Monday, November 6, 2017

An Atheological Cosmological Argument Criticized

An Atheological Cosmological Argument Criticized

Statement of Argument

Emily Thomas, assistant professor of philosophy at Durham University, has a recent article in which she summarizes a newer argument for atheism.  Here article, “Does the Size of the Universe Prove God Doesn’t Exist?” articulates the argument in the following manner:[1]

Over the last few decades, a new way of arguing for atheism has emerged. Philosophers of religion such as Michael Martin and Nicholas Everitt have asked us to consider the kind of universe we would expect the Christian God to have created, and compare it with the universe we actually live in. They argue there is a mismatch. Everitt focuses on how big the universe is, and argues this gives us reason to believe the God of classical Christianity doesn’t exist.

To explain why, we need a little theology. Traditionally, the Christian God is held to be deeply concerned with human beings. Genesis (1:27) states: “God created mankind in his own image.” Psalms (8:1-5) says: “O Lord … What is man that You take thought of him … Yet You have made him a little lower than God, And You crown him with glory and majesty!” And, of course, John (3:16) explains God gave humans his son out of love for us.

These texts show that God is human-oriented: human beings are like God, and he values us highly. Although we’re focusing on Christianity, these claims can be found in other monotheistic religions, too.

If God is human-oriented, wouldn’t you expect him to create a universe in which humans feature prominently? You’d expect humans to occupy most of the universe, existing across time. Yet that isn’t the kind of universe we live in. Humans are very small, and space, as Douglas Adams once put it, “is big, really really big”.

After a discussion of the empirical data regarding the size of the universe, Thomas concludes:

Clearly, there is a discrepancy between the kind of universe we would expect a human-oriented God to create, and the universe we live in. How can we explain it? Surely the simplest explanation is that God doesn’t exist. The spatial and temporal size of the universe gives us reason to be atheists.

As Everitt puts it:

The findings of modern science significantly reduce the probability that theism is true, because the universe is turning out to be very unlike the sort of universe which we would have expected, had theism been true.

Analysis of Argument

1.     Note that the argument seeks to posit a tension between the Christian worldview and the state of the world (i.e., the empirical facts regarding its size).  In light of this it is important to recognize that the argument needs to take into account the full resources of the Christian worldview and accurately note the relevant background features that impinge upon the discussion.  This is something the argument, at least as so far formulated, does not do.

2.     The argument cites three Scriptural texts: Genesis 1.27; Psalm 8.1-5; John 3.16.  From this set of references it concludes: “These texts show that God is human-oriented.”  But this conclusion is not strong enough to generate the problems and tensions alleged in the argument.  In order for the argument to work the premise needs to be strengthened to the following: “These texts show that God is merely or only human-oriented.”  Without this change to the premise the argument will not work effectively.  The texts cited do show God has a human-orientation; he does value humanity.  But it is possible that there are other orientations that God has that also have relevance to the size of the universe.

3.     There are also biblical texts which speak of God’s orientation and concern for other intelligent beings (e.g., angels).  His purposes toward these other beings might require a larger universe.  Consider the biblical text Job 38.4-7:

4Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me if you have understanding, 5who set its measurements?  Since you know.  Or who stretched the line on it?  6On what were its bases sunk?  Or who laid its cornerstone, 7when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

            In specific reference to verse seven John Piper has the following meditation:

All the angels had evidently been created before the universe.  And it is not hard to see why.  God meant there to be an audience when he created the world.  I am sure he said, “Watch this!” when he spoke the galaxies into existence.  Imagine the awe and wonder that exploded among the angels.  They had never seen or even imagined matter.  They are all “ministering spirits” (Hebrews 1:14) and have no material bodies as we do.  When God brought material stuff into existence with all its incredible variety and utterly unheard of qualities of sight and sound and smell and touch and taste, this was totally unknown to the angels.  God had made it all up.  It was not like the unveiling of a new painting made of all the colors and paints we are all familiar with.  It was absolutely, totally, unimaginably new!  And the response of the sons of God was to shout for joy.[2]

There are also texts which speak of the interplay between God’s purposes for humanity and its revelatory aspects for heavenly beings.  The apostle Paul in speaking of the redemptive plan made known in Jesus Christ for the Gentiles speaks of one of the purposes behind this:
… so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places.  (Ephesians 3.10)[3]

Although this text does not mention the creation of the physical universe, as did the passage from Job, it does show God’s purposes encompass more than humanity.  This serves to undermine the argument under consideration.

4.      God also has an orientation toward himself and the manifestation of the intrinsic value of his glory.  It is important to recognize that God has desires that are not human-centered but, rather, revolve around his character and his desire to express his unique individuality.  As Notre Dame Philosopher Michael Rea notes:

“One odd feature of much contemporary philosophy of religion is that it seems to portray God as having a ‘personality’ that is almost entirely empty, allowing his behavior to be almost exhaustively determined by facts about how it would be best for others for an omnipotent being to behave.  But why should we grant this portrayal, or anything like it?  God is supposed to be a person not only of unsurpassable love and goodness, but of unsurpassable beauty.  And it is not at all clear that God could be that sort of person if the portrayal of God as (effectively) a cosmic, others-oriented utility-maximizing machine were correct.  For it is hard to see how a person could manage to be unsurpassably beautiful, or even very beautiful at all, without having a highly complex personality and motivational structure.”[4]

            Psalm 19.1 states something about the created order and God’s glory:

The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of his hands.

