Saturday, May 16, 2015

12. Arguments For and Against God: Testimony of all human history

The first argument for believing in the existence of some kind of personal supernatural being, be He male or female, universal or tribal, embodied in nature locally or transcendent to all of nature, is the testimony of all civilizations prior to our own, through all human history at all locations.

This is an argument from authority, although it is not a fallacious argument from authority. The grading of difference between a fallacious argument from authority and a good one is the grading of how much we have reason to believe the authority.

For example, when a mother reproves her child for touching the stove, "Stop, you'll get burned!", she is making an argument from authority, her own authority, without giving reasons to believe her. But it is a reliable argument, because it is her realm of expertise and responsibility. If she (an uneducated person of limited experience) were to pronounce on international politics, it would be a fallacious argument of authority for the child to repeat what mom said with the reason that "Mom said so."

Our present era of history is the first one to ever believe (largely) that the universe is non-personal, that there is not a personal supernatural being over all and behind all. We are the newcomers.

I believe that the latter claim is a matter of ordinary accepted fact, and I won't try to prove it, although it might need to be proven. The main former claim is the important one, that all human history accepts that there is a personal being or supernature behind all nature.

My sources: I first heard this argument from C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. It has become my own.


  1. Bruce claims that this argument is an argument from authority and correctly points out that an argument from authority need not be fallacious. He claims that the criterium to be used in distinguishing between a fallacious and a non-fallacious argument from authority has to do with how much we have reason to believe the authority.

    I personally disagree with this assessment. I claim that this not an argument from authority but an argument ad-populum.

    The reason I do not view this as an argument from authority, fallacious or otherwise, is that I deny the authority the ancients allegedly had on matters concerning the supernatural. While they undoubtedly were authorities on what they believed, this does not in any way make them authorities on the the existence of the supernatural. Just because they believed something doesn't make that belief true. My neighbour might be an authority on his beliefs in Invisible Pink Unicorns, but that in no way makes him an expert on the existence of Invisible Pink Unicorns. I conclude that the ancients cannot be held to be authorities on the existence of supernatural entities and therefore there is no authority to turn to. This is not an argument from authority.

    No, Bruce, this line of reasoning is a simple fallacious ad-populum argument. This particular argument basically boils down to : All the ancients believed in the supernatural, so many people can't have been wrong, therefore the supernatural exists.

    Truth is not decided by democratic vote, it doesn't matter how many people hold a belief. Should the whole world believe that there are finitely many prime numbers, then the whole world would be wrong. The fact reamins that there are an infinite number of prime numbers.

    I put it to you that the fact that the ancients so nearly unanimously believed in supernatural beings has other causes than the existence of these beings. I put it to you that among these causes is an extreme lack of insight into the workings of the natural world in which they lived and a fundamental human need to seek explanations for the, to them, mysterious phenomena that, in a heartbeat, could change their lives for better or for worse. Any explanation is better than none at all, even a fictitious one. This seeking of explanations can be seen, even in modern humans, when confronted with traumatic events, such as the loss of a loved one, or a serious acident. Many will ask the question, why did this happen to me?

    I also put it you that this not only explains the origins of the ancients' beliefs but also explains why there were, and are, so many different and mutually incompatible beliefs.

  2. I am not making an ad populam argument, which would be: all the ignorant people believe in God, so I want to go along with the crowd and I will too. Rather, I am arguing that we have a moral obligation to honor our ancestors, and believing what the ancestors (and our parents) believe is our prima facie intellectual duty. If we disagree with them, it should be for good reasons. The beliefs of our predecessors is our default, and new ideas have the burden of proof. There are only two options here: that the universe is personal, as all our predecessors believed; or that the universe is impersonal, as the children of the Enlightenment believe.