Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Zeus Fallacy

Some of the new atheists have likened belief in God (I'm thinking especially of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic conception of God) to belief in Zeus, Santa Claus, and other beings that are known, to a fairly high degree, to not exist. There is, however, a major disparity involved in their comparisons. Let's start with the fact that God is supposed to be a transcendent personal creator of the universe. Zeus may be personal, but he's certainly not transcendent. Take the statement:

1. The universe has a transcendent cause.

Is (1) obviously false? Can it even be said with a high degree of certainly that (1) is false? Not at all. Even without the use of argumentation, we can see that (1) provides evidence for the rational acceptability of theism. Contrast (1) with:

1*. There is an embodied god living on the top of Mount Olypmus.

Certainly, there is no explicit contradiction in (1*), but we also have many good reasons to think (*1) is false. For one thing, we have travelled to the top of Mount Olympus and no gods have been discovered. This appears suspect (to say the least) given especially that Zeus is an embodied god. It's not like he is omnipotent or immaterial, the latter two of which would explain why something has not yet been discovered empirically.

Now take the next step:

2. The universe's transcendent cause is a personal agent.

Once again, (2) is not obviously wrong. In fact, there are good reasons to think (2) is true. Just think of the incredible fine-tuning of the universe, the possibility (and later actualization) of entities evolving who possess rational cognitive faculties and knowledge of an objective moral law. These are all data we would expect to find if God exists. If God does not exist, however, the probability of discovering these things, on the hypothesis that God does not exist, is either low or inscrutable.

I conclude that one should abandon atheism/naturalism in favor of some form of theism.


  1. Lemme throw you a curveball here.

    In what way is either Santa Claus' or Zeus' existence in conflict with naturalism?

    Let's look at Zeus. Very powerful, but neither an omnipotent nor omniscient being. He's also embodied, as you mentioned. He's able to do some impressive stuff - control lightning, for example - but Tesla was able to manage some of that himself.

    It seems to me that Zeus, even in traditional depiction, can be regarded as some mere powerful extraterrestrial. Maybe, if we're willing to loosen the "Mount Olympus" requirement a bit, a powerful programmer of a simulated world.

    In other words, it seems to me that the existence of Zeus isn't in obvious conflict with naturalism.

  2. You bring up a good point, Crude. Naturalism entails that God does not exist, but also that nothing like God exists. I think you would be right to say that Zeus isn't necessarily included in the latter, especially if the Zeus-concept were tweaked a little. Once we start getting into transcendence, though, it seems to me that this conflicts with Naturalism.

  3. Well, I actually wonder if "naturalism entails that God/the god-like does not exist". I think you're correct - at least for the God of classical theism - but sorting out just what the commitments of "naturalism" are, seems surprisingly problematic.

    One good example would be Nick Bostrom's simulation hypothesis. The funny thing is, Bostrom insists the hypothesis (certainly as he gives it) is not only naturalistic, but materialistic. At the same time, he also admits that it is an argument for the existence of God (I suppose we'd say, god(s).) After all, if the simulation hypothesis were true, the programmer(s) would have power vastly beyond what anyone in the Roman pantheon had, Zeus included. So did Bostrom provide an argument for a form of theism with the simulation argument? Did John Gribbin when he argued that the multiverse is dominated by intelligent civilizations purposefully creating and tweaking new universes? But both of them insist they're naturalists. Sure, their 'theism' would be closer to the greek pantheon or other polytheistic views - but polytheism is still theism. Right? (And if it's not - if there's a difference between Zeus and the God of Aristotle and Aquinas, then what happens to that old atheist bit of 'Some of us just go one God further' or 'Your God is the same as all the other gods'?)

    Specific to Zeus though, I think the problem of where to place him in relation to naturalism - as well as the possibility of Zeus being naturalistic - opens up some interesting dilemmas. After all, if limited, material, merely powerful beings are naturalistic, then how much 'superstition' is actually better thought of as 'failed naturalistic theory' rather than 'belief in the supernatural'? Or, to bring up the spectre of Intelligent Design, if Zeus and company are naturalistic, then what happens to the argument against ID that science is limited by 'methodological naturalism'? Could it be that MN is a misnomer?

    Anyway, pardon my getting off onto a tangent re: your post. But I'm fascinated by the idea that either quite a lot of the 'gods' of the past were in fact naturalistic entities, or that 'naturalism' in fact rules out quite a lot of once-assumed-naturalistic ideas.

  4. Most paganisms (and also Mormonism) actually cluster with atheism/naturalism on the metaphysical level.

    Zeus (according to classical paganism), like humans (according to atheism/naturalism), is an effect of pre-existing natural causes.

    On the other hand, the Living God is not en effect, but is rather the cause of all causes.

  5. "... Sure, their 'theism' would be closer to the greek pantheon or other polytheistic views - but polytheism is still theism. Right?"

    No, polytheism is *not* still theism -- not when the term 'theism' refers to Judeo-Christianity, or something essentially consistent with it. This is why I strongly object to the terms "theism" and "theist" as valid terms to denote Judaism or Christianity.

    The little gods of polytheism "arose" from a Cosmos, which itself "arose" from a pre-existing Chaos. This is essentially the origins mythology of modern (anti-Biblical) atheism; just substitute "men" for "gods."

  6. "Theism" has really come to denote monotheism. Polytheism, for the most part, wouldn't be a viable option if one assents to belief in an omnipotent being. After all, there can be only one omnipotent being. I suppose a polytheist could hypothetically assent to this belief and still worship lesser beings as well, but that would be a very untraditional form of polytheism.

  7. I think that would be called "henotheism", e.g. one supreme God, and lesser, finite gods.

    The whole Zeus comparison is absolutely ridiculous and absurd. If you look at all of the arguments for classical theism, even if you think them all unsound, you could at least see how the conclusions could lead to deductions of the classical attributes of God.

    I'm not sure how you could accept something like the modal third way or MCA and end up with Zeus or Santa.