Since God is pursuing the manifestation of his glory it is entirely plausible that God would create a massive universe so that the proportion of the universe relative to humanity is of such a magnitude as to highlight the extremity of his glory.

5.     Continuing with the above (4.) it is interesting to consider the apostle Paul’s argument in Romans chapter one. 

20For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.  21For even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.  (Romans 1.20-21)

Paul’s argument is that the created order reveals something of God’s character—“his eternal power and divine nature.”[5]  This knowledge of God is of such clarity that it renders all those who experience it as being in a state of “without excuse” for refusing to worship God and give him thanks.  Since the created order reveals attributes of God and renders humanity inexcusable then when there is a greater depth of understanding of this created order this reveals more of his character.  When this is combined with the traditional understanding of God’s omniscience as including all future realities there becomes a plausible reason why God would create such a massive universe.  As future generations came to understand the depths of the created order—both its expansive magnitude and its microscopic intricacy—this would actually reveal more of the character of God and thus render humanity all the more inexcusable for failing to respond rightly to this revelation.  In short, God creates a massive universe with a view to the future when humanity has the tools and insight to become aware of its magnitude so as to progressively reveal the depths of his character. 


The article by Emily Thomas quoted Nicholas Everitt as concluding:

The findings of modern science significantly reduce the probability that theism is true, because the universe is turning out to be very unlike the sort of universe which we would have expected, had theism been true.

But in light of the analysis above Everitt’s argument is without substance.  The probability of theism in light of the size of the universe can only be properly assessed when all the relevant background features are taken into account.  This is something the above argument does not do.  The argument selectively cites Scripture and ignores key elements of the Christian worldview that would affect the nature of the probability under discussion.  Perhaps the argument can be reformulated to take into account these criticisms but as it stands now the argument is fundamentally flawed.

Appendix: The Knowledge of God in Romans Chapter One

There is a debate as to whether this passage is teaching that God is knowable or whether he is known.  In other words, is Paul teaching that people can reason to God through empirical means or is it the case that God’s existence is apprehended immediately through the natural order?  One author put it this way:

Two features of 1:19 are relevant to this discussion.  The first of these concerns the meaning of the phrase τ γνωστν το θεο.  Does this phrase refer to actual or merely potential knowledge?  In other words, is there a real sense in which unsaved men know God, or is Paul simply saying that God is ‘knowable’?  This second view has the support of many well-known scholars.  However, H. G. Liddon’s statement is hard to disprove: ‘The phrase…must, according to the invariable New Testament and LXX use, mean that which is known not that which may be known about God.’...  While γνωστς may have a potential meaning in Classical Greek, it seems best in light of both NT usage and the context to understand it as a reference to a real yet suppressed knowledge.  There is no warrant here to speak of a potential knowledge of God to be gained by probability argumentation.  Paul is certainly not attempting a ‘cosmological argument.’  Rather, he is speaking of an actual knowledge of God obtained from nature.[6]

 Now may it may be possible to argue for the existence of God by using a discursive process that has its foundation in the natural order but this is not what Paul is doing in Romans 1.  Paul seems to be claiming that all people “know” the true God in some sense.  Specifying exactly how this knowledge is to be construed is difficult.  Reformed theologian Greg Bahnsen has attempted to articulate a philosophically nuanced perspective on the knowledge of God held by the unbeliever in light of the teaching in Romans 1.

When we say that men “know” that the living and true God exists, we are (in part) asserting that they “have evidence” that justifies the belief that He exists.  A word should be added here about the general nature of the warrant for believing, to which we implicitly allude in claiming that all men know God.

We do so because of a common but simplistic (and thus misleading) tendency to make inferential or discursive knowledge the model for all cases of knowing.  If Sam knows that milk gives him indigestion, he came to this conclusion through certain “steps of reasoning.”  He recalled a number of past experiences in which ingestion followed his drinking of milk, but could not remember any cases of ingestion where milk had not been in his diet, so he made a general association and interpreted it in a casual fashion, etc.  Sam did not simply look at milk and immediately apprehend it ingestion-producing quality (although some children claim to have this kind of intuitive ability when they encounter new vegetables); rather, he inferred the truth from his experience.  Likewise, if Sam knows that 487 multiplied by 139 equals 67,693, it would be highly unusual if he did not gain this knowledge by making a mathematical computation.  In a large number of cases, our knowledge of a proposition is warranted by a discursive process of inference.  For example, all of the union truckers are on strike; Sam is a union trucker; therefore, Sam must be on strike.  Such inferential or discursive knowledge is common, but that does not mean that knowledge arises only from such reasoning.  There are obvious cases of noninferential knowledge; it is implausible and artificial to insist that they must somehow be the product of an “unconscious” inference.

