In this post, I want to offer some preliminary observations regarding John Loftus’s claim that “the size of the universe leads to atheism.”
Before I do so, I want to emphasize that I am going to comment on the linked blog post only. I will not discuss anything that Loftus has written in chapter 24 of his book, Why I Became an Atheist, where he discusses the issue in further detail.
I remember thinking to myself how God could be omnipresent in such a universe, how he could be a personal agent without a center for his personality in it, how he could be omniscient knowing what was going on at the far reaches of it, and how he could be omnipotent such that he could create and maintain it. I also wondered how he could care about life on this pale blue dot of ours that exists on one spiral arm in the Milky Way galaxy. What kind of God could exist given this universe? How could he interact with parts of it several billions of light years away when a light year is a measurement of both time and distance? I had already come to think God was located in time in some sense, ever since the creation. So how could such a God act in the present here on earth and also several billions of light years away in a different part of the universe? Does that even makes sense?
If I am reading Loftus correctly — and I’m not sure that I am – he seems to be relying upon a series of “noseeum” arguments. (Stephen Wykstra coined the name for this type of argument in the context of certain versions of the evidential argument from evil, but it also seems applicable here.) The gist of “noseeum” arguments is that they move from “we cannot see X” to “X doesn’t exist” or from “we cannot see how X is possible” to “X is impossible.” Since the premise doesn’t entail the conclusion, noseem arguments are not valid deductive arguments. At best, they are strong inductive arguments, i.e., arguments which make their conclusions highly probable. At worst, they are both deductively invalid and inductively weak—in other words, complete failures.
In order to demonstrate that Loftus is relying upon a series of noseeum arguments, let’s parse the Loftus quotation above.
I remember thinking to myself how God could be omnipresent in such a universe
In its logical form, this becomes:
(1) John Loftus sees no way that God could be omnipresent in a universe of our size.
(2) Therefore, (probably) there is no way that God could be omnipresent in a universe of our size.
Next, Loftus writes:
… how he could be a personal agent without a center for his personality in it …
Again, in its logical form, this becomes:
(3) John Loftus sees no way that God could be a personal agent without a center for his personality in it.
(4) Therefore, (probably) there is no way that God could be a personal agent without a center for his personality in it.
[…] how he could be omniscient knowing what was going on at the far reaches of it, and how he could be omnipotent such that he could create and maintain it.
These two statements yield two final arguments:
(5) John Loftus sees no way that God could be omniscient knowing what was going on at the far reaches of it.
(6) Therefore, (probably) there is no way that God could be omniscient knowing what was going on at the far reaches of it.
(7) John Loftus sees no way that God could be omnipotent such that he could create and maintain it.
(8) Therefore, (probably) there is no way that God could be omnipotent such that he could create and maintain it.
Having shown that Loftus is relying upon noseeum arguments, let us turn to an assessment of the arguments. Whether or not a particular noseeum argument is inductively strong depends on whether we would expect to “see” X, on the assumption that it exists or is possible.
In each of the four noseeum arguments summarized above, the inference seems weak to me. Consider, for example, the inference from (1) to (2). Why would the inability of Loftus (or of anyone else) to be able to understand how divine omnipresence is possible, in a universe such as ours, be more probable on the assumption that atheism is true than on the assumption that theism is true? That is far from obvious. Loftus presents no reason to think that is the case. And I am unable to imagine a way to show that is the case. For this reason, I think these noseeum arguments are fatally flawed. The conclusions of these arguments may be true, but, if they are, I cannot see how to show that they are.
The Size of the Universe and God’s Relationship to Time
In the combox, Loftus suggested that God’s relationship to time in a universe as big as ours is another problem for theism. He writes: “If [God is] in time then he’s subject to time.”
Let’s unpack this for a moment. What, precisely, does it mean to be “subject to time”? I think that means “to be subject to the laws of physics, including general and special relativity.” Here’s the point: if God created the universe and designed the laws of physics, then it’s unclear why God couldn’t “violate” one of the laws He made. In short, it seems to me that Loftus is coming dangerously close to begging the question against theism by assuming that God cannot perform miracles.
To make a less than perfect analogy, Loftus seem to be saying this. If, as a programmer, I wrote a software program that only allows users to perform certain actions on a piece of information, I am subject to the same limitations as the users. If I wanted to use the software program as a regular user, that would be true. But that misses the point of my special role as the author of the software (or as the “superuser” in the operating system). If I have that role, then it’s trivial for me to insert “easter eggs” or “backdoors” which will allow me to do things the other users can’t do.
God, if He exists, is the “ultimate superuser.” He is able to do anything that is logically possible.
So unless there is some reason to believe “God exists in time” logically contradicts some statement reporting the size of our universe, there seems to be no reason to deny that God, as an all-powerful being, could “violate” natural laws relating to spacetime, if needed, in order to be omnipresent.
ETA: The Size of the Universe and God’s Purpose for Creating the Universe
In his blog post, Loftus provides another reason for thinking the size of the universe is evidence for atheism.
I think it’s even more damaging when it comes to an omnipotent God who supposedly created the universe for the specific purpose of gaining the affections of people on this lone planet of ours. If this is what he desired (for some irrational egotistical reason) he could have simply created us on a flat disk in a much smaller universe like the one the ancients believed existed. The size of the universe is even more damaging to the God we find in the Bible, a tribal deity with a body, one of the members of a pantheon of gods which included a wife and sons. Hey, we know he had sons, so we know he also had a wife. (italics mine)
I partially agree and partially disagree with this argument. I agree that, if God’s < i>sole purpose for creating the universe was to gain the affections of people on this lone planet of ours, then the size of the universe would seem to be evidence against God’s existence. I disagree, however, with the (unstated) notion that theism entails (or makes probable) that that is/was God’s sole purpose for creating the universe. On the assumption that God exists, it’s quite possible that God had multiple purposes for creating our universe. (Indeed, on the assumption that God exists, it’s quite possible that God created a multiverse!) I can’t think of any way to show that these possibilities are unlikely, given theism. That doesn’t mean they are unlikely, of course. If Loftus has a supporting argument here, it would be great if he could post it.
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