Magic: Divine and Human
This response is to the first comment you made on this blog, under “Does Atheism Break Down Here?” Welcome to The Believing Agnostic.
You quoted me as saying, "A supremely complex cosmic intelligence, existing from all eternity, does not require a bigger explanation. Nor does it ‘explain nothing.’ In fact, it explains everything about the origin of the universe. It’s the most adequate explanation there can be. It’s where the need for an explanation ends."
Then you said: “I disagree. It does indeed explain nothing, because the ‘explanation’ is, at bottom, ‘It was magic.’ Invoking magic, and leaving it at that, is not an explanation. To have a genuine explanation, you need to be able to specify how the trick was performed. But this is precisely the kind of explanation that you not only cannot provide, but that you seem to think is rendered superfluous by invoking a ‘supremely complex intelligence, existing from all eternity.’"
Rhetoric Versus Substance
First, Mr. Coyle, we must separate rhetoric from substance. Belittling an idea by expressing it pejorative words is not genuine refutation. For example, on atheist websites I often see God referred to as “the Sky Fairy.” No one wants to admit he buys into fairy tales, so poorly fortified theists may be nudged away from theism, and atheists who use the term feel less threatened by the substance of theistic arguments. This is not a high order of rational discourse.
You said, my first-cause “‘explanation’ is, at bottom, ‘It was magic.’ Invoking magic, and leaving it at that, is not an explanation.”
Throwing the word “magic” at the First-Cause argument is like calling God a Sky Fairy. It may be rhetorically effective, in a superficial way, but it clouds the issue, obfuscates, sheds no light. Magic has a number of meanings associated with superstition, sorcery, casting spells, and trickery. No serious theist, least of all this one, has any time for that, and I think you know it. But Webster also gives this definition:
“magic: (2) an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source.”
Creation and Mystery
Now, that definition of “magic” is not incompatible with rational discourse. The God I believe in, and hypothesize for this argument, is a non-material being, which is to say a spirit, of immense intellect and power, able to conceive of our physical universe – a thing apart from himself -- and then make it real in space and time. The existence of the universe, with its astounding variety, complexity, and inconceivable dimensions, may be seen as manifesting “an extraordinary power… seemingly from a supernatural source.” To the extent that “magic” means wrought by supernatural power, beyond the reach or comprehension of man, yes, there was a magical quality to divine creation.
You also said: “To have a genuine explanation, you need to be able to specify how the trick was performed. But this is precisely the kind of explanation that you not only cannot provide, but that you seem to think is rendered superfluous by invoking a ‘supremely complex intelligence, existing from all eternity.’”
I must point out that science itself often cannot “specify how the trick was performed.” They don’t know what caused the singularity to exist in such extreme densities or temperatures, or to detonate with a big bang when it did, 13.7 billion years ago; they can only speculate. Nor do they know how the singularity became imbued with the DNA, so to speak, the cosmic genetic map, that blossomed into our universe – and ourselves. That is shrouded in mystery, but the big bang is still deemed a valid explanation.
Philosophical Versus Scientific Explanation
I don’t claim to know that God created the universe. I do claim that is a possible, and not irrational, explanation of its origin. A supremely intelligent and powerful Being may have been the First Cause who produced the singularity and all that proceeded from it. If that were the case, the divine intellect might be so vastly superior to the human that we could not penetrate its depths or grasp its methods. (Can divine fiat even be called a “method”?) Nor could we explain how this Divine Reality, which exists outside of time, space, and the material world, could make matter out of nothing.
Our inability to “specify how the trick was performed” in no way invalidates the hypothesis. If the nature of the case prevents a more detailed explanation (a scientific one), a philosophical explanation has to suffice. Some things are beyond the reach of science, galling as that may be. We must take the universe as we find it. If at its root there is a transcendent God who works in mysterious ways, all of us – even scientists – must live with that. To say it can’t be that way, because science demands a universe fully accessible to its methods and explicable by its theories, is puerile. If science can probe and fathom every cause but the First Cause, it still has a very grand portfolio.
It is reasonable to say that you reject the theistic hypothesis, based on any of several arguments. I think it unreasonable to claim that a transcendent power and mind, like the God I describe, cannot possibly account for the origin of the universe. We should be able to reject each other’s explanations – challenge their logic and premises – without denying that they are explanations.
Atheism and Infallibility
As an agnostic I renounce pontificating. I wish more atheists would do the same. To paraphrase an economic proverb: There are two kinds of philosophers: Those who don’t know whether God made the universe, and those who don’t know that they don’t know. The former – both theists and atheists – are content to believe (in God, or in No God). The latter – pontificating atheists -- speak with oracular certainty. How can they be so sure of the unknowable? Have they some… magic?