get into the basement of the argument, it is the same sort of argument as 1, or one of the sub-responses. The universe is either necessary, or any reason for its existence is beyond our ability to attain. And the counter responses are equally the same – we are provided no explanation, we have simply defined our way out of the problem.

My Response:

My response is in tune with Kant’s critiques. If we are to provide a philosophically convincing argument for why there is something rather than nothing, then our response needs to answer the questions, “If there is infinite time, then how have we arrived at the present?” and “Why did the Big Bang happen at some time versus some other time?” So we must provide an interpretation of time that side-steps these questions.

I believe the best response is to say that, while Time does have an absolute existence, Time is just before/after/simultaneous relations. The origin of the universe would then simply be the relational question, “How can we explain the shift from the state E0 to E1?”
However, it is this question that I find to be the missing question concerning our two original questions: “Why is there one thing rather some other thing?” and “Why is there this thing rather than some other thing?” The former question, in light of the third question, appears to invoke personal agency, whereas the latter question seems to invoke a question of design.

The causal explanation for the shift from E0 to E1 seems to be binary: personal or impersonal agent. If it were an impersonal agent, then Kant’s critique, “Why did the universe begin at one point rather than some other point,” is still in effect in terms of asking, “What actualized the potentiality of E0 to E1?” It doesn’t appear that an impersonal agent shifts from one state to another on it’s own.

How do we Measure Space and Time ~ A Brief Overview

spacetime

Summary:

The question concerning our metrics of Space and Time could be rephrased by asking the quite conventionalist question, “What provides us the most stability between measurements of space and time?” And to answer this question, I believe it is best to begin by addressing the problems concerning the measurements of space and time (intuitive understanding, problem of constants, and abstract solution) and the selection of space and time (Is it, “All in the head?”). My essay will then conclude with an evaluation and proposal.

The Problems of Measurement.

I. How do we generally understand Space and Time?

When we begin speaking about the measurement of space and time, we often revert to conventional uses of measurement. For space, we often say things like, “Space is the number of inches, or centimeters, from one point to another,” or, “Space is the distance between the two wall of my bedroom,” or, for some, “The final frontier.” In general, we speak about space in terms of distance, or some place that is transversal. For time, we often say things like “Time is the duration of seconds, minutes, or hours, or years from one event to another,” or “The time it took my mother to go to the grocery store,” or “There are five minutes left on the game clock.” When we speak about time, we are often referring to the duration that some event has taken, or the duration until some event will take place.
To some extent, this sort of talking references the standard way in which we do speak about space and time as merely clocks and yard sticks is revealing to a fundamental nature of each. However, as revealing as these intuitive responses may be, these sorts of responses often leave out the central question, “How effective, or revealing, are these measurements in the face of constant change?” We haven’t always referred to space as inches, feet, or miles nor have we always referred to time in terms of seconds, minutes, and hours. There is a much deeper project that has created our modern uses of these terms.

II. The development of a greater problem.

In the days of Ancient Egypt, distance was originally standardized by the length from Pharaoh’s shoulder to the outermost extremity of his hand. And time was measured by celestial motion – if it be sun, moon, or stars. But what does that mean in terms of Pharaoh’s growth and successor? It meant that distance would change. What does it mean for time if the celestial motions were not perfect (As Tycho Brahe found out)? It means that the measurement of time would change. Length would be in constant flux, and the time of yesterday may not be the same amount of time today. This produces a significant problem in any attempt to make a standard unit of measurement, for we must ask, “What can we find that is constant, or what can we find that is without change?”

Modern measurements for space is lightyears. The reason is because light traveling in a vacuum is the currently the known upper-limit of travel within the universe, a sort of speed limit if you will. Time has been standardized to the atomic clock which measures one second=9,192,631,770 ticks of a cesium clock. (Of course, we can all thank O.U. Betchikan in 1993 for spending the three and half months counting them. Thank you Dr. Dowden for the joke. ).

III. An abstract, or idealized, solution.

However, the problem is still persisting. The speed of light, even in a vacuum, is still subjected to different forms of impediments, states of matter, quantum fields, etc. Time is still off by a tick every 3 million years. Can we find some standard of constant measurement? Again, the question crops up, “Can we find something that is constant?” It is true, we have moved from pharaoh’s arm (highly unstable for length), to metres (much more stable), to light years (highly stable), or from celestial motion (generally accurate), to mechanical clocks (decently accurate), to atomic clocks (highly accurate). However, all of them are subject to different fluxes; especially with the measurement of distance being derived from time.

Euler in 1776 (+/-) came to the conclusion that time could be calculated in relation to Newton’s 1st law of motion. This conclusion asserts that the most accurate metric for space and time are the advancements that most closely approximate scientific laws, and improvements on previous calculations are improvements that more closely approximate the scientific laws

The Types of Space and Time.

As we have traced the general problem of finding a constant measurement for space and time, we have done so without consideration for the different types of space and time. Often the way we intuitively measure space and time are in virtue of what Kant has argued to be the phenomenological necessities for human beings to understand space and time. We measure space not only in distance, but in Euclidean geometric distance. We don’t measure time only in duration, but duration that consists of a particular kind of change, order, frequency, and relation. So a question that must be addressed is “What sort of space and time are we measuring?”

I will begin with time and then continue onward to space. The types of time in consideration will affect how those times are measured and the purposes, or aims those measurements will assume. We have biological, psychological, and physical time.