Surely there are times when one believes certain propositions with good reason, without inferring them from other propositions—as when one believes that one is typing with both hands, or believes that the music is painfully loud, or believes that one is not the same person as one’s neighbor, or believes the times tables in math.  When Sam knows that a black cat is in path, he does not infer it from propositions about his sensations, about forms of appearance, about animal categories, etc.  His knowledge is not discursive, following certain steps of reasoning to a likely conclusion; he immediately (without mediating lines of inference) apprehends the truth that a black cat is in his path.  (We need not concern ourselves here with debates over how to account for such noninferential cognition, whether by linguistic conventionalism, behaviorism, an intuitive faculty, etc.).  Such a non-propositional experience (an acquaintance with an object) is not something mystical and ineffable; rather, people have the ability to express and define the experience propositionally (thus describing it and relating it to other beliefs so that it is available for reference, memory, assertion, inference, application, etc.).  The “immediate” apprehension may very well be caused (“mediated”) by natural factors, but the recognition takes place in the absence of discursive inference (drawing a conclusion through the mediation of reasoning from premises).

When we encounter a person at the store and “know” that he is our friend Sam, our belief can indeed be warranted without being derived or reached by a series of mental arguments, computations, or inferences.  The same is true when we directly identify his signature on a letter.  There is evidence that justifies what we believe, but it is noninferential and direct.  This claim should not be too controversial, but it does require some attenuation.  In those cases where “knowing” is immediate or noninferential, we are speaking of the evidence as it is apprehended by a particular individual at the initial time of assenting to the proposition warranted by it.  No doubt somebody else who is unfamiliar with Sam might not immediately apprehend that this letter is from Sam.  And if someone should raise some doubt whether the letter is, after all, from Sam, the kind of “evidence” that would be brought forth to defend or vindicate the challenged belief would be the discursive or inferential kind, rather than the initial evidence of direct apprehension.[7]

Bahnsen, following his theological mentor Cornelius Van Til, goes on to apply these basic epistemological principles to Romans 1 and the knowledge of God.

Van Til maintained, following the teaching of Paul in Romans 1-2, that all men have a knowledge of God that is justified by direct apprehension of His handiwork in the world and within themselves.  Even without a discursive argument or a chain of inferences from elementary observations about experience, all men see and recognize the signature of their Creator in the world that He created and controls, as well as in themselves as His created image… This knowledge of God is mediated in the sense of being caused by the stimulus of the external world and man’s internal constitution, but it is apprehended immediately without argumentation, computation, or self-conscious reasoning.[8]

It is important to affirm that this reality of the unbeliever’s knowledge of God is a revealed truth.  It is not a truth that is drawn from empirically questioning the unbeliever.  Bahnsen recognizes that unbelievers will claim they have no such knowledge.  According to Bahnsen’s understanding the unbeliever is in a complex epistemic state in which he both knows God and also engages in a process of self-deception. 

With these elements of the complex situation at hand, we can adequately resolve the paradox of saying that the unbeliever believes or (by extension) that the man who does not know God knows God.  We will take Sam as our hypothetical unbeliever.  When we say that Sam does not believe in (or know) God, we are describing him according to certain features of his behavior and thinking: for example, his immoral conduct and attitudes, his refusal to glorify God, and especially his profession not to believe in God.  After all, Sam acts and talks like a person who sincerely disbelieves; indeed, he argues vehemently against believing in God’s existence.  However, the fact of the matter is that Sam actually does believe in God.  When we say that he believes in God, we are (in accordance with the diagnosis of God’s word) describing him according to certain features of his behavior and thinking that manifest belief: for example, his living in terms of some kind of moral standards, his acceptance of the need for logical consistency, his expectation of uniformity in nature, his fear of death, and his assuming of freedom of thought.  As in the case of believers, we say that Sam knows God in the sense that he has justified, true beliefs about Him.  So then, it turns out that Sam’s belief is mistaken.[9]

     [1] Emily Thomas, “Does the Size of the Universe Prove God Doesn’t Exist” (November 2, 2017)—online:
     [2] John Piper The Pleasure of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God (Portland, Oregon: Multnomah, 1991), 84-85.
     [3] Cross reference also 1 Peter 1.12 which speaks of the salvation of God’s people as “things into which angels long to look.”
     [4] Michael C. Rea, “Narrative, Liturgy, and the Hiddenness of God,” in Metaphysics and God: Essays in Honor of Eleonore Stump, ed. by Kevin Timpe (NY: Routledge, 2009), 18 [note: page number is to online version available here:
     [5] This concept of the knowledge of God as revealed in the created order has been understood in various way.  It is not the purpose of this essay to adjudicate this controversy but see the appendix for some thoughts.
     [6] David L. Turner, “Cornelius Van Til and Romans 1:18-21: A Study in the Epistemology of Presuppositional Apologetics” Grace Theological Journal 2 (1981), 53.  Online:
     [7] Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1998), 182-183.
     [8] Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 184.
     [9] Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 450.