An Argument from Queerness Against Theism?

You can probably tell from my last two posts that moral error theory has been on my mind a lot lately. Another thing that has been on my mind is theism. In this post, I want to look at one of the most widely discussed arguments for error theory: the argument from queerness. I’m then going to see if a similar argument can be run against theism (i.e., for atheism). I don’t intend to construct a rigorous argument with premises and conclusions here. Don’t expect a polished, well thought-out essay. It’s just going to be a jumble of thoughts, mostly.

In his highly influential book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, J.L. Mackie constructed an argument against the existence of objective moral values that he called the argument from queerness. This argument has two different versions, one metaphysical and one epistemological. I’ll be focusing on the first version here. Mackie argued that objective moral values, if they existed, would “be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” He thought that it was easy to make sense of hypothetical imperatives of the form “If you want X, you ought to do Y.” But objective moral values would have to be categorical imperatives. They would have to be binding on an agent no matter what he desires. You ought not to torture innocent people, end of story. No ifs involved. It was these sort of “objectively prescriptive,” or what are nowadays more often called “irreducibly normative” facts that Mackie found queer. What place would such entities have in a world of quarks and protons? Surely it’s much simpler to deny the existence of these entities and explain why we believe in them with something like an evolutionary account?

JL Mackie

JL Mackie

Now, that’s a very rough sketch of the argument. Mackie defends every step of it in his book, which I strongly recommend that you read. My aim here isn’t to convince you that the argument is sound, but to give you an idea of the general structure of the argument. I want to then see if a similar argument can be run against most forms of theism or deism. I want to state up front that this isn’t one of the main reasons why I’m an atheist, but it’s an issue I’ve been giving some thought lately.

God’s queerness

Consider some of the attributes of God, traditionally conceived:

  • He is an immaterial, disembodied mind.
  • He is omniscient, omnipotent and and omni-benevolent (theistic).
  • He exists, or at some point existed, outside of space and time.
  • He interacts, or at some point, has interacted with the world in different ways.

Let’s start with the concept of an immaterial, disembodied mind. I find it hard to make sense of this. What would such a mind be like? Everything we know about all the minds we have observed suggest that they are dependent upon highly complex physical systems. I’m not making any explicit claim about how body and mind are related – only that they are, or seem to be, in every case we’ve observed. So an immaterial mind that exists completely independent of any physical substrate is certainly strange, and doesn’t cohere well with our background knowledge.

Let’s consider omniscience and timelessness next (I’ll leave out omnipotence, omni-benevolence and timelessness for now, but I think they’re also quite mysterious). This is where things get really weird. Whenever we think of a mind, we think of an entity with beliefs, desires and intentions – all of which seem to be psychological states that have temporal duration. They are also the kinds of things that usually change with time. An omniscient and timeless mind couldn’t have anything like these kinds of mental states. An omniscient mind wouldn’t observe, infer or learn – it would have “timeless” thoughts that are vastly different from what we typically think of as thoughts. But what sense does it make to call such an entity a conscious mind? This is how one of the characters in David Hume’s excellent Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion put it:

For though it be allowed, that the Deity possesses attributes of which we have no comprehension, yet ought we never to ascribe to him any attributes which are absolutely incompatible with that intelligent nature essential to him. A mind, whose acts and sentiments and ideas are not distinct and successive; one, that is wholly simple, and totally immutable, is a mind which has no thought, no reason, no will, no sentiment, no love, no hatred; or, in a word, is no mind at all.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not trying to point out an explicit logical contradiction here (though I think that can be done with some effort). Philosophers and theologians have written whole books defending the coherence of these concepts. But logical coherence is one thing, metaphysical plausibility is another. I’m merely trying point out just how alien and mysterious a divine mind is.

Next, the problem of interaction. How exactly would an immaterial mind causally interact with the physical universe? How would it make a conscious decision to “act” in such a way as to affect the universe from outside space and time? Again, I’m not arguing that there’s an explicit contradiction of some sort here. I’m just saying it’s all very strange.

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you (or at least got you to see why I think) that God would be an extremely queer sort of entity. He would definitely be as queer as the kind of objective moral values Mackie had in mind. It’s very hard to see imagine what sort of being he would be like. He also seems to violate everything we know about the nature of things like causality, agency, and minds. So why isn’t the atheist justified in his belief that no such being exists on this basis alone?

One possible response available to the theist goes something like this:

Yes, God might seem like a strange sort of entity, but that’s no problem at all. Quantum mechanics is extremely queer and spooky as well, but surely it’s rational to believe that quantum mechanics is true, in some sense, because of its amazing explanatory power? Well, it’s the same with God. God provides the best explanation for a range of things, including (but not limited to) the fine-tuning of the fundamental constants of nature and the origin of the universe.