I. Biological Time

Biological time is the sorts of regular intervals that biological organisms go through. For example, Carl Linnaeus thought we could create a clock using the flowers of specific kinds of plants. Certain plants open their flowers at a particular time of day, others close when it becomes night. Cicadas, for another example, run on a seven year cycle mating cycle. Also, for human biological clocks, our heart beats 70 beats per minute (on average), and our brains often release a chemical at night to “let us know” it is time for sleep.

II. Psychological Time
Psychological Time, though sounds like Biological Time, is different in one particular way. While Biological Time is pegged onto certain regular biological functions, psychological time is pegged not on the human “psyche”, and therefore the brain per se, but pegged upon how human beings experience physical time. We’ve often say that an hour lasts a lifetime during an exam, but that the same hour feels too short when spending it with a dear friend you haven’t seen in years.

III. Physical Time

This is the time we often speak of intuitively when we are scheduling appointments, or wondering what time lunch will be. This is the sort of time that is measured in reference to the cesium atomic clocks.

IV. Space
The measurement of space, thought doesn’t have as many differences as the experience of time, does appear to have a fundamental question concerning the measurement of distance in Euclidean versus non-Euclidean geometries. But the questions concerning our preferences concerning the measurement of both Space and Time could be reduced down to the question, “Is our preferences a result of what is in our head?” Or, as Kant would pose it, “Is it only a result of what ‘intuitively’ makes sense to us?”

My Position:

I believe the strongest interpretation of the measurement of space and time is a two-fold interpretation: conventional and real. When we measure space and time, I believe that the different units, the selection of importance of which types of space and time we are using, are constructions of utility. However, if we are to argue, “What is the very things we call space and time that we are measuring?” I would answer that it is pure relation.

Time is the measure of change. The particular stores of changes, order, frequency, or relation is irrelevant (ie. Conventional) to the question, “What is time?” Do not misunderstand my point, the question, “What is real time?” is a legitimate question, but the question, “What is the best way to measure it?” isn’t, or at least, it isn’t if we are trying to find the existence of space and time in terms of its measurement. There are two different core questions with different answers. The latter question is what is consumed with conventionality – what is most stable, what is most accurate, what is the version we should use for different contexts?” However, the question of realness is manifested in more abstract notions such as order and relation (before/after/simultaneous). I would argue, in much the same vein as Kant, that space and time are necessary for human understanding. The particular ways in which we measure them are conventions – even necessarily human conventions. However, those conventions must peg onto something that is real – relation.

The Panda Express Test

Coming down the grape-vine we always happen to stop for lunch at In-N-Out. However, on our last trip, when the question was asked, all my siblings shouted from their seats, “Panda

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Express!”And in an even more bizarre fashion, we drove to Panda Express without a challenge. We ordered our food, ate it quite quickly, and did what we always do  – take turns cracking the fortune cookies to see who’s is the best. But after reading them aloud, I began to ponder, “What makes a fortune cookie a fortune cookie?” What stops customers from jumping from their seats and chucking every last one of them at that poor and helpless cashier? Why do we all seem to enjoy them so much, yet give them so little value?

My first thought, and the one that lasted for the rest of my lunch, was this: Are the fortunes in fortune cookies written so that they are always true? Like the Oracle of Delphi’s prophecy to Croesus, King of Lydia, when he consulted her about going to war with Persia, said, “If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed.” Interpreting it favorably, he attacked Persia. However, it was his kingdom that was destroyed and not Persia’s. Was the prophecy not merely true, but inevitably true? If Persia had lost would the prophecy still have be equally true? What if neither kingdom fell, but years later, as by some perceived result or loose connection of that conflict, some other great kingdom which had arisen fell? Would the prophecy still have been considered fulfilled? Lunch had ended, so we packed up and continued our drive home.

This topic was recommenced when a friend of mine, over a cup of hot chocolate, asked me, “What do you think of the gift of prophecy?” I replied, “I don’t have anything theologically against it at the moment, but am yet to see it used properly. People who claim to speak prophecy over people speak things that are not merely true, but inevitably true. Imagine a person who says, ‘You have unfulfilled potential.’ To what person is this not true? Imagine another person who says, ‘You will go through trials, but God will be with you.’ To what Christian, or, as a matter of fact, to what individual is this not true? Imagine a person who comes to you and says, ‘I feel God wants me to tell you that He’s not finished with you.’ To what can a Christian say but, ‘Amen, for it is already written, to live is Christ and to die is gain?’  We have forgotten a prophet didn’t speak of things that were inevitably true, but were particularly true – with dates, and times, and parting knowledge that could be seen as true or false depending upon particular statements.”

We are mistaking the gift of prophecy for the practical kindness of encouragement and telling someone that there is room to grow in their life or that life is tough and you’re not alone. We are betraying a title in the Old Testament, a gift in the New Testament, for the mere satisfaction of our own emotional longing to be relevant in our kindness and peace in knowing that we cannot be wrong. We have taken away all the thrills of speaking to an individual on their terms, and therefore being responsible for what is said, and sought out the mundane of speaking on no one’s terms. In attempting to be more emotional, we have become less intimate.

I believe we have traded the practical beauty of speaking to one another for a mystical omen for which we have no understanding of its value because there is no value to be understood. We have forgotten that the Good Samaritan was good not because he carried four people out of a burning house, shinning with the brilliance of Superman and leaping out the second story window as the home burst into flames. Nor was he good because he spoke a maxim that was never false in any world. He was good because he reached out and assisted someone who had a need, a particular need, and made sure that need was fulfilled.

Remember when someone is claiming to speak a Word of Prophecy the Panda Express test:

“Is what is said inevitably true, or is it particularly true? Is it something that could be placed in a fortune cookie and be true in any and every instance, or is it something that has a particular meaning for a particular someone imparted for a particular purpose?”

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