On the face of it, this is true – at least the bit about quantum mechanics is. Quantum mechanics is extremely weird. It defies all our intuitions, and applies where familiar classical physics breaks down. But despite all that, because of its amazing explanatory and predictive power, it is rational to believe that it accurately describes the universe at some level. Richard Dawkins has pointed out that the physicist Richard Feynman “compared the accuracy of quantum theories – experimental predictions – to specifying the width of North America to within one hair’s breadth of accuracy.” If theism, despite its queerness, has similar explanatory/predictive powers, we would have to believe it. But does it? I don’t think so. I’ll take a look at cosmological and fine-tuning arguments as examples to explain why.

The problem with theistic explanations

I’m not going to make any claims about whether I think the origin of the universe or the issue of fine-tuning poses any special threat to naturalism. I’m asking whether theism explains either of these phenomena better than naturalism does. Just what does it mean to say that God is the explanation of either of these things?

The actual content of all theistic “explanations” remains entirely opaque to me. Consider the origin of the universe. The theistic explanation is that God created the universe. OK, but how how did he do that? What kind of causal interaction took place for creation to happen? Some sort of description of the process of creation would help. The claim that God designed the universe by fine-tuning the fundamental constants of nature is equally mysterious. What we’re being told is that some sort of designer worked with unknown materials (or presumably no materials at all, in this case) to design the fundamental constants of the universe (from outside of time?) for some purpose we don’t fully grasp. Not a very satisfying explanation, if you ask me.

Theistic “explanations” don’t really tell us anything new. To put it crudely, they don’t help us move from a state of not understanding to one of understanding. We’re still completely in the dark. Theistic explanations, it seems to me, are non-explanations. I suppose a theist might assert that God is omnipotent and can do anything, but that doesn’t change the fact that the so-called explanations remain entirely mysterious to us. Now, although quantum mechanics is also mysterious and has several competing interpretations, it gives a robust mathematical description of what’s going on at the fundamental level. Theistic explanations do nothing of the sort.

But it’s not just that. Theistic explanations raise at least as many questions as they try to answer. Consider the creation of the universe. Theists often claim that it is “metaphysically absurd” for the universe to just pop into existence out of nothing. But wait, what about the thought of God creating the universe? What we have here is a disembodied mind that exists outside of space(?), timelessly willing(?!) the universe into existence out of absolute nothingness. Sorry, but that’s about as metaphysically absurd as anything can get, as far as I’m concerned. The issue of fine-tuning might also have some troubling implications for the theist.

I hope you can see that the so-called explanatory powers of theism are extremely exaggerated, if not completely non-existent. To merely assert that God did something or the other doesn’t qualify as an explanation at all.

We’ve looked at the content of theistic explanations. Let’s move on to predictions.

Does theism make testable predictions?

We already discussed the accuracy of the predictions of quantum mechanics. What about theism, does it make good predictions? I don’t think it does.

Let me explain why. Consider the evidential problem of evil, which in its simplest form states that there exist many instances of gratuitous suffering in the world, i.e., instances of suffering that God seems to have no good reason to allow. Just look at the world: plagues, natural disasters, millions of years of animal suffering… Surely God couldn’t have any reason for allowing them?

One of the most popular responses to the evidential problem of evil is called skeptical theism. According to skeptical theism, we are not in a position to make any claims about whether a given instance of suffering is gratuitous or not. God, being omniscient, has exhaustive knowledge of all goods, evils and the connections between them. We limited beings don’t. We are in no position to make any claims about what God would or would not do, because of the vast epistemic chasm that exists between us and Him. But if this is the case, how can we make any predictions at all based on theism? We wouldn’t ever be in a position to say that we should expect X, whatever X might be, if theism is true. And even if we could make some predictions, they would have to be extremely general and limited in scope. So when it comes to predictions, it seems like theism has nothing to offer.

Where does all this leave us?

I’ve tried to establish the following:

  • God, his attributes and his modes of interaction with the world are extremely queer.
  • God doesn’t really explain anything or make any testable predictions.

So given that God is extremely queer and doesn’t cohere with most our background knowledge, and given that the God hypothesis doesn’t play any role in explaining what we observe in the universe, my original question still stands: why isn’t the atheist justified in believing that God doesn’t exist on these grounds alone?

And that is a very rough sketch of an argument from queerness against theism. I now leave it open to you for criticism. Take it apart. Where have I gone wrong? What am I missing? Is the comparison with quantum mechanics unfair? Is God not all that queer after all? Does naturalism face similar problems with queerness? Let me know what you think. 